MY son is 13 and already cultivating an eclectic sense of himself. His friends span the American rainbow, and taken together, look like an ad for Gap Kids. I once heard him tell a group of giggling teenage girls, “You’re the first girls from Georgia” — the country, not the state — “I’ve ever met.”
His music taste vacillates between hip-hop and something the kids call dubstep. Ask him what he wants to be when he grows up, and he’ll sketch an arc that begins at Google, pit-stops in a German embassy, returns home for a stint in Hollywood, then decamps again to some “football club” in Central Europe. This is not so much a career plan as a plot for that “Buckaroo Banzai” sequel that somehow never got made. I generally resist the urge to tell the boy what everyone knows — that if there’s no risk to a frontal lobe, it’s not football.
Still, hearing him talk about colleges proved too much. First it was Caltech. Then it was U.C.L.A. As a fan of historically Black colleges and universities, this conversation always makes me die just a little. I went to Howard University, the sort of school a Black kid once looked to when endeavoring to become A Credit To The Race. The alumni list spans the Black experience — Zora Neale Hurston, Vernon Jordan, Jeremiah Wright, Debbie Allen, Edward Brooke and Toni Morrison.
But since the 1960s, the near-monopoly on Black talent, once enjoyed by schools like Howard, has evaporated. Though enrollment at Howard rebounded a bit this year, the numbers have been worryingly low and the university’s finances are troubled. My son is a native of uncertain times. In the land of stop and frisk, history stalks him. But his president is Black. And institutions that once defined themselves by his exclusion have thrown open their doors. But as the options for kids like my son have grown in unimaginable ways, the fortunes of Black schools have declined.