What Was Behind Samuel L. Jackson’s Yell At the Oscars?

If you haven’t yet, take a second and watch the first thirty seconds of this video.

In one of the most recently controversial Black History Months to date, Samuel L. Jackson’s exclamation holds even more weight. The Washington Post called BHM2019 the Month of the Apology: lawmakers called Maryland’s Prince George’s Country “nigger country” and governors of Virginia moonwalked at his apology briefing for wearing blackface, it’s clear Spike Lee — and the rest of us — craved a late-stage win this month.

However, the yell is more than just a relic of the Black Experience. Many people know both Jackson and Lee went to Morehouse College, but what does that really mean? What could cause two grown men, decades past their own collegial experiences, to call-and-respond with such vigor and certitude?

Oration is in the blood of Morehouse College. One event that cements this pedigree, more than any other, is the campus’s Crown Forum. Every week, all of Morehouse’s students pile into the historic Martin Luther King Jr. Chapel early in the morning to listen to speeches from esteemed, boisterous gentlemen with various connections to the campus. Guests speak on various topics concerning black men in our society: business, religion, politics, law, all cultural topic are up for discussion.

Few students cared by the middle of the semester. Although some inspired students dressed like they’re attending church service, many sit in King’s Chapel having just rolled out of bed. Still others gave their ID card to one of their brothers to swipe on their behalf so they could sleep in this week. Over time, most lectures blended together, and many students ask why they have to come in the first place.

The special talks, however, are when they shut up and listen. It might be caused by an impassioned speaker or an especially pressing topic. The Morehouse president might introduce the Homecoming festivities, or the student speech competition might offer Morehouse’s students their only chance to reveal their powerful speech skills. Regardless, we all remember those powerful speeches.

The speaker’s words stand at attention, and thousands of students throw back the energy he gives. Everyone feels how energy naturally builds in the room. He isn’t just speaking his mind; he’s offering a part of his soul. And the crowd of hungry students is ready to devour.

It’s gorgeous to see a room on fire.

If you’ve ever seen a Morehouse Man speak to an audience, they were subconsciously emulating the speeches they remember from Crown Forum. For four years in a row, every Man of Morehouse has been exposed to the blinding suns of oratory force unlike the world has ever seen. It’s almost like an engine of inexhaustible pride, and anyone who’s borne witness develops an emotional bond to the Morehouse experience that’s hard to put into words.

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MLK International Chapel, Morehouse College. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

“What makes Morehouse different?”

Growing up, 830 Westview Drive SW didn’t hold any special meaning.

In fact, before I really considered college, I didn’t hold any real proclivities towards one school or the other. I knew I was deeply attracted to one of the engineering programs at the University of Michigan because the learning opportunities seemed limitless. If high school students, like me, could build an egg-based car crash simulator out of toilet paper, egg cartons, and whatever else we could find, how could any other school compete?

Well, compete they tried. While visiting the campus of Morehouse College, I remember the smaller plot of land, its older buildings, and its smaller student population. It didn’t seem like a stately school of infinite possibilities, like its competitors.

All that changed when the tour guides came. These students were only a few years older than me, but these black men seemed to have life figured out. They offered confidence. A stately manner. A vision for the Morehouse Man as the leader of an unsure future. If my other schools appealed to my wants, Morehouse appealed to the needs I never knew I had.

I didn’t know it then, but I hadn’t been surrounded by strong black men until Morehouse. Yes, my father always offered insurmountable energy and intellectual vigor, and my Jack and Jill father offered a bit of blackness in a sea of white “mentorship.” Morehouse’s village, though, offered something more. Unparalleled diversity? Unique opportunity? An environment steeped in historical consequence?

With this type of foundation, what could a black man become?

Once I actually entered Morehouse I found one thing that made the campus truly unique: how it essentialized the power of mentorship. You became everyone’s Brother, and everyone made sure to offer advice about everything. Need to know how to pass Dr. Rockward’s test? Need to know which parts of campus where you can more easily break curfew? Need to know the professors which never give out an A?

