My Professor, Malcolm, and Me

by Christopher D. Cathcart, Ed.

Unlike many of my fellow new entrants to Howard University, I did not have a good idea of what I wanted to major in when I got to campus. I hate admitting that out loud. Now, in high school in Plainfield, NJ, our guidance counselors did a fairly good job nudging seniors in the right direction. Moreover, the Upward Bound program I was in, the one independent of the school and geared to young African-American college-bound students, also did a good job of preparing me and my classmates for the next step, so this is not a complaint geared toward anyone or group.

It was my fault.

I kinda knew I wanted to be in communications and that was the school at Howard I enrolled in that summer of 1981. I can vividly remember meeting with my college guidance counselor, Ms. Sharon Barlow, a wonderful woman who helped me and many other School of Communications students get off on the right foot. When she asked me what I wanted to major in, I replied that I kinda wanted to write (whatever that meant) and she suggested journalism. I did that for a year and then flipped over to public relations, but that’s another essay.

Then, when she asked what I wanted to minor in, I didn’t have a clue. I was like, “‘minor’ what’s that?” After she explained it we reviewed a list of possible disciplines I could select and, for some reason, Afro-American Studies jumped out and pounced on me like a sleek Black Panther devouring its prey.

At that moment, my mind was overwhelmed with memories of spending countless hours flipping through the books about things like slavery, the civil rights movement, and ancient Egypt my dad kept in our house. I more absorbed these books than read them, but they had a place in my psyche. I would minor in Afro-American Studies, nothing else entered my mind.

I remember the day I strolled into my first Black studies course — Introduction to Afro-American Studies I. It was held in Howard’s famed Frederick Douglas Hall (imagine that, a Black Studies class held in a building named after one of the most dynamic Black activists of all time, damn that was cool). The instructor was Dr. Alan Colón, one of the most important and influential teachers I would ever have in my life, though I did not know it at that moment.

I admired Dr. Colón’s style, his warm and rich voice, and the way he led students to a better understanding and appreciation for Black history in a way that was serviceable in our daily lives. I wrote my first college term paper for that class, titled “Malcolm X, The Evolution of a Black Leader.” While the fact that brother Malcolm grew and evolved over his life is widely considered common knowledge today, that was not the case for my young, 18-year-old freshman self.

I dove into that paper, reading and gathering information from all the books on Malcolm I could find. I learned more about him during that class and for that paper than I knew was possible. In fact, it was that experience that put me on a progressive, Black nationalist footing that would last throughout my college years and beyond. I remember handwriting the paper in the study lounge of Cook Hall, the athletic dorm I and the other male student-athletes called home. I later typed it, of course, but the working draft was done by hand, as we all had to back in the day. I still have some of the handwritten drafts, and my handwriting hasn’t gotten any better, I’m sad to report.

Well, after weeks of nipping and tucking, and as the semester wound down, I turned it in — on time. But it was not the submission that I remember most, it was his returning of the graded papers that stands out. Dr. Colón handed back the papers individually as we were leaving.

I recall walking up to grab mine with every intent to just take it and boogie on to the next instruction. But then my favorite instructor handed me my paper and muttered “good job.” And, as I took it and turned to depart, he called for me to come back for a second. I did and handed me a wallet-size photo of Malcolm X, offering “I thought you might like this.”

Now that small gesture may seem trite to some, but its impact on me was profound and has remained with me to this day. I often refer to this story when talking to young folk considering attending an HBCU. I do that as a way to underscore how special the Black College experience can be, and how the people entrusted with your care and education can mean and do so much more than their job descriptions.

I teach college classes now, and every time I’m called “professor” I can’t help but think of my many great Howard University instructors, and in particular, Alan Colón, who taught me that caring for your students is not purely an academic endeavor. It can and should mean so much more.

Editors Note: Please support our schools’ Black Studies programs. Some may think that HBCUs don’t need them; I contend that they need them most of all.

Vol. 2 of the HBCU Book is still under construction; stay tuned.

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Christopher Cathcart

Christopher Cathcart

Speaker, college professor, author, activist, HBCU advocate and sometimes revolutionary.