“I’m going to Howard to find a husband.”
I remember saying this to a group of friends my senior year of high school, as we spent yet another lunch period musing over our big plans for life after graduation over stale cafeteria French fries. When I applied to the “Mecca of the Black Intelligentsia” in the fall of 2001, the female-to-male ratio was said to be approximately 3 to 2. Not terrible odds, especially considering the rumored dismal numbers at other black colleges. Seven girls for every guy? I might as well go to a women’s college!
The possibility of finding love wasn’t the driving factor in my decision to go to Howard. Predominantly White Institutions weren’t ever a serious consideration; the idea of competing with white girls for a pittance of brothers — while also having to explain my hairstyling methods — didn’t sound like the makings of a happy college experience. Aside from the loans I had to take out to attend Howard, there seemed to be no downside in sight.
I’d been cautioned by a few single women in their twenties and thirties — teachers, co-workers, and friends of the family — that I should try to find my mister when I had the privilege of being on a black campus filled with black men (Howard men, the best and brightest our community has to offer!) for four years. The “real world,” they told me, wouldn’t be so accommodating.
My parents were never married to one another and never graduated from college. I romanticized the idea of finding forever on that historic campus and creating a family that would be the beginning of a generations-deep cadre of future Howard grads: children, grandchildren, and great-grands proudly walking the hallowed halls of the place that had made their family possible in the first place.
I found a whole lot of things at Howard — a husband wasn’t one of them. And now, thanks to social media, I have a clear picture of what my Howard dream wedding would have looked like. Cutesy hashtags! Engagement pics snapped in front of Founders Library! I might be a little salty about it.
At Howard, there were good-looking, smart, and fun men of all sizes and shapes, representing every corner of the African Diaspora. Yet, I somehow managed to walk across the stage and get my degree without having a meaningful romantic relationship with any of them. When people who didn’t know me 10 years ago look at my life now, I think they may be surprised to hear me say that. But 31-year-old Jamilah with the decent enough body and the cool job is a very different woman from the insecure chubby girl who snuck into classes in Frederick Douglass Hall 10 minutes late, quietly munching on cookies from her purse.
If HU were Hillman, I was somewhere between Kimberly Reese (the resilient working-class homegirl who came to campus on a wing and a prayer) and Freddie Brooks (the free-spirited "power to the people" bohemian), albeit while quietly coveting the Whitley Gilbert lifestyle. I had friends and partied — a lot, at times. People liked me well enough. I developed the reputation for being outspoken and thoughtful, two of my greatest professional assets thus far. But as it related to dating and guys, I was so insecure and so uncomfortable in my own body that I surely wasn’t sending out any welcoming messages.
My male classmates always talked about how “bad” Howard girls were, and I’d smile and pop my collar, all the while convinced they weren’t talking about me.
As the size 14/16 I came to Howard wearing slowly became a size 18/20 (thanks to copious amounts of vodka and endless free Frappuccinos from the campus Starbucks where I worked), I looked less and less like what I thought any of those men would consider beautiful.
Yes, “thick” is widely considered to be a virtue among black people, but that term is often reserved for those who have hourglass shapes, or who don’t exceed a certain dress size (think: the models in a Lane Bryant ad, not the average woman who shops there). Plus, these were uppity college boys at an uppity Northern school, guys who may be more likely than other brothers to be bothered by a stomach that exceeds a bustline.
There was no “Big Fine” Instagram movement back then, and while there were other girls who were chunky and fly and comfortable in their own skin, I never had that at all. I pretended to well enough, especially when we were sitting around talking about sex and guys. I felt like I didn’t stack up physically at all, and when I looked at all the other factors that made Howard women so special — intellect, drive, charm, sophistication — I never felt I had enough of those things to outweigh what I lacked (or what I thought I lacked) in the looks department.
I had these issues back at home (and you can throw jacked-up teeth and braces in the mix too), but I didn’t expect my body to feel so much like a problem in college. I kept thinking the weight would just go away at some point. It was hard to walk into the club or the ‘Caf with those pretty slim girls who had been high school dance captains and debutantes without feeling like I just didn’t have what it took to find that husband I had come to find. I pretty much stopped looking.
The slight percentage by which women outnumbered men on our campus didn’t make me feel like there weren’t enough men to go around, and I certainly wasn’t for lack of male friends. I didn’t have boyfriends at Howard, but I damn sure had brothers — some of whom I remain very close to 14 years after I first arrived at school. Most of the romantic attention I got was from older guys (some of them Howard grads or alumni of other universities) and my limited love life took place away from our campus. This made for limited drama. I could hook up with someone without my business being discussed by my classmates, or reasonably expect that whomever I was dealing with hadn’t dated every single girl I knew. But there weren’t too many meaningful relationships.
With the exception of one painfully unrequited crush my freshman year (a handsome senior who said he was moving to Africa after graduation and guess what? I was ready to go with him), I didn’t find myself liking too many guys at Howard. That may have been because I doubted I would have any luck with them if I did. But at least I didn’t spend too much time pining over anyone. I had a rich social life and a circle of friends that I’m still connected to 10 years later. There were a few guys who, were they to approach me now, I’d say, “Let’s give it a shot.” But there’s no Bison that I consider to be one who “got away.”
But that dream of being one half of a Howard marriage did get away, and there’s a tiny part of me that feels a bit sad about it now, especially considering that there’s a new photoset from an HU wedding in my Facebook feed every week. I should mention that the Howard women who make up these marriages are quite diverse, physically and otherwise. Some of them are big fines who were always big and fine, while others got that way after graduation. A lot of them had it all together in college, others didn’t. It’s not just the girls who I thought of as perfect and/or better than me. (Most of those made it to the Big Ring Club via men who attended other universities, it seems.) Amazing Howard women come in all shapes and sizes. Maybe if I saw myself in that way when I went there, I, too, could have found myself a Howard man.
I don’t know if these cute Howard couples have been dating since college, or if they connected afterward. I just know that the little hashtags and campus engagement pics are cute and remind me that I went to Howard to find Dwayne Wayne and crossed the stage without him.
We speak of black love like some sort of mythical concept. It isn’t. I’ve dated black men exclusively since I had my first taste of romance as a teen. I’ve been in love; so has nearly every black person I know. But finding space to choose a partner and cultivate a healthy, long-term relationship isn’t terribly easy for those of us who live in the “real world.” The endless professional grind so many of us are tied to — and the sheer number of stunning, accomplished, intelligent black women competing for what often feels like a small pool of black men — makes that sting a bit more profound. The notion of having found partnership while in a space that is almost exclusively black for a period of time that is devoted to self-discovery and defining the life you want just seems...appropriate? Probable? The stuff black fairy tales are made of?
I wish I could get a do over. Put grown-up Jamilah in the mix with that many black men, in a space where the greatest part of our daily work is thinking and considering the ways in which we weaponize our blackness to be of "service to America and the global community," I think I could get it right this time. Of course I come to the table with a 2½-year-old child (who is ridiculously adorable and will be an amazing addition to the Howard University family in 16 years, of course) and a few other grown-up responsibilities. But I’m also finally the Howard girl I wanted to be way back when. Is it too late to get a college sweetheart? Maybe I’ll just hit Morehouse’s homecoming next year.
Jamilah Lemieux is a writer and the Senior Editor for "EBONY magazine. Her work has appeared via a host of publications, including "Gawker," "Mic," "The Washington Post," "The Nation" and "Essence." (Photo credit: Geoffrey Black, "EBONY")
Contact Jamilah Lemieux at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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