Soundings: Black Domers

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Some years back — about 15 years ago — Notre Dame Magazine tried to do a story on the black experience at this University. I say “_tried_ to do” because I think any magazine article that sets out to capture that story is doomed to failure.

For one thing, a magazine piece doesn’t allow enough pages. For another, the writer of that article was Caucasian and, despite his affinity for the subject and his journalistic skills, he was an observer, a reporter, an outsider conveying what those on the inside had to say about their experiences as black men and women at a very white school.

Some stories need to be lived in order to be told truthfully, truly and fully.

But even an African-American student would be unable to tell that story because there is no single story, no singular black experience, no one person who can speak for all who have come here from so many places, families and personal histories.

No soloist can provide “the black point of view” any better than “the woman’s point of view” could be proffered in a classroom of men during the early days of coeducation.

It would take a book to explain what it’s like to be black at Notre Dame. And one with many voices.

Now we have that book. Black Domers: Seventy Years at Notre Dame honors Frazier L. Thompson ’47, Notre Dame’s first black student, and all those who came after — many of them pioneers venturing into what for them seemed like foreign territory.

The book offers the first-person accounts of almost 70 African-American alumni, from the first blacks admitted in the late 1940s to some who graduated in May 2014. Thanks to co-editors Don Wycliff ’69 and David Krashna ’71, and to Jim Langford ’59, head of Corby Books, which published the collection in June, the 500 smooth-reading pages provide the shapings of that history, the pieces of a narrative that is both diverse and universal.

Overall, the writers exhibit a heartening level of affection and loyalty to the place, despite the growing pains and occasional incidents of Notre Dame people falling short of the school’s ideals.

Over the next two or three weeks — here at the magazine’s website — we’ll offer a sampling of stories, a representative mix of memories and impressions.

And what a discordant story it has been.

One would like to think that Notre Dame’s Catholic character, its allegiance to social justice and human dignity would have made it an especially welcoming place for blacks. But that has not necessarily been the case. While the tenor may be generally positive, some have found campus to be an indifferent, insensitive, even occasionally hostile environment. Incidents of racism, prejudice and stereotyping have occurred throughout the years — with some examples embarrassingly recent.

One would also think that a university headed for so long by one of this nation’s most visible and influential civil rights leaders, Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, would have been a beacon of equality and integration, attracting a significant number of blacks. But decades of enrollment figures tell a different story, despite the priest’s personal attention and institutional efforts over the years to bring more African Americans into the Notre Dame family.

The scarcity of blacks on campus, some say, brings about feelings of isolation, awkwardness and discomfort — discouraging more blacks from coming. African Americans (unlike Latinos) are not typically Catholic and many blacks, observers note, may prefer urban settings to Notre Dame’s geographic and climatic profile.

While the University each year hosts black high school seniors for a minority visitation weekend, many feel let down when they enroll as first-year students and discover how homogenous the student body really is.

As with all students, so much depends on each student’s background, their parents and hometown and the demographics of their high school — what they are accustomed to. And how expectations may differ.

The writers in this book explore such themes. They talk about the loosely segregated tables in the dining halls, the role of athletes, some roommate conflicts, the cultural differences at a place that so values tradition and uniformity.

We’d all like to think that great progress has been made over time. But others would know better than I if that’s the case.

Many African-American students through the years acknowledged that while Notre Dame is a good place to be from, it hasn’t always been the best place to be. Changing that — making the place better and more welcoming to everyone — has been a slow and fitful process.

But it has occurred because of the contributions of so many, because people were brave and strong enough to go where it wasn’t always comfortable to go, and to say things that weren’t easy or popular, and to work to make the place better — a place that wasn’t always kind and warm in return.

That story Notre Dame Magazine sought to tell 15 years ago didn’t paint a very pretty picture, and we were criticized for that. The suspicion was that we had found a disgruntled few and provided a platform for them to be unduly negative. But a couple of weeks later I got another phone call. University leaders had met with a crowd of minority students. The situation was worse than they had thought; the magazine article had been pretty much on target after all.

All of us owe these pioneers our appreciation. We should be grateful to those who have stand up and speak out, for the honest communication among family members, the kind of dialogue — even when disruptive — that brings problems out into the open, that resolves differences, that ultimately makes relations better, healthier.

Black Domers is a collection of 70 voices telling personal stories so that a communal story might emerge. Despite the individual perceptions and experiences, they all might agree and say change isn’t easy, and that Notre Dame is better for the richness of diversity grown over time. And most conclude with a happy ending.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.