I’ll never forget the long drive from East Hampton Long Island to Searcy Arkansas. My mother proud, proud I was going to a “Christian” University, my father alternately worried about what he knew would be soul-crushing culture shock, and wondering exactly why I had made the decision to go there. The Decision was prompted by a great deal of pressure exerted on me by members of the church I was attending at the time, a church of Christ, the only church of Christ located on the eastern end of Long Island. The principal applicator of said pressure was one Clifford Clark, whose family have been the owners of the Shelter Island Ferry for generations. Cliff had been somewhat of a sports star at Harding, and in fact internationally, having just missed a spot on the 1968 Olympic team in the steeplechase. He thought I should have the same wonderful Christian educational experience that he did, meet a good woman, settle down get married, have kids, become a deacon in the church be a productive citizen. Even with the pressure, no one forced me to go. I made the decision in the end. And although the experience was a difficult one at times, nothing that follows is victim speak. Just my experiences and observations. I brought my own misconceptions, faults, and agendas with me as well, and proved in many instances what an unmitigated asshole I could be at times, especially in my dealings with women.
Before I go on any further, a bit about Harding University. Harding is one of the most politically and religiously conservative universities in the country. Probably in the top two or three most conservative. It is not quite in Bob Jones territory, but there is a healthy amount of overlap in philosophy and tone. Harding is in Searcy Arkansas, the seat of (appropriately) White County, about 50 miles north-east of Little Rock. It is, most certainly the South. It was, most certainly, 1979, and I was one of about 300 black students on campus. Of that 300 probably 150 of us were athletes of some type, including myself, as one of my other primary reasons for being there was to play football, a game I was good at, but in hindsight, knowing what I know now, would have never played at all, because I just don’t like the game that much, and never did. Harding is a fairly good academic institution, and I cannot say I got a poor education, technically, while I was there as a psychology major. It’s conservative credentials carry enough weight that over the years the American Studies speakers program has included Baby Bush, Kissinger, Gerald Ford, Thatcher, Buckley, Hannity, Bork, Ben Stein, and hordes of others that have helped keep alive a philosophy of moral superiority and intolerance that the right continues to thrive on. A notable Harding ex-student is Kenneth Starr, although he did not graduate from there.
The campus was beautiful, and typically southern in an antebellum sort of way. The grounds were populated by wooden white swings, in which fine, upstanding representations of white American youth (and me) would do their “courtin”. At the center of it all was the “Lilly Pond” at which spiritually elite young men (and men only) would lead weekly campus devotionals. It was an indication of a high rank on the spirituality scale if you got to lead one of these. I never got that privilege, even though, being as competitive as I was, really wanted to.
Every day life at Harding dutifully and consistently reflected conservative values. I will not add Christian here, as that would connote a sort of ownership by this philosophical mindset of what, indeed are Christian values. Daily chapel attendance was mandatory. To this day if you get caught in flagrante delicto in a sexual act, whether or not you are on campus, you will be expelled. No drinking, no dancing, no smoking, no cursing in public. It was like some sort of extreme version of Footloose. No one could force you to attend Sunday services at one of the local congregations (this being the south there were probably 20 church of Christ congregations in a 20 mile radius) because it would have been too hard to monitor, but the pressure was always there to attend, from staff and peers. Did students do all the disallowed stuff mentioned above? Of course, and one might argue that the temptations were even greater than they might have been in a “normal” university setting because the thought of them, forced by prohibition, was always there with you, like a splinter in your mind.
The culture shock I experienced was surreal to the point of ridiculousness at times. I did not understand the white people, I did not understand the black people, even though I had had exposure through my vacations to see both Grandmothers in Arkansas over the years. Those visits were largely sheltered affairs which required no aculturation or exposure outside of my family, so this was all new. The first day I walked into the athletic center and met football coach John Prock he said “ Percy Howard, how you doin you ol Peckerwood?” I was totally confused. I though Peckerwood was a term of derision only used by southern blacks against whites. Consulting with my pop, I found I was wrong. When I showed up the first day of practice to get equipment, I was “told” that I would have my locker placed “over there” by “Hamp (Perry Hampton, a cornerback and exceptional athlete) and those guys”. I said “no, I’ve become friends with this guy here, pointing to Skip O’Neal, and I’d like to locker by him”. It never occurred to the manager that I would locker by a white guy. It never occurred to me that I should not, as he was the first teammate I became friendly with. The other black players seemed to accept a role that I was completely unwilling to adapt to. I refused to allow racial slurs “in jest” around me, I talked with whom I wanted. I did what I wanted, and carved out a little bubble of weirdness easily attributed to the fact that I was from the east coast.
Which brings us to the topic of the blood knot and jungle fever. Both were alive and well at Harding University in the early 80’s. Blacks and whites in the south are joined in a way that is impossible to experience in other parts of the country. Issues of race were ever present at Harding in the early 80’s.