Being Black at Bob Jones U.
“I’m a thespian!” says Schimri Yoyo, preparing for his close-up. The 18-year-old Bob Jones freshman has been given a starched white thespian-looking blouse, and behind him leans a fake log-cabin wall and a quilt. A gangly red-headed grad student powders Schimri’s dark nose and brow. His speech teacher has recommended him for the part of Moses Grandy, who wrote the memoir Life of A Slave in 1843. The video segment, in which Schimri reads from the TelePromTer a passage about the graphic horrors of lashings, will be shown to secondary schools and homeschoolers who have signed up for the Bob Jones package of 11th grade history. (BJU is the largest supplier of Christian curricula via video and live satellite transmission.) The grad student, Dave Ute, gives Schimri directions.
“Okay,” he says. “The idea is you’re an eyewitness to this happening and you’re sharing it with us in your cabin, as it were.” Then Dave tells him to raise his wrists as in shackles over his head. He tells him to mimic rubbing salve on the wounds of a beaten man. It’s a jarring moment in the universe: One of the college’s few black students being told how to perform for a lily-white Bob Jones audience what it means to be enslaved in 1843. I can’t help but wonder how the 11th grade curriculum will treat the era of desegregation, but no one else in Studio 5 seems worried about it. The small team bows heads to pray that this will go smoothly and they roll the film.
The scene is classic Schimri: He’s Mr. Accommodating, while surrounding him are people both over-eager and a little uncertain. Like the university itself, they are walking a line between liking him for who he is and exploiting him just a bit for his difference. Schimri is one of a dozen minority scholarship students this year, part of a new drive to recruit diversity at Bob Jones. He has received $2,500, which, with the work-study money from a special school program, covers most of the year’s tuition, room, and board.
Just three years ago, the media was haranguing Bob Jones for its interracial dating ban and its description of Catholicism as a cult. Reacting to the attention, the college lifted the dating ban in March 2000, and last year, several alumni set up the minority scholarship fund. The college’s recent, still very small-scale integration is both like and unlike the earlier integration of Southern colleges. It’s not about facing down racists and getting ready to crash the sock hop. Rather, the Greenville, South Carolina-based university has been seeking out minorities. Beyond needing them to help scour its sullied image, it needs to tap a growth market in the business of converting souls, and in an era of increasing competition between Bible colleges.
As Schimri goes about his classroom and extra-curricular rounds, he carries the weight of a lot of expectations and symbolism from both sides of the color divide. Pretty much wherever he goes he is surrounded by something of an entourage. Although it’s early in his freshman year, he is known. “Hey Schimri,” says one guy, chucking a backpack against the wall as he approaches the utensil bar in the dining hall. “Hey Schimri,” says another. Schimri points to him in response. “Nice tie!” he says.
Katie, a sophomore broadcasting major, joins Schimri in line. So does Grant from Bible camp. Schimri takes two glasses of chocolate milk, a plate of noodles topped by an immovable, gelatinous white sauce, and a slice of white bread. It’s been a busy morning. Schimri got scolded by his dorm supervisor for not making his bed. Then there was a vocabulary quiz in English class followed by a discussion of fallacious disjointed syllogisms using biblical examples, then orientation class for a lecture on the college’s art collection (proclaimed to be the second largest collection of religious art in the western hemisphere, after the Vatican’s). Then chapel, a resounding sermon by none other than Dr. Bob Jones III himself on the pernicious evils of sodomy and atheism.
It’s enough to make you very hungry. Schimri and his pals bow their heads and murmer a quick prayer. And then they eat, carefully, so as not to spill sauce on their ties. The dress code is “morning business attire.” This means Schimri and his fellows are wearing ties but no jackets, long-sleeve shirts, khaki pants, and dark shoes. There is not a facial hair to be seen. The girls are wearing skirts that follow “the three L’s”: loose, long, and lots. It looks a lot more Bible than business. The dining hall is retirement-home bland and huge, with row after row of long, brown Formica tables and blue vinyl chairs. Schimri is the only black guy at his table. In fact, he’s one of the only black guys in a room of close to 1,000 people.
