In the wake of harsh criticism from alumni and across social media, Talladega College President Billy C. Hawkins was at one point “still weighing his options” with respect to accepting the invitation for the school’s marching band to take part in President-Elect Donald Trump’s inaugural parade.
It appears that the weight crashed on the racist side of the scale, and the 150-year-old black college, located in Alabama, will attend the inauguration.
“The lessons students can learn from this experience cannot be taught in a classroom,” Talladega College President Billy Hawkins said in a press release. “We respect and appreciate how our students and alumni feel about our participation in this parade. As many of those who chose to participate in the parade have said, we feel the inauguration of a new president is not a political event but a civil ceremony celebrating the transfer of power.”
When it was announced last week that the college had received an invitation and initially accepted it, the backlash was immediate. Shirley Ferrill, who graduated from Talladega in 1974, launched an online petition calling on the band to “withdraw from any inaugural events for Donald Trump.”
“I don’t want my alma mater to give the appearance of supporting him,” Ferrill said of Trump in an interview with the Associated Press. “Ignore, decline or whatever, but please don’t send our band out in our name to do that.” Still, some defended Hawkins’ choice to accept the invitation—initially, anyway.
In what felt like a very random exchange, actor LeVar Burton spoke with TMZ about the debacle, arguing that the school would be passing up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Though Burton is not a supporter of Habanero Hitler, when asked if there is a potential silver lining, Burton said, “They could represent.” And when pressed about how it was an “honor,” he agreed, though noting that he himself would not participate.
Burton was diplomatic in his response, but others sincerely share the sentiment that it would be an honor for the band to perform for the president-elect and it’s an opportunity that should not be squandered.
However, as someone who is an alum of an HBCU, performing for a demagogue’s inaugural festivities is akin to performing for the very strains of bigotry that required the need for historically black colleges and universities. When I think about my time at Howard University, I relish the blessings—debt aside—of not having to center whiteness; of being able to see the diversity within my own race; of having the opportunity to focus on the brilliance of my own people; of feeling safe in spaces with people who look like me.
As a Bison, I know of fellow Howard students launching a sit-in demanding the resignation of political consultant Lee Atwater, the now-deceased, once proud champion of the racist “Southern strategy.” (Our next president makes Atwater almost look like an extra in the video for Black Men United’s “U Will Know.”) There are several instances of this at Howard and other black schools. It is not our way to make nice with racists.
Compare Tangerine Mussolini’s campaign rally with an HBCU campus and it becomes quite clear why so many vehemently oppose any black school lending itself to the celebration of hatred. Talladega College, in agreeing to perform at the inauguration parade, follows an unfortunate new pattern among select HBCUs. Like many, I was disgusted by Dillard University’s decision to allow David Duke—former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan but active white supremacist—to step foot on its campus as part of a Louisiana Senate debate.
In defense of that choice, Dillard University President Walter M. Kimbrough argued: “If we’re trying to get out of it because one person is coming to campus, that’s a problem for me in terms of what I value. That’s one of the criticisms of higher ed: We don’t accept diverse opinions.”
He also claimed to have been advised by legal counsel not to bow out, but be very clear: Racism is not a diverse opinion. And whether or not one cares to admit it, when we lend our black bodies and spaces to those who see us as less than, we are active participants in our own debasement. I still hope that Talladega College decides to opt out of performing for the orange man who frolics with white nationalists and white supremacists. Should it do so, it’ll be in good company with the Washington, D.C.-area high school marching bands that have opted out.
Trump doesn’t deserve our support, and thankfully, at least some of us have not required convincing of that.