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James and the Giant Peach photo art (1996), November 29, 2012. (http://disneymania.com.br).

About this time twenty years ago, perhaps for the first time in my life, I found myself around like-minded individuals, folks who seemed to understand me on an intellectual level. The fact that these were fellow graduate students, all at Pitt and all willing to form an association that would enable us to develop real connections across the campus, was inspiring to me. After four years of off-and-on involvement in the Black Action Society, not to mention my first year in the History grad program, I’d almost given up on the idea that I could form good friendships and acquaintance-ships through any formal gatherings.

But this was especially true regarding my thinking about my fellow Black students and other students of color. For the most part, I’d been around two kinds of students of color during my first five years at the University of Pittsburgh. One group was the semi-nerdy set, folks who cared deeply about their academic performance, but were also late-bloomers socially — people like me in more than a few ways. They tended to care little, though, about campus activism around diversity, retention or campus climate issues.

The other group was the Afrocentric set, people who often reminded me of my one-time Hebrew-Israelite brethren, whose views of Blackness were so limiting that I would’ve been a traitor just for listening to Chicago or Phil Collins. Those folks had virtually taken over the Black Action Society by my senior year. Forget mentioning popular folks, like sorors, frat guys, football, basketball and track guys and gals, or those fully invested in Pitt’s Honors College. I mingled with them all, and found little in common with them, intellectually or economically.

Me with Mark James, PAGPSA meeting, GSPH building, University of Pittsburgh, February 26, 1993 (Lois Nembhard).

That changed a bit my first year of grad school. Often in my walking and running across campus, I’d bump into a Black grad student here or there. At Hillman Library, the Cathedral of Learning, William Pitt Union, the SLIS building or other places. We’d recognize each other, we said hello, we even exchanged our names. Two of them in particular — Ed and Hayley — reached out to me at the end of the Spring ’92 semester, because they wanted to put together an organization that would represent our interests as grad students of color.

In mid-August, the emails began to go back and forth in earnest to establish what we’d end up calling the Pan African Graduate and Professional Student Association (PAGPSA) that fall. Through Jack Daniel’s office (see my post “The Miracle of Dr. Jack Daniel” from May ’11), we obtained the start-up funds necessary to make the new association go.

At our founding meeting that September, there were eight of us, all highly motivated to be as inclusive as possible, all feeling suddenly less isolated than we had felt a week, month or semester earlier. We decided on the “Pan African” part of the association’s name because we wanted to welcome as many graduate students of color as possible, particularly African and Afro-Caribbean students. The terms “Black” and “African American,” we agreed, wouldn’t be inclusive enough.

We also decided that despite the political implications of our new name, that this association would primarily be about bringing students together for social gatherings, for additional information and education beyond their course work and dissertations, but not to be campus activists. So many of the Black, African and Afro-Caribbean grad students at Pitt were in fact working on master’s or other professional degrees, and wouldn’t be on campus long enough to make lasting changes through activism, strictly speaking. Plus, there was the risk that activism would be so all-consuming — especially on issues like campus climate, long-term support for research and retention rates — that folks would fail to complete the work they came to Pitt to do in the first place.

CMU-Pitt mug, from joint PAGPSA/BGSO meeting on diversity and grad school, October 1992, November 29, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

By the time that first meeting broke up, I was content to have met folks like Mark, Hayley, Lois, Errol, Ed, and a couple of others, to find us all on the same page about something as serious as starting a new association of a significant cross-section of Pitt’s graduate students of color. But in the process, I’d made a new friend that fall through our meetings and our joint gatherings with Carnegie Mellon’s Black Graduate Student Organization (BGSO).

James came along and challenged PAGPSA in October and November regarding our campus activism stance, arguing that being a part of any organization of students of color meant being active. Of course the leadership disagreed, but that’s how I met the man. He was a charismatic Black Iowan preacher’s son, and more politically active than anyone I’d known under the age of thirty. James had ideas about everything, from the future of hip-hop to the implications of my research on multiculturalism and Black Washington, DC.

Though he was a GSPIA (Graduate School of Public and International Affairs) master’s student and ultimately finished his degree in ’94, we would remain friends through the rest of the ’90s. Between him and Matt (see my post “My Friend Matt” from September) and PAGPSA, I remained grounded even as I became buried in the minutia of US, African American and educational policy historiography over the next half-decade. Thankfully, I no longer felt like a lone wolf. Thankfully, I knew that I wasn’t alone in a sea of graduate school and faculty White maleness after that fall.