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Catholic College and Universities

Aware of racism but not inhibited by it

New Orleans

Why Xavier? Why attend a black university?

Xavier may have a 90 percent African-American student body, said philosophy major Lamont Yarrell, “but all the issues come into play here because African-Americans are so diverse -- fair skin to ebony, coarse hair to fine hair, different types of eyes and ideologies, different languages because they’re from different parts of the country or the world, the Caribbean or Africa. There’s nothing we don’t talk about.”

To Kim Smith, “Xavier (students’) interpretation of black culture really is different. I know more black history going to my Catholic school than they do. Here everything is for the present. Black is what’s happening now, the way you speak, the music you listen to. It is not worldly black. It is not fickle but for the present.”

Yarrell, who has traveled widely overseas -- the Middle East, Asia, China -- said that Xavier students have a “very American approach to understanding, meaning generally superficial. I found in a lot of those countries a regard for a person’s humanity instead of being a color. When I came to Xavier,” he said, “I expanded my horizons on the human level.”

Are there issues, like racism, that African-Americans at a black university can put on hold?

Yes, to a certain extent, said mass communications major Bernard McGhee, when “compared to a white school where there’s this wall between you and everyone else.”

McGhee knew about Xavier because both of his parents are graduates and he attended summer courses such as the Excel writing program. Smith, a New Orleans resident, grew up with Xavier just being here. Indianapolis resident Yarrell first heard of Xavier from his high school mentor -- a Xavier graduate medical student at Indiana University who spoke highly of Howard, Xavier and Harvard.

“I’d never been to the South,” said Yarrell. “It was culture shock, time warp. The heat, the weather -- muggy. I’m still adjusting. It’s in its own world -- connected to slavery, plantations. Most laborers are African-Americans. I was introduced to a past connected to a present. To a diaspora, a language -- Caribbean Creole. There’s the chance to look deeper,” said Yarrell. “This is a historic place.”

Are they optimistic about their future opportunities in a still white-run society?

New Orleans native Smith said many locals don’t want to leave, they prefer to stay in their black-focused community. “But if you’re willing to go out into mainstream society, there’s a lot more things you can do. You’ve got to have opportunities and got to give yourself opportunities,” she said. “Xavier gives you opportunities in both worlds, the black community and outside. You see other things in the world besides black.”

Smith spent her summer in Washington. “It was phenomenal up there. Yes, I’ve decided I will get a job. Success depends on choosing to leave. The possibilities are elsewhere, not New Orleans. American society as a whole is more open than here.”

McGhee, currently Xavier Herald editor in chief, looks to a career in newspapers.

Yarrell says, “If I could advocate a direction, particularly in a predominantly black school, I’d promote ownership in any endeavor. There are a lot of mental resources, brilliant minds. More people -- whatever they do -- are pursuing the goal of owning it.”

Traditionally, don’t most philosophy majors end up driving cabs?

“I may end up owning the cab company,” said Yarrell. “I don’t plan to be employed ultimately. I plan to own -- whatever it is.”

Politically, where are these students? Smith said she’s a Republican. Yarrell said he weighs a candidate’s pros and cons. Which way does he lean?

He laughed, “Toward weighing the pros and cons,” he answered. Philosopher-like.

National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1998