Black Domers: Azikiwe Chandler

Author: Azikiwe Chandler '94

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.

I hated my freshman year at Notre Dame.

For some reason, when it was time for me to apply to college, I was under the impression that all universities were incredibly diverse centers of debate and cultural exchange like Cal Berkeley, where Andrew Martinez made national headlines for expressing his First Amendment rights by attending classes in the nude in 1992. I was in for a shocking surprise.

Overwhelmingly Catholic, conservative, upper middle-class and white, Notre Dame was the most alien, most homogeneous environment I had ever experienced. There was very little cultural diversity on campus. No Kwanzaa celebrations. No reggae music. No student activism. And as the lone African-American kid with dreadlocks, sporting a Bob-Marley-emblazoned coat everywhere I went, I stuck out like a fly in a bowl of milk. Of course, being a six-foot tall, 145-pound weakling who couldn’t attract a girlfriend amid a sea of 200-plus-pound NFL pros-in-training didn’t help matters, either.

How had I let Dr. Lannie talk me into this? Dr. Vince Lannie had taught at Notre Dame for a few years prior to becoming my high school’s assistant vice principal. He was determined to send someone from Charleston’s all-black Burke High School to Notre Dame. After earning the highest SAT score in the school, I had become his candidate.

By my sophomore year at Notre Dame, things were turning around. The director of the Office of Minority Affairs, Ken Durgans, and his colleague, Brother Sage, became mentors who organized support groups and Afrocentric symposiums, which helped keep my head above water.

Fred Tombar ’91, who was like a big brother to me, also began his term as Student Government Association (SGA) vice president during my sophomore year. Deputizing me his minority concerns commissioner, Fred said, in essence, “Stop whining and start creating the environment you want.”

Employing the principle of Kuumba — “To always do as much as we can, in the way that we can, to leave our communities more beautiful and beneficial than when we inherited them” — I started a reggae music show on WVFI, the campus radio station, and helped organize a “Black Man’s Think Tank,” which brought to campus intellectuals like Naim Akbar, Wade Nobles, and Jawanza Kunjufu. I was a part of various teams that set up debates and brought the plight of minority students to the attention of the University administration. And I started hitting the gym. Thanks to Fred and Ken, I was applying one of the most valuable lessons I learned at Notre Dame: It’s better to light candles than to curse the darkness.

Of all the organizations with which I was involved during my sophomore year, my work with Students United for Respect (SUFR, pronounced “suffer”) was the most rewarding. It wasn’t a preexisting, administration-sanctioned student organization playing by the rules. SUFR was a movement, a coalition of disgruntled, disenfranchised students who had come together to take the University by its shoulders and shake it until it snapped out of its lethargy and took action to improve our predicament.

At a Black Cultural Arts Council meeting at the beginning of my sophomore year, we found out that, after an extensive interview process, Brother Sage would not be hired as the assistant director of the Office of Minority Affairs. Having served as a de facto counselor whose encouragement helped keep many of us afloat in the hostile waters of Notre Dame, Brother Sage had the unwavering support of most students of color, and we felt dissed by the University’s decision to disregard our recommendations and let the assistant directorship go vacant instead of hiring him.

Needing to vent, we started listing other ways in which the University was disrespecting us. One brother endured unpunished racial harassment at a dorm party where the n-word was written in large black letters on a bathroom wall and residents wore blackface to a “soul food dinner” of fried chicken and watermelon. Another student reported a professor saying black people were better off as slaves. Tuition was rising every year, yet our financial aid packages stayed the same. We were being unfairly targeted and scrutinized by campus security, rectors, and resident assistants. Out of 800 faculty, only eight were minorities from the United States, and the few classes on non-Western cultures were all cross-referenced in such a way that taking the classes was nearly impossible for most students. Why was the Office of Minority Affairs tucked away in a tiny closet of an office off a hidden staircase in the student center? At a school that had professed its commitment to diversity, why was there no multicultural center or a racial discrimination policy?

We decided something had to be done to help the University take these problems seriously, but we didn’t want to have to seek administrative approval for the steps we planned to take. Furthermore, we didn’t want any of the existing minority clubs to be targeted, ostracized or disbanded because of our actions. So we set about creating a new group.

Brainstorming names for the new group, I started thinking about the double entendre of an acronym that came to mind (SUFR). The idea was that if life were a little less comfortable for everyone on campus, perhaps the administration would take steps to assuage our pain. Thus, Students United for Respect (SUFR) was born in the fall of 1990.

