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"It's like letting the candles just burn and burn and burn on a birthday cake. Nobody blows them out. A prima ballerina finishes to silence; there's no one to applaud. – Dr. Julie Guyot
David Wigenton putters around outside his small store Guild International, a fraternity and sorority apparel shop in the Shaw district of Washington, D.C. He spends a few minutes staring out from the store's entrance with a look that wavers between pride and apprehension. For 42 years he's operated his Black-owned business, becoming a staple in the community. He's weathered gentrification and various economic trials, but this year is different for Shaw residents.
Perched atop a steep incline, at the center of Wigenton's small vibrant neighborhood is the destination of a long pilgrimage. This place has nurtured Black intellect, activism, and talent for over 150 years. This cultural mecca, Howard University, is known by many names. Still, none is more fitting for its students and alumni than that of "home."
Every year, tens of thousands of its children, along with various Black luminaries and entertainers, convene within Howard's walls for one of the nation's most enduring and iconic celebrations of Blackness: Howard Homecoming.
But for the first time in university history, this year's homecoming was forced to adopt a virtual format in the shadow of COVID-19.
"You know, it was supposed to be a celebration, but it was just left there. It was squandered, Dr. Julie Guyot, a second-generation resident of the Shaw-Howard neighborhood and double-Bison, said. "Isn't it Shakespeare who spoke of lilies that fester smelling far worse than weeds? That's what it felt like to me. Black lilies, festering silently where we had planned for jubilation."
"The pandemic notwithstanding, Homecoming for me is a time of reunion, a renewing of relationship, be it virtual and just a restoring of the spirit that carries me through to another year. [My favorite memory] is my fraternity brothers and I singing around the sundial," said class of '81 alum and member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity, Alan Toles.
For thousands of members of Black Greek letter organizations like Toles, Howard University is hallowed ground. Five of the "divine nine" fraternities and sororities comprising the National Pan-Hellenic Conference were founded at Howard, and members from universities worldwide flock there every year to commemorate the origins of their respective organizations.
In the absence of the large homecoming crowds this year, Wigenton's Guild International, which caters to the Black Greek community at Howard, has struggled.
"Unfortunately, income is not virtual; my belly is not virtual; my bills are not virtual, that says it all right there. In my 42 years, I've run into all kinds of obstacles, but this right here, this is the ultimate," said Wigenton.
The Virtual Yard