The table talk quickly turns to dating outings. Even though they are more than a month away, Schimri has already been asked out by two girls, one white and one black. And one of the girls’ “literary” societies — quasi-sorority-cum-home-ec-and-prayer-groups — has asked Schimri to throw in a tie, to be drawn anonymously, for another date. Such happy circumstances would have been unthinkable just two and a half years ago. These invitations are known here as “reverse etiquette,” since girls do not generally ask boys on dates at Bob Jones. Big nota bene: When students here “date,” none of the standard lovey stuff is involved. No hand-holding (that’s a “demerit offense”), no kissing, and no unsupervised time of any sort. No movies, no dancing, and no TV, either, unless it’s the pre-taped and edited ABC newscast playing in the student center. Do not even try to get past the lobby of the dorm of the opposite sex.
Whatever, Schimri is happy to oblige. Tall, good-looking, and gregarious, he seems fated for Big Man on Campusdom. He flirts with the girls, shoots hoops with the guys, and volunteers for the ex-slave theatrical parts. Girls even do his laundry. To many students here, he is both exotic and cool. He knows that many students at Bob Jones have never been around black people before. Tending to represent the most fundamentalist of the fundamentalists, many BJUers were homeschooled, and most of the rest attended predominantly white churches and Christian schools in non-urban areas. In the freshman class, only 11 percent come from public schools.
Schimri thinks there are clearly some advantages to being different. “I’m going to get asked on a lot of outings because of the curiosity factor,” he says.
Religion is one of the most racially divided areas of American life. According to the 1998 National Congregations Study, 90 percent of congregations are made up of at least 90 percent of people of the same race. Bob Jones, which draws from the most conservative corners of several Christian denominations, is even more divided. Although the university says it does not keep statistics on enrollment by race (it is not required to because it does not receive federal student loan money), the commonly cited anecdotal figure is that less than one percent of its 5,000 students are black, with an additional smattering of Hispanics and Asians. In part, this can be attributed to its fundamentalist doctrinal beliefs, which downplay social activism in favor of personal salvation, its formal, high-church worship style — there is no wayward foot-tapping here — and its unreconstructed Southern history. Bob Jones University did not fully open admissions to minorities until 1975, after the IRS pulled its tax-exempt status in a decision that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983. To this day, Bob Jones continues to be the only college in America that has to pay corporate taxes. (The Minority Scholarship fund remains technically separate from the university so that it can receive tax-exempt contributions.) As an institution with a fierce anti-government streak, it does this proudly, as proudly as it shuns accreditation, an ROTC program, and federal work-study money. Even the bricks of the campus’s forty-odd buildings are uniformly blonde. What’s remarkable is not that there are so few minority students here, but that any would want to come at all.
“Our students going to Bob Jones is a big deal,” says Mike Baldwin, the assistant pastor of the predominantly black Crossroads Baptist Church in Fairfax, Virginia, and the director of the Conference on Evangelizing Black America (COEBA). Although he calls Bob Jones the ivy league of Christian higher education, only a handful of his congregants have wanted to attend BJU, and at least one has transferred out. “We try not to look at what Bob Jones has done in the past, but at how it can help bring people together in the future,” he says. “But the university has to listen so black students will not feel compromised in the process. There are obvious cultural differences, and I think they’re trying, but they could be more sensitive.”
BJU and COEBA have recently become odd bedfellows of a sort: The university helps his organization “plant” new fundamentalist black churches, and then BJU has a bigger pool of potential students to draw from. In the last seven years, 22 new COEBA churches have started up, representing at least a 50 percent jump, says Baldwin. Bob Jones has helped provide money, pastors, and equipment for COEBA programs. Baldwin’s happy, the college’s admissions officers are happy, and minorities stand to gain a higher comfort level if they matriculate together at BJU.
