Invisible Hawkeyes edited by Associate Professors of English and African American Studies at the University of Iowa, Lena and Michael Hill, is a highly anticipated book highlighting the experiences of Black undergraduates at the University of Iowa from 1930s to the 1960s. The book combines in-depth research and testimonies from Black alumni – creating a structure that effectively captures what it was like to be Black in Iowa during that time period. You can get your own copy of Invisible Hawkeyes this November.
What stood out to me about the book was its sole focus on Black students that participated in the fine arts or athletics. I wondered what the benefit of that perspective was.
“The arts and athletics were unique in the fact that they naturally lent themselves to these students playing roles as kind of ambassadors that went beyond the classroom and became highly visible,” Lena Hill said.
That thought resonated with me. At first, I was surprised by the notion. As a Black writer, I could be seen as an ambassador to my discipline – creating good relations between the black world and the white writers. Then I began to realize I had been fulfilling the role without ever identifying it.
As a freshman at the University of Iowa you’re required to join a Living Learning Community (LLC), which is a residence hall floor connecting students interested in the floor’s specific theme. I chose the Iowa Writers LLC, which consisted of 25 male writers living on the same floor – two of which were black, including me. Coincidentally, there was a fellow student named Caleb in the LLC and within the first week I was named “Black Caleb.” I accepted the name. I wore it as a badge of honor, as if entering this white institution was my warzone and I was determined to make it out. It was obvious I was not like the rest of my floor. I was in unfamiliar territory and I was bringing a life experience they could never understand. But even with a name like “Black Caleb” I was not minimized to one dimension.
As a freshman I performed at many local open mics and I gradually became more visible to the white writers around me. Though they may have originally only seen me as “Black Caleb” I expanded that label. When I was on stage performing polished pieces, they had to acknowledge my success. I was not only Black; I was a writer. With this earned respect I was able to engage in conversations about writing and race that my white comrades may have never experienced without my presence at this university. After hearing Lena Hill’s words, I understand how the arts had made me an ambassador because my visibility could not be ignored.
Though my experience was unique to me, I’ve talked to plenty of other Black students that had a similar experience of initially feeling like a fly in buttermilk at this university. This led me to question whether Lena and Michael had any trouble choosing which stories and testimonies to share in order to give an accurate picture of how it was to be a Black student at the university. I asked them how they went about balancing the testimonies within the book.
“I think from the beginning one of the things we wanted to do was be honest, to listen to these voices and be honest recorders,” Lena said.
“It became very crucial for the range of voices to be represented… I mean, philosophically these are abiding concerns certainly within my own work, the phrases are: pluralistic blackness, communion without consensus. It’s the same thing I tell students today, the idea that you would come here and 13 hundred of you would have the same experience is preposterous. How would that work?”
I didn’t have an answer. I had fallen trap into thinking most, if not all, Black students had the same type of experiences when they came to this campus.
When I pushed against that default belief, it became obvious that there was a plethora of experiences. Many of the Black students at the University of Iowa are from the Chicago area, which provides a prevalent and vibrant Black community that makes the transition to Iowa City feel like they had lost part of their support system by being constantly surrounded by white people now. For others, like myself, they come from a town or life situation that did not have as prevalent of a Black community, but realized their need for one once in Iowa City. Or in contrast to both, there are others who come to the University of Iowa never feeling out of place.
Impressively, Invisible Hawkeyes covers testimonies that mirror the same concepts. The pluralistic blackness and the range of different Black experiences are imperative to the understanding how the university has shaped our lives.
This notion of having different experiences with the university led me to question what Michael and Lena’s experience has been with the campus. Both Lena and Michael Hill teach a wide range of classes in English and African American Studies that focus heavily on Black literature and Black history. I asked them what their thoughts were on the campus’ diversity.
“The demographics of your classroom on the one hand, it never matters… this is the sphere where learning takes place and as a teacher you sign up to teach whoever comes to learn,” Michael Hill said.
But Michael was not completely oblivious to the lack of diversity on campus, as he followed up with:“One of the reasons it began to register on my radar screen is because students came to me with concerns” - which he later describes as an overwhelming sense of “low morale.”
“One reason it also didn’t occur to us as much in the classroom experience is that our classes – and we didn’t even realize this for awhile – are much more diverse than a lot of other classes… so we’re not even recognizing sometimes that our students are coming in and sort of sighing in relief,” Lena Hill said.
However, even with the initial overlook of the racial dynamic of the campus, neither of them are ignorant to the importance of having a diverse campus. Lena stressed that Black students are needed here, not only for our own growth, but also for the growth of our peers.
“Many people lose sight of the fact that when we’re talking about diversity it’s not because we want everyone to feel good… but you want to have a more rigorous intellectual conversation that often can only happen when you bring those different perspectives and different voices that are coming at the same issue from different but very legitimate and well thought out positions," Lena said.
As the interview came to a close, I took with me two quotes that spoke to me in a way of guidance and inspiration. Michael left me with the idea that I should expand the imagination of my future because:
"This generation of Black colligates, especially at these majority white institutions, need to understand that they’re being prepared for a labor that they may not even understand right now. There’s a mission that they have that may not be clear and the preparation may not be marching in the streets, it may be something different.”
Lena gave me inspiration to keep striving.
“For every slight that they [Invisible Hawkeyes] experienced because of their race, for them, there was another great moment of accomplishment in their chosen discipline, and that is what they were here for."
And that is what I’m here for.