Enrollment in historically black colleges and universities is more than late night study sessions – it’s a balancing act between academics and discovering cheer and learning to be. It is routine to walk the same grassy quadrant as the ancestors who believed education was a weapon, while planning to let off steam.
Upon returning home, the uniqueness of the Black College experience is on display for everyone.
“Homecoming is a way of life,” said Michiel Perry, the creator of Black Southern Belle, a website focusing on black American women in the South, and a graduate of Howard University. (Ms. Perry̵
Food and friendship have long been H.B.C.U.’s main attractions. homecoming, many of which are held in October and November. Nationally 100 H.B.C.U.s, ordinary and extraordinary people have long raised a glass and broken bread to honor their alma maters, on campus (affectionately referred to as “in the backyard”) or hundreds of miles away.
This year, many homecoming holidays have been canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But the energy of the game day never dissipates. Memories of tailgating support many H.B.C.U.s graduates, and brunch, which has become the new cornerstone of homecoming celebrations, will be a virtual affair for 2020.
And there are many former students who will have no problem cooking at home. Pinky Cole (Clark Atlanta graduate) founded the fast-casual chain Vegan Troy; Keisha Lance Bottoms (Florida A&M, or FAMU), the 60th mayor of Atlanta, posted images of sweet potato pies is macaroni and cheese which went viral. Chef Carla Hall (Howard), award-winning cookbook author Bryant Terry (Xavier) and Senator Kamala Harris (Howard), who said she loves cooking – the list goes on.
The University of Mississippi tree-lined tailgating area – where you’ll find monogrammed beer koozies, trays of pimento cheese and elaborate centerpieces – and luxury tailgating facilities with five-digit price tags, such as the tailgate station near the ‘University of Georgia in Athens are radically different from HBCU pre-game parties in the Deep South.
The homecoming and tailgating at H.B.C.U.s are partly a sports show and partly a family reunion buffet. At Jackson State University in Mississippi, you may find jovial students who tend to “junk pots” – bubbling silver cauldrons of corn, turkey neck, potatoes, pork legs and neck bones, while women pick up red sauce and spaghetti with Fried fish, a Mississippi Delta combination, on Styrofoam plates, as Byron Hurt captured in his documentary “Soul Food Junkies”.
On fall Saturdays in Orangeburg, S.C., home to Claflin and South Carolina State University, families serve Gullah and Lowcountry, while R&B classics like “Before I Let Go” provide the beat. “You’ll see crab bubbles, rice purloo, sometimes you might see okra soup,” said Ms. Perry, who lives outside Charleston, S.C.
For students, homecoming is cheering on the brass section during the Battle of the Bands halftime show and partaking in their first sips of bourbon.
“Brown liquor lingered in the air,” said Shameeka Ayers, a health care financial manager and entrepreneur in Atlanta who attended Florida A&M in the mid-1990s. “It was the moss from my homecoming from Florida A&M University.” Reminiscent of the traditional fish fries that happen among the parked R.V.s from Georgia and Florida. It was easy to find Caribbean-influenced smoked chicken near Bragg Memorial Stadium.
Homecoming brunch has become increasingly popular over the past 10 years, said Amanda Dawson, a Howard graduate and co-founder of Urban Elegance, which hosts the Brunch and Bubbly homecoming event. For older alumni, there are fundraisers for banquet-style brunch, a tradition for black Greek letter organizations and city alumni associations. Younger alumni flock to lounge-like affairs, with bottomless mimosas, cognac cocktails, and rich all-American brunch buffets. In recent years, club promoters have been throwing themselves into homecoming parties as an opportunity to woo current students and alumni, although DJs and champagne bottle service have taken precedence over food.
It’s the people who separate a low-stakes brunch from a large engagement.
“We started Brunch and Bubbly eight years ago to celebrate Howard’s homecoming,” Ms. Dawson said. “As we got older, we wanted something relaxed that would allow us to nourish ourselves and have fun.” That first event had 75 attendees. Last year, Ms. Dawson and her business partner Nikki Hendricks hosted 600 people at a Washington, DC restaurant.
Across the country, coronavirus meal restrictions in restaurants have held back the taking of photos of eggs and steak, shrimp and semolina, chicken and waffles.
The latter dish, popular in home brunches, has deep roots in African American culinary history. Many food scholars argue otherwise, but chicken and waffles originate from southern plantations: African slaves cook and toast rice batter over an open hearth, using a waffle iron. In the 1930s, a Harlem supper club, Wells’ Restaurant, helped popularize the sweet and savory combination.
“The chicken needs to be fried well and the waffles need to be hot,” Ms. Dawson said.
Although many homecoming celebrations have been suspended, the Black Lives Matter movement has made it clear that enlightened individuals are tasked not only with abiding in happiness, but also building it.
Ms. Dawson and Ms. Hendricks are pushing ahead with a much smaller social distance brunch on Zoom, encouraging attendees to order from black-owned restaurants if they’re not cooking at home. One Yard, the new iOne Digital website dedicated to H.B.C.U.s, presents vegan chili cuisine together with actress Keshia Knight Pulliam (Spelman College, born in 2001). With all the virtual homecoming events this season, people are declaring it’s time to eat.
The noon bacchanals are a divine communion and a necessary exhalation that connects to the sacred places where Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois gave a lecture and Julian Bond planned civil rights actions. But brunch can be a reminder of a self-affirming place: the home.