25 February 2005

One Nation Under a Groove: The year that was 1978

It was the year I graduated from high school. The year I went to Europe for the first time. The year I began my studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. It was the year that Parliament released “One Nation under a Groove.”

Sometimes my life has its own special soundtrack. This was the case in 1978, 1983, and 2000. It is as if the events of these years are burned in my memory, not only in terms of their significance, but also by the music that accompanied them.

Take 1978. Or more specifically, take the fall of 1978 when I entered Carolina as a 17 year-old freshman ( I would turn 18 about a month later). Two weeks before the University’s official orientation, where freshmen were given the time and space to adjust to being away from home and at university, there was Black Pre-Orientation. This was where black freshmen were given the time and space to adjust to being away from home and at a major university that had only recently started admitting black students.

Edith Hubbard was one of two black women admitted to Carolina in 1964. The (publicly-funded) university was founded in 1789. Hers is a fascinating story, and suffice it to say that there was not Black Pre-Orientation gathering to help her acclimate to the new environment.

But to be honest, I didn’t know anything about Edith Hubbard until I started doing a bit of research for this post. I didn’t learn about the history of black students at Carolina during Black Pre-Orientation, I just knew that we hadn’t been there very long and that there weren’t many of us. What I did learn was other “useful” information such as:

1. To determine if the party being advertised on the flyer was going to populated by blacks or whites, look for key words, such as “jam” (blacks) and “40 kegs” (white).

2. On the first day of any maths or statistics classes look around to see if there were any Asians present, if so, switch to another section because they were math geniuses and would mess up the grading curve.

3. Do NOT sign up for Chinese 50 (a history course) because it USED to be a slide, but there had been a recent article in Newsweek on the university in which the course was named and shamed, so it had become super tough.

4. In response to black students from traditionally black institutions who came to our parties and criticised us for going to a “white” school, suggest that they go back to their own campus to party.

I’m sure I probably learned other very important information about support systems, etc. but since I had just graduated from a predominantly white high school, and had just spent the summer in Europe living with different families etc., I wasn’t too worried about my “minority” status, and so perhaps I tuned the useful stuff out.

And George Clinton?

Well, each Saturday during football season when there was a home game, the Black Student Movement (BSM) would reserve about 200 seats, in a practice called block seating. Then black students who wanted to sit with the BSM would request this block when going to pick up tickets for the game. The BSM block was a riot, so it was critical to pick up these tickets as soon as they were available. [If only I had been as diligent about registering for classes.] Food, fun, music, it was ALL good. The kick though, was the beginning of each game when everyone was supposed to stand for the national anthem. As the band began to play and voices began to sing, “Oh say can you see. . .” someone in the BSM block would fire up the box and we would dance and sing, “One Nation under a groove, gettin’ down just for the funk of it. . .” Although I realise the offense it must have caused back then, I still chuckle at the thought of it. A handful of us in an enormous stadium in an act of defiance that always resulted with us getting pelted with something. Is there anything like being 18?

These thoughts came flooding back a couple weeks ago when I listened to a brilliant radio documentary on George Clinton done by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). I remembered the joy and excitement I felt being at Carolina, the crazy friends I had, and a university experience I will cherish for a lifetime.

Music can do that.

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