Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Black Domers: Seventy Years at Notre Dame, published by Corby Books. It is available for purchase on Amazon.
The Black population at Notre Dame is 2 percent. That’s like skim milk. You couldn’t skip class cuz they knew. I’d be walking across campus and white people would pop out the bushes like, “Missed you in class today, Owen.”
– from Owen Smith’s Comedy Special: Anonymous
In America, being black usually qualifies you as a minority. And although I’ve been black all my life, I never truly knew what being a minority felt like until I attended the University of Notre Dame. Let me explain.
I was born in Nassau, Bahamas—a place where we have black people on our money. What’s blacker than that? I was raised in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and a suburb right outside of Washington, D.C. In the nineties, Ebony magazine called PG County, as it’s more affectionately known, “the blackest county in America.”
Growing up I saw black doctors, black lawyers, black dentists, black business owners, black bus drivers, black teachers — PG County was like Smurf Village, except all the Smurfs were black.
Being teased as a kid is nothing new. Everybody gets it. Some kids were tormented for wearing glasses or being overweight. I got slammed for being smart, always doing my homework, and getting good grades. My grades were so good I got put in the “not black enough” category. Michael Jackson got whiter from vitiligo; I got whiter by making the honor roll.
Then at seventeen, I finally had an opportunity for a reprieve from my childhood angst. Going to college gave me the chance to pick my own world. Fortunately, because I kept my grades up and had decent SAT scores, I had lots of options. Maybe I’d attend a historically black college like Howard, or an Ivy League school like Princeton, or I might explore new territory out west like UCLA.
Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, I receive a letter from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, asking me to apply. Initially it didn’t seem like the right fit. I mean, South Bend, Indiana? What black person looks in the mirror and goes, “South Bend, Indiana — now that’s where I need to be?” Definitely not 17-year-old me.
But then the strangest thing happened. When I would tell people the colleges I was considering, Notre Dame always got the biggest reaction. From my guidance counselor to the lunch lady, all of them may not have known where Notre Dame was — hell, I didn’t know where it was until I got that letter in the mail — but they all agreed it was a great school and would be a tremendous opportunity. And my mom made no secret that Notre Dame was her first choice. So when the time came for my decision, in the words of the great LeBron James, “I decided to take my talents to South Bend.”
And in the summer of 1991, I left the blackest county in America for quite possibly one of the whitest places on earth, or what a friend of mine would later call it after a visit, “Disneyland for white people.”
Yes, I experienced a lot of the classic fish-out-of- water scenarios at Notre Dame. I had a white girl from Idaho tell me she never saw a black person before, and good luck finding any black magazines or hair-care products on campus.
I remember spending hours in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart looking for one black angel. When it came to food, I learned that everybody doesn’t necessarily use seasoning. And I got so used to being mistaken for a football or basketball player that I started having fun with it. My favorite was the time a little white kid saw me, raced across the quad and begged me to sign his football. I didn’t want to be rude so I wrote, “Stay in School.”
I’m still waiting for that football to pop up on eBay.
However, something unexpected happened over on the Ebony Side of the Dome. You know how in the X-men movies Professor Xavier has a school for gifted mutants? And at this school, mutants come from all over the world to develop their skills? To me, the greater gift this school provides is that it’s where these outcasts discover they are not alone. For a lot of them it’s the first time they encounter others out there who are just like them.
This is how I felt as I got to know the other 1.999 percent of the black community at Notre Dame. Being black at Notre Dame was the first time in my life I was in a room with so many other black people with white names. At times it felt like I was at a “Black People with White Names” convention.
If you were black at Notre Dame it meant that growing up you were probably teased for being smart, getting good grades, and you knew what it felt like to be put in the “not black enough” penalty box by your own people.
If you were black at Notre Dame that meant you came from a support system that stressed the importance of education and made the necessary sacrifices to ensure you had access to the best opportunities.
If you were black at Notre Dame, it meant you didn’t accept “no” for an answer. If you were black at Notre Dame it meant you were raised to say “please,” “excuse me,” and “thank you” — just like me!
If you were black at Notre Dame it meant you had finally found your tribe. And I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me it felt great!
It was at Notre Dame where I felt safe enough to dream. I remember taking long walks across that beautiful campus and envisioning myself being a huge star in the world of comedy. I was going to sit on that couch with Arsenio; I was going to have several successful comedy specials, star in movies and television shows, and the world was going to know and love me for making them laugh.
Being black at Notre Dame was where I got the courage to dream big and, if I had it all to do over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Owen Smith came to Notre Dame in 1991 from Prince George’s County, Maryland. He majored in finance and was 1995 Bookstore Basketball champion. After graduation, he became a stand-up comedian, writer, actor, and producer. Currently, he is a writer, producer, and performer on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” He lives with his wife Ralinda in Santa Monica, California.