In the meantime, the challenges of being in a tiny racial minority are keen in the minds of Schimri and some other minority students, but not as keen as you might imagine. Schimri is used to feeling like an outsider. Like many of the black students here, he is not African American but the child of immigrants. Schrimri was born in Haiti, where his parents had been converted by evangelists and his uncle was a pastor. The family moved to Brockton, Massachusetts, when Schimri was two. “I was used to assimilating myself in a different culture,” he says. Schimri attended public schools through 8th grade, and from there went to Boston College High School, an academically respected Catholic school, until the middle of 11th grade. Then, after a stirring pastor’s sermon at his predominantly white local Baptist church, he felt moved to transfer to the church school. He also started going to The Wilds Bible camp in North Carolina, a mountainous, leafy place where many of the campers aspired to attend Bob Jones. During his senior year at New England Baptist Academy, he entered a preaching competition sponsored by the American Association of Christian Schools. It was held at Bob Jones. People were nice and friendly. He saw friends from camp. He came in 11th out of 50 and saw a future in preaching. He liked it.
“I used to think I wanted to go to a school like Duke or Boston College,” Schimri, a former top Amateur Athletics Union basketball player who had good grades and an impressive PSAT score, says. “I never pictured myself going to Bible college. Some people thought I was throwing away a good education. Yes, academically, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. I prayed about it a lot. My parents were actually kind of surprised.” But between his new calling, his many friends, and the needed scholarship assistance (Schimri’s father is a state health care worker and his mother is on disability), it wasn’t a difficult choice. Except for the basketball. Bob Jones has no intercollegiate athletics. No football team, no stadium. Its only recruiting is of the evangelical variety.
Ruth Crumley, a senior scholarship recipient, knew about the college’s then-intact interracial dating ban when she applied in the late ’90s, but she didn’t see it as a show stopper. “Why shut the door because of a small little rule that I can’t date a white guy?” she asks. “I’m going for the education.” Even more than Schimri, Ruth was comfortable in a white social environment, so comfortable, in fact, that she says her race is almost a negligible part of her identity. A few days after she was born in what was then Zaire, her mother died. Her father handed her over to a family of white evangelical missionaries, who took her off a diet of mashed cassava and adopted her. Since the age of 10, she’s lived in a suburb outside of Detroit. She’s always worn dresses, been cautioned against dancing, and grown up feeling more white than black. This has lost her some friends among other black students at Bob Jones, but Ruth is far from friendless. “I’ve never been considered black,” she says. “I make jokes about it.”
A music minor endowed with a fabulous full-tone mezzo soprano, Ruth is pleased with the education she’s received and thrilled at the opportunity to sing through the school in places like Singapore, Carnegie Hall, and local Republican Party benefits. She is protective of the school, saying it didn’t deserve the torrent of bad press it received after the Bush campaign visit.
The university president, Dr. Bob Jones III, has maintained the interracial ban did not grow out of bigotry, but rather a biblical interpretation to prevent a mixed-race, one-world culture. “This whole dating policy we had was a fence if you will, a little line of protection that we hoped would keep some people from getting any closer to the one world spirit of AntiChrist as possible,” he told a New York-based Christian radio station last year. “But when the media got a hold of it, they made it sound like it was the defining element of BJU,” he continued. “So we’ve come through all this to say, look, if this is what they’re caricaturing the university as being, we’re going to get rid of this rule.” In lifting the ban, Dr. Jones told Larry King in March 2000 that there was never an exact scriptural basis for it, a contradiction that angered at least some alumni.
