My people will never let me forget this, but I was um, a little less friendly and approachable when I arrived in Lawrence. Fists balled up. Chest poked out. Hardcore scowl. Every shirt I owned was black, one even had ‘Danger – Educated Black Man’ printed across the front. One kid I met that week told me his dad took one look at me and said, “Son, stay away from THAT brother!” I smiled once my first week in Lawrence, and would pay for that mistake for the next four years…
The week before class started, there was a big ‘Welcome to KU’ event called Beach and Boulevard. On the main street (Jayhawk Boulevard) the main hangout spot was known as Wescoe Beach. Yes in Lawrence, Kansas. Don’t ask. Anyway, one of the Orientation Assistants happened to be a young lady I went to high school with. She was in the same class as my godmother’s daughter, a Hall of Fame class of fine sisters that came through those halls. I had no idea she even knew who I was, something that would become a recurring theme as I went through college…
We started chatting at the Beach and Boulevard, and this white kid with a camera asked if he could take a picture of her putting a ‘lei’ around my neck. My initial facial expression: I still want to know what happened to that picture! He timidly asked if I would smile for one, and I begrudgingly cracked the sides of my mouth up. ‘One more?’ Sigh…
Now I was irritated. I just wanted to be left the hell alone! ‘You want a smile huh? OK.’ So I pulled a 180, and busted out the biggest Sambo, over the top, “This is the greatest day of my life! Rock Chalk Jayhawk!” 32 teeth special I could muster.
Even if you’re not a storyteller, or you didn’t go to KU, if you know how comedy works, you know what happened next. That picture started popping up everywhere. For years. Orientation pamphlets, multicultural student recruitment newsletters, the works! I’ve got a good enough sense of humor about it all to tell you that picture is floating around online, but I won’t say where. If you do find it, at least now you know the real story. It wasn’t some ‘great times at KU’ picture the way it got spun. I was being a complete ass and she was laughing at me being a complete ass. I learned a real important lesson about media and image that day though.
I make this next statement not to make you laugh, but as an expression of my mentality when I stepped on campus: I had no intention of making friends, and the absolute last thing I planned on doing was find a girlfriend or a wife. The events of my senior year had turned me into Robert DeNiro’s character from Heat:
“A guy told me once, don’t attach yourself to anything you’re not willing to walk away from in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat coming around the corner. Now, if you’re me, and you gotta move when I move, how do you keep a…marriage?”
In all sincerity, my Plan was to go to class, go to the mosque when I could, figure out how the hell I ended up here and what I had to do so that in four years I wouldn’t be in this situation again. I wasn’t completely naive, I was a Black Muslim in Kansas. All the possible odds were stacked against me. In high school, I felt I had the drive and the talent to make films, but I had a very small margin for error. After what went down, now I felt like I had no margin for error. So I guess I was turning into my favorite comic book character without fully knowing it.
Fate would step in of course to keep me from completely becoming a recluse. This was college after all! That kid whose dad warned him about me? He was a Muslim! We’re still friends to this day. Over the first couple of weeks, a lot of us freshmen black men would find each other and start hanging out. Amazingly all these years later, most of us are still friends. As I get older I appreciate how rare that is. Anyway, none of us could pledge straight out of high school, so we ended up giving our crew a Greek like name I won’t repeat here. The initials were NTN though. You can probably fill in the blanks. Being black at the University of Kansas, you really had to go the extra mile to stay off the radar. We quickly learned about the unofficial hangout spot on Saturday nights: the Burge.
Those little student union parties seem so innocent now. For our intro into this college version of the Club, we stomped down the Hill, reciting the Chain Gang theme from the film ‘Cadence’. The party was from 10 ‘until’, so of course our green asses showed up at 10! The girls we had been eyeballing in Mrs. E’s cafeteria all week in their oversized T-shirts and sweat pants? On Saturday night boy, they cleaned up quite nice! Oh yes they did…
For me especially as a hip hop lover, as soon as I could feel the bass coming from the basement, I would get hyped. I could still put together a nice little playlist of the jams from those first couple of years:
- Do You Wanna Ride – Do or Die
- Hay – Crucial Conflict (our first hype song)
- Player’s Anthem – Junior Mafia
- Get Money Remix – Junior Mafia
- Drop – Pharcyde
- I Got 5 On It – Luniz (the NTN theme song, even though none of us smoked, still can’t figure that one out)
- Dolly My Baby (Remix) – Super Cat (still my favorite reggae song, I sweat just thinking about it)
I would jump in for the hype songs and our little NTN group dances, but beyond that I usually hung back. Michael Jackson, Hammer…I could do a choreographed routine like nobody’s business. Hell, I learned to Electric Slide to Ditty by Paperboy. But freestyle dancing and grinding? That was new to me. The females noticed and (naturally) would flirt a little more to try to get me to come out of my shell. There was one in particular who would do the ‘come here’ move in front of me for like 5 straight Burge parties, trying to be funny. That 6th party though, my damn 18 year old hormones decided to pull rank on the Plan, and I had her ass posted against one of those light blue columns, her legs wrapped around my waist, me gyrating to Shaggy’s ‘Boombastic’. And it was fantastic, just like the song says.
Normally though you would find me where you will still find me today if I happen to hit the Club: hanging out on the dance floor, right in front of the DJ booth, bobbing my head and playing Junior Hype Man. I’m one of those brothers. In time I naturally started to make friends with the brothers who were DJing the Burge parties.
As it turned out, they all happened to be members of the same fraternity…