Scrolling through POLITICO last Friday night, the words “Orangeburg, S.C.” caught my eye. Colin Powell was in my hometown that day to deliver this year’s commencement speech at my father’s alma mater. The story resonated with me a little more than usual because I was heading to my hometown the next day for Mother’s Day weekend. In a small college town like Orangeburg, where many of the African Americans who live there are graduates of South Carolina State University or Claflin University, graduation weekend is a special time for both the newly matriculated and elder alum alike.
Congressman James Clyburn, the guest of honor at the South Carolina State University alumni banquet on Saturday night, was also in town, celebrating the fiftieth year of his college graduation alongside the parents of some of my high school classmates and many others who have been pillars of the community since I was a child. And Dr. John Maupin, the president of Morehouse Medical School here in Atlanta, was the commencement speaker at Claflin University, the private historically black college whose campus was literally a stone’s throw away from the house my parents rented when we first moved to town.
Although most of the press coverage was on these two nationally prominent African American men, there were hundreds upon hundreds of other accomplished African Americans thronging the streets of my hometown this weekend. These were the kind of folks who existed outside of the spotlight from whose ranks both Colin Powell and the James Clyburn emerged.
These were my people.
The way you were apt to feel like a minority in most parts of America back in the 70’s and 80’s was not the experience I had growing up. I didn’t really grasp fully what it meant to be a minority in America until I went to college in Atlanta. There is no small irony in the fact that my own collegiate years in the city often touted as the “Black Mecca of the South” was the first extended period of time in my life where I was a statistical minority.
As I stood next to my mother in the sanctuary of Trinity United Methodist Church last Sunday, looking at the silver haired versions of my old school teachers and parents of my childhood friends, I could feel the origins of the sense of self I got growing up in a town like this one.
The faces were older, the handshakes were less firm, the hugs less vigorous, but the spirit and intensity that radiated from the eyes of those who had trained me, taught me and watched over me were undimmed by the passage of time.
It was good to be back.