“There’s either a missing link, or Big Lie, or one of the biggest frauds to support, cover, and conceal racism in a religious institution,” says Willis Corson, who graduated in 1979 and is interracially married. There were other contradictions, like the fact that the university had faculty members who were in interracial Caucasian-Asian marriages. “It seems that the difficulty in enforcing the rule had compelled us to just broaden our definition of “white” as far as it could go,” explains Camille Lewis, chair of the department of rhetoric and public address here. “And the lifting of the rule did not cause this dramatic change in policy, but, it seems, just made our practice consistent with our written code.”
Today, the university spokesman, Jonathan Pait, dismisses the ban as “no big deal,” saying, “I’ve been here 16 years and nothing is different, nothing has changed. We’ve always welcomed minorities. What has changed is the perception of the school, and that is an extreme relief, I can’t even tell you.” But to say nothing is different would be to dismiss the experience of those once-lonely Saturday nights for Ruth, who barely had a date for two years. “Oh my word,” laughs Ruth. “I had 15 dates within an hour after the ban lifted. I had two months straight of going on dates. All the guys I’d known and been friends with said they were interested in me. I had a blast.” She now pretty much only dates white guys.
Ruth’s bed is shrouded in Winnie the Pooh sheets, she loves the soundtrack from Gigi, and a big smily face graces her dorm-room door. On a Saturday night, the girls’ dorm is buzzing. The hair dryers, curling irons, and de-frizzer canisters stand at full alert. Girls wearing their leftover bridesmaid dresses run in and out each other’s rooms and the bathroom, blinking through colored contacts and frantically trying to wave their fingernails dry. Tonight is one of the year’s several “performance artist” events, a dressy affair that is pretty much the pinnacle of dating, Bob Jones-style. Most dates involve attending classical concerts, or eating fast food at the campus snack shop, then sitting in the Dating Parlor above the student center under the watchful eyes of a monitor. Sometimes a date will take place at a restaurant off campus, but only if a chaperone, like a teacher, graduate student, or parent, is present. But on nights like this, the boys line up in the girls’ dormitory lobbies like cadets on home leave. They proffer flowers and gift bags.
Paul, a handsome, white pre-med junior, is waiting for Ruth. She is a vision in light blue satin. The dormitory supervisor takes their photo. Paul hands Ruth a pretty paper bag. She giggles. It’s full of Snickers bars. “Like Ruth,” he says, “black on the outside, nutty on the inside.”
Bob Jones does not strive to be “sensitive” to the needs of minority students the way most colleges do. There will be no “celebrate diversity” days and no black student association meetings, as surely as there will be no lesbian dances. For minority students to survive here, they must, as in the early days of integration, fit in. The university’s position is that Christian behavior shows love and respect to all students, and that is enough. “We are one body in Christ,” says Dean of Students Jim Berg. “We want to accentuate our common bonds rather than reinforce distinctions.” And so while places like the University of Mississippi are finding ways to honor the men and women who helped integrate it, while cities like Natchez and Savannah are sponsoring interracial healing dialogues, and while some Christian groups like Promise Keepers hold “reconciliation” group hugs, Bob Jones is very happy to keep the focus on prayer, preaching, and Bible -influenced instruction, all filtered through a southern time warp. It seems to be a truism that at Bob Jones, the whiter you act, the happier you will be. It’s not just a question of race, but of subsuming all the parts of one’s identity that don’t fit into the BJU jello mold.
“The culture that Bob Jones is requiring of its students is a turn-of-the-century white culture,” says Rice University sociologist Michael O. Emerson, the author of Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. “They would say they want their students to act Christian, not white, but that is determined by culture.” Certainly many rules seem rooted in Victorian prudery and social roles. Only boys can attend ministry classes (called “preacher boys,” as in, “I have a test in preacher boys tomorrow.”), while girls who are so inclined must content themselves with such classes as The Minister’s Wife and Women in Christian Service. Boys also enjoy privileges that girls do not, such as being allowed off campus without having to sign out. Boys can wear shorts when they play intramural sports, but girls have to wear long sweats. The pool, gymnasiums, and dark places like the planetarium are segregated by sex. The handbook states that magazines such as Esquire, GQ, Premiere, and a bunch of others “are almost entirely without redeeming qualities.” They are off limits, as are jazz, country, folk, and even praise and worship music. Between the restrictions on sex, drinking, bed-time (11 p.m. lights out), music, clothing, and media, students live in a prolonged pre-adolescent limbo.
