I marched a hole in my shoes the first time.
It was 2006. His name was Martin Lee Anderson and he was 14 and had been sent to boot camp in Panama City, Fla. He had stolen his grandmother’s car. She sent him to be redirected. Instead, he was killed. Seven guards. One nurse. Eight acquittals.
So we marched from the campus to the Florida Capitol. As a member of the FAMU chapter of the NAACP, I held the banner. I would march many more times—for many different reasons—but there was nothing like that first time. So for me, the FAMU experience is synonymous with activism.
In 1887, segregation was the law of the land, and the second Morrill Act said that if Florida were to have its white and male University of Florida, then it had to also approve a school for Negroes. Reluctantly, it did, and the State Normal School for Colored Students was reorganized as a college for black students, both male and female, which makes our university the first coeducational institution of higher learning in Florida: iconic activism.
It’s hard to explain why we Rattlers love FAMU so much. It’s a visceral, almost-irrational devotion. I guess we take the alma mater—our national anthem—which says, “I’ll fight and win whatever the battle be” as a challenge to “rumble, young Rattler. Rumble.” With anybody. Anywhere. Over anything. At any time. Who run it? Those hard-charging Rattlers of old A&M.
So, what, then, is the relationship between activism and homecoming? It’s this: FAMU is a testament to the strength of the African-American will and mind. It is the tangible representation of our power. We took the discarded rock and made of ourselves a cornerstone.
From the oasis in the center of Tallahassee, Fla., we learned how to first cultivate knowledge of self, heritage, legacy and history and then to apply that knowledge, build on that knowledge and share that knowledge. We learned what it means to be black, beautiful, magical and powerful. We learned how to do the work. Then to test our theories, we went out into the world—the world outside of our oasis—to see how our brilliance held up. We took fellowships and internships, assistantships and research grants, contracts and signing bonuses. We left our microcosmic world to show the macrocosmic world what we would do.
But it was never for them; it was activism. For us. By us. Some of us then decided to claim a seat at the table. Some of us decided to build our own table. Some of us decided to set the table ablaze and have a seat on the floor. And we always knew for whom we were fighting: It was for us.
So wherever it is in the world that we find ourselves, we still manage to make it home—to homecoming—like a secular communion. “As often as we eat this bread (a powdery funnel cake) and drink this cup (a plastic tub of vendor lemonade), we do show our reverence, our fellowship, our relationship.
We return to the place of our radicalization to renew our commitment to us. We find the courage to withstand the insult of the world by having a drink with a brother, a meal with a sister, a talk with a mentor. It is our necessary thing, for the struggle ever continues.
Dr. Rondrea Mathis is a two-time graduate of Florida A&M University with a bachelor’s in English, a master’s in English education and a Ph.D. in English from the University of South Florida. She serves in enemy territory (j/k) at Bethune-Cookman University as an assistant professor in English with an office full of orange and green everything. #GoRattlers #COLAC. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @dr_fireandice, where she live-tweets awards shows, plays in Fenty Beauty and reminds everyone that black girls are geniuses and black folks built alladis. She’s also a Capricorn who loves Busboys and Poets and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.