Food, Race, & “The Siege” of Howard University

First lady Laura Bush was the campus of Howard University in late October, along with many others, to conduct a session of the White House Conference on Helping America’s Youth. Apparently neither she, nor the Howard University officials, expected a large protest to ensue….

“What started as a demonstration of 50 students standing around the flagpole in the bitter coldness of the fall ended with a protest lasting five hours and more than 200 hundred students demanding First Lady Laura Bush to leave the Mecca” reported Howard’s student daily The Hilltop on October 28, 2005.

Fed up with using back doors and side doors to enter buildings and frustrated with not knowing why his campus was taken over by secret service detail, McDuffie and others were determined to take back the campus that they felt had been stolen from them (Tisdale 2005).

But how did this protest take shape? What were the major motivations behind the students? How did the media, Bush administration and Howard University deal with and report this “event”? I don’t offer answers…not necessarily…but I submit some articles to frame these questions and for you to ponder.

Courtland Milloy, an columinst for The Washington Post put forward that “[i]t was Soul Food Thursday at Howard University last week, and many students were looking forward to their favorite meal: fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens and cornbread.”

At lunchtime, however, students discovered that much of the campus had been locked down and that the school’s cafeteria was off limits. Apparently, many of them did not know that President Bush and first lady Laura Bush had arrived for a “youth summit” at the Blackburn Center, where the dining hall is located. Stomachs began to growl, tempers flared, and, eventually, a student protest ensued (Milloy 2005).

Soul food? Milloy opened a can of racialized foodways there….He seriously proposed that denying Howard students access to fried chicken and greens caused a riot? The anger is clear in a Hilltop editorial addressed to Milloy by alum Aaron J. Nelson:

The words you used to recount the events that took place last Thursday on Howard’s campus were painfully reminiscent of the stereotypical and racist media images that blacks in this country have fought for so long to remove from the minds of this nation. You depicted the student body of the world’s foremost Historically Black College or University (HBCU) as nothing more than a group of intellectually inept, politically aloof Negroes who were driven into a wild frenzy because they were denied access to their sacred fried chicken and collard greens.

H. Patrick Swygert, President of Howard University, also responded in a letter to The Washington Post:

One certainly would expect Mr. Milloy to know better than to form his opinions based on a second-hand source, the broadcast that he apparently saw on Fox (WTTG-TV) news. Beyond that, the tone of his column with its appalling stereotyping of the more than 10,000 students at Howard University is quite shocking. And this at a time when the nation is honoring the memory of Rosa Parks, who 50 years ago stood up for the dignity of the African-American community(Swygert 2005).

And if that wasn’t enough Milloy also indicated that Howard’s student body isn’t that politically active saying:

Howard is not some hotbed of political activism. The biggest event of the year is homecoming, which features two fashion shows, a step show and lots of hip-hop celebrities. As the rapper Ludacris put it in his summer hit, “Pimpin’ All Over the World”: Jump in the car and ride for hours, Makin’ sure I don’t miss the homecoming at Howard. To set off a student protest at this school, you’d have to be politically tone-deaf in the extreme, out of touch and flying blind. And yet, Bush did it. God help us in Iraq (Milloy 2005).

That, of course, incited the Howard University Student Association to demonstrate how politically disengaged they were by staging a protest at The Washington Post….. Patrick Swygert had this to say on he subject of Howard’s historical record of activism:

It is quite ironic that even in the face of the student protest that ensued, Mr. Milloy would seek to characterize Howard University as a politically indifferent party school. Further, to suggest that the driving motivation behind the student protest was to “break through campus security to get to the cordoned-off cafeteria” was both inaccurate and a misrepresentation. Our students are extremely aware and continue, in the finest tradition of the University, to be at the forefront in the quest for social justice and equality for our community. In recent times, for example, they led the march to the Supreme Court in support of the University of Michigan in Grutter vs. Bollinger. They serve in great numbers as volunteers in the Washington, D.C., area; and they continue to rally to the aid of victims of Hurricane Katrina by welcoming and supporting the students from the disaster-area colleges.

As it was in the post-Civil War period when Howard University took on the challenge of educating the children of ex-slaves, and in the civil rights era when we fought to hold this nation true to its creed, Howard University remains committed to providing a rich and varied cultural and academic environment for all its students, informed by our unrelenting commitment to civil and human rights (Swygert 2005).

A reporter from The Hilltop had an alternative take on what caused the protest to take place–

Students who were able to make it to classes eventually grew discontented as security tightened. One situation was particularly tense when a group of about 100 students were held in Locke Hall for about half an hour as the First Lady and President arrived. “People have things to do,” said Grace Maupin, freshman business management major. “I have to go to work. I can’t tell my manager that I was locked in the school” (Tisdale 2005).

As more and more joined the protest, the silence broke as students, linked arm and arm, shouted “Back door, No More” and circled around the campus before stopping a few feet away from the motorcade that carried the First Lady (Tisdale 2005).

All of this reminds of an article my graduate adviser, Maria Franklin, wrote for an edited volume on race and identity. The article was entitled The Archaeological Dimensions of Soul Food: Interpreting Race, Culture and Afro-Virginian Ethnicity and although it is a work about the early colonial Chesapeake and how enslaved communities originally formed identities through foodways, it still speaks to the fact that the meaning and symbolism that we tie to food are altogether embedded in our cultural rules, social relationships and in performance of identity–they are used both to highlight difference and maintain group boundaries.

I admit that I don’t know much about Mr. Milloy, but others seem to think that he has been insensitive in the relms of race and gender in the past…for a humorous, but fierce, attack take a look at the What Tian Has Learned blog.

Last week Milloy (pictured below) gave an interview to The Hilltop where he attempted to express his surprise at these events:

Milloy who has written more than 300 columns on Howard, said he never expected the cloud of controversy that his latest two had caused. ” Almost 99 percent of the articles that I write are positive, and I never hear from students,” he said. ” You say something good about them and they brush it off and you wonder if anyone is listening. You write a piece like today [Nov. 2] and you say why ‘Wow maybe they do.'”Milloy said that he is harder on Howard students because “they are the talented tenth.” (Tisdale 2005b).

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