So what accommodations does a young man like Schimri make to exist at Bob Jones? Aside from the obvious libidinous ones, he can’t wear his baggy pants or favorite Titans jersey, and he can’t watch his favorite movies, like Space Jam or Rookie of the Year. (Music infractions, for example, carry 50 demerits, and after 150, you’re “shipped” or expelled.) He makes an effort to enunciate his speech, and he adjusts his vocabulary “not to be offensive,” he says. Sitting under the gazebo by the library, I ask him if he feels his sense of identity is imperiled. During this first year, he will continue mostly hanging out with his group of white friends from camp. He thinks for a while. “I don’t think I lose my ethnicity,” he muses. “I’m me wherever I’m at. No one who knows me from home would say I’m an Uncle Tom or anything like that. There are cultural differences, and you cannot ever assimilate in totally. I’m just the way I am no matter where I am.”
Then again, Schimri is an adaptive fellow. He’s a model player, the game guy who has effectively waved off the lunch-table problem of voluntary segregation that confounds so many other colleges. But Pamela Quansah, a black freshman from the public schools of Queens, eats most of her meals with three or four new friends who are black, Filippina, and Singaporan. Bob Jones, she says, was “a culture shock, but you get used to it. Every Christian goes through trials.”
Senior Karen Dendy grew up forty-five minutes away, where she attended public schools and a black church. “At first I hated it here, but to have a complaining spirit was not going to help,” says Karen, a financial management major whose mother wanted her to enroll here. “There’s never racial tension going on. Guys still hold doors for you and are polite in general. But it is hard to relate to people. They don’t understand your culture. When you’re with your own kind you appreciate it more. I like traditional black music better.” Her best friends here have been black, but one graduated and one is taking the semester off. There isn’t a large pool left.
It is unlikely that scores of minorities will descend on campus in the near future. The reality is that most religious black kids grow up attending black churches, and most black churches are not fundamentalist and thus not likely to lead to the God’s Glory Garden of Bob Jones University. Still, they will trickle in. “We’d like to see more minorities in ministry services that a typical WASP cannot reach,” David Christ, the admissions director at BJU, says. “From an evangelical perspective, we’ll win more souls, and more may be interested in coming to Bob Jones.”
For Schimri, it’s all part of God’s plan. As someone who has straddled Christian fundamentalism and his upbringing in what he calls “ghetto fabulous,” he has become, for better or worse, a campus ambassador between the races. “I put people at ease, I don’t throw blows,” he says. “I tell people they should feel free to ask me anything. I’ve never felt the future of the black race on my shoulders, but there’s a certain responsibility. I realize my actions and decisions affect the way others look.” By the end of his first year, that attitude will help get him elected to be Sophomore Class Representative. For better or worse, he is a school booster, all the way. “I have a responsibility to myself, to my race, and to God to be courteous, to have a good time. God wants me and I have a purpose here.”
I remember how he looked Saturday on date night: Schimri was standing on the sidewalk outside with some friends, waiting for the girls to come out of their dorm. This was dating the way he liked best, in a posse. No flowers required. He looked a little awkward in his father’s black suit and blue print tie, standing just a little apart and detached, both alone and not alone. It was a good stance for not wanting to get too committed to either a girl or a place. Still, it signified a passage between worlds that he was used to.
“I like dressing up,” he said. “I always had to look good for church. Suit and tie, I’ve been doing this since I was young.
Florence Williams, who lives in Montana, is a contributing correspondent for Outside Magazine. She also writes for The New Republic, the New York Times, and Mother Jones, among other publications.