Among the ten demands we presented to the administration were calls for a comprehensive racial harassment policy; hiring minority professors until they made up ten percent of the faculty (like the percentage of minorities in the student population); student approval of the two people who were to be hired as assistants to the director of the Office of Minority Affairs (so they would be our advocates, as well as administrators); tenure for minority professors already teaching on campus; a multicultural center with a library; and financial aid packages that increased as tuition increased. Subsequently, the SGA Minority Concerns Commission convened to review and update a 1980 diversity report whose recommendations had been disregarded.

It was a three-pronged offensive designed to spur the University into action. On the faculty level, Ken Durians lobbied for us through the Office of Minority Affairs. We were also producing a University-sanctioned document through the proper, administration-approved student channels in the form of the SGA diversity report. And SUFR’s student activism would show the administration that Ken’s suggestions and the report’s recommendations weren’t idle talk, but heartfelt issues that needed to be addressed as soon as possible.

On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1991, we held our first nonviolent protest on the steps of the Main Building, just before filing into Patty O’Hara’s Office of Student Affairs, demanding a meeting. A month later, while Fred Tombar and I presented the 1980 and 1991 SGA diversity reports to the Notre Dame Board of Trustees, the rest of the group picketed the meeting with signs expressing our grievances.

“As you can see from the students picketing outside,” I said, “the recommendations from these reports should be implemented as soon as possible to demonstrate that the University is not just paying lip service to the cause of diversity, but is actually taking concrete measures to make the University more hospitable, and less hostile for its minority students.”

In addition to open letters published in campus and off-campus periodicals, we chalked the sidewalks to educate the student body on the grievances, and we held other demonstrations, including a 150-student sit-in, which shut down the registrar’s office for a day during minority recruitment weekend.

In the end, most of the demands were not met, but over the course of the semester there were some concessions, including the administration’s designation of a large space in LaFortune for meetings and multicultural events, and the faculty senate’s approval of the racial harassment policy we had drawn up. Before the policy was approved, there had been no recourse for a student complaining of racial harassment. The new policy, which is still in place today, makes racial harassment punishable in the same way as sexual harassment.

Using his vice president’s office well, Fred set up a meeting with University president Father Edward Malloy on the night of the sit-in. Those of us spearheading the coalition met with him shortly after midnight in his room in Sorin Hall to hash out the next steps.

In the spirit of compromise, we allowed ourselves to be assimilated. Father Malloy gave us his word that no one would be punished for the sit-in and committed to fast-tracking SUFR’s official approval so that it could be part of the committee he would be forming to look into meeting the demands and implementing the diversity report recommendations.

Ten days later, after Father Malloy had run a two- page ad on cultural diversity in the Observer, SUFR was recognized. Shortly thereafter, the task force on cultural diversity began meeting.

It wasn’t the grand victory we had hoped for, but I was proud that we had stood up, united, for what we believed in. The trials, tribulations and successes of SUFR were blessings for which I give thanks.

I am also grateful to Notre Dame for making my first trip abroad a reality. I had always dreamed of traveling the world, but if spending junior year in Italy hadn’t been an integral part of Notre Dame’s architec- ture program, I don’t know if I ever would have made it happen on my own. While I spent the two years after Italy working thirty-six hours a week at three jobs (while still taking eighteen credit hours!) in order to cover the gap between financial aid and school fees, including bills acquired in Rome, and never did pursue a career in architecture, I’m proud of the bachelor of architecture degree I earned.

I’m grateful not only for the wanderlust my year abroad stimulated, but also for the mettle I realized I possessed at the completion of that five-year degree.

Notre Dame also nurtured the spirit of community service my parents instilled in me through the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa. My first “job” after graduation was serving as a team leader for AmeriCorps-National Civilian Community Corps, after being interviewed and hired by campus director Jeff Biel, a fellow Domer. So now, after living in, traveling through, and leading experiential learning and community service trips to 41 countries, in a way, I also have Notre Dame to thank for contributing to the wherewithal to pursue the three greatest passions in my life: travel, youth development, and community service.

While no leprechauns or “Fighting Irish” slogans grace any of my apparel, there is a blue and gold Notre Dame vanity plate on the front of my car, and on game days I do proudly wear my Notre Dame shirts and pro- claim with the rest of the faithful, “We are ND!”

Azikiwe T. Chandler came to Notre Dame in autumn 1989 from Charleston, South Carolina. He majored in architecture and studied abroad in Italy. Since graduation he has worked in a number of community service and educational endeavors. He currently is earning a master’s degree in teaching and hopes eventually to lead a public charter school for African-American males.