Some students at massive PWIs lamented the fact that they never got to know our professors. At Morehouse, they got to know you a bit too well. All older brother and sisters acted like our parents; offering advice at every turn because they thought we needed it.

Still, this environment continued to lay the strongest foundations of Black culture the world has ever seen. This small school somehow laid the academic, social, and professional capital that fueled student’s future aspirations — no matter the goal.

Ever seen the vigor of a freshman step team?

Ever watched the sidelines of a drumline cadence after marching band?

Ever heard the roar of a student cafeteria during Fried Chicken Wednesday?

Matter of fact, have you ever eaten fried chicken in your life without the environment making you question that decision?

In this space, men fiercely proud of their culture could blossom. Whether attending research conferences, engaging in global activism, or frequenting the esteemed institution of Magic City, these young brothers could evolve into a more secure version of themselves.

Not everyone has the fondest memories of the campus. It’s impossible to appease everyone, and Morehouse is nowhere near perfect. But, the campus’s environment always made you feel something.

The world does not cultivate this type of energy.

Countless people have said that HBCUs are a relic of the past. The arguments are easy to find. Critics argue the schools have a low return on investment, low opportunities for social mobility, and lower graduation rates. Now, truly exemplary minority students access more renowned schools of contemporary society. If they have a chance to attend an Ivy league or a Big Ten institution, then how can smaller, less resourced schools ever compete?

They make salient points. I offer a counterpoint: What is the purpose of an education?

With four separate degrees, three of them from global institutional powerhouses, I’ve seen the potential that PWIs offer. Many of these schools offer a springboard into economic or academic success. They might offer many more academic experts, countless international opportunities, massive social connections, and Big Houses that offer the pinnacle of physical recreation. Of course, I love them for what they continue to offer. But is that the purpose?

Can an education offer you not only knowledge, but wisdom?

Not only a professional network, but a family?

Not only a legacy, but a inescapable connection to your past?

Not only a future, but a purpose?

Clearly, everyone gets something unique out of their school. Every institution worth their salt develops a strong relationship with their students, so they can continue the schools’ legacy through generations. It’s simply good economics.

So, Why is Morehouse’s energy different?

What causes a seventy-year-old man, who was originally expelled from this very school for holding Martin Luther King Jr’s father hostage on the campus, to bellow its name on the global stage, and grab his gangly purple-clad genius of a director while he accepts the biggest award in film?

Clearly, our brotherhood invigorates us.

As Morehouse Men trailblazing in every stitch of society, we come across new opportunities to find the energy the campus filled us with. At a conference, in a bar, in another country, we come across a brother and our faces light up. We ask when they graduated, and learn how they related to that esteemed past we share. We might even talk about Crown Forum, or Fried Chicken Wednesday. We then go out for coffee, we build businesses, we raise families and villages for the future.

Morehouse offers its alumni a new beginning. Our relationship with the school offers us memories that instill a pride that black people rarely have a chance to inculcate. So, when we see a brother, we brighten up — as we did during our college days.

For some, the light is too blinding.

I’m not here to define the difference.

Maybe it’s because of the rarely understood Morehouse Mystique.

Maybe it’s because the college develops formative leaders like Lee, Jackson, King, Bond, Satcher, and countless others.

Maybe because it fiercely holds cultural artifacts of the Black Academic experience; like drumlines, stepping, oratory competitions, familial relationships, and the like.

Maybe because Morehouse is the number one school for producing Rhodes Scholars, among the top producers of Fulbright Scholars, and remains one of the biggest producers of African Americans who eventually earned PhDs in STEM Fields.

Maybe it’s because it houses a 10,000 piece collection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s original documents.

If you’ve gone this far, you should know it’s deeper than that.

It offers a space truly unlike any other in the world: one that prioritizes the unique academic development of the Black man. When discussing the how Black Manhood must evolve with the coming times, in the #MeToo and #BHM2019 movements, it is essential that the lessons from the College offer direction towards how our institutions should be constructed.

What makes institutions at the margin, like Morehouse, different?

I’m not here to answer this question.

I’m here to make space for the cacophony of voices to answer the question for themselves. But as you heard at the Oscars, that’ll never be a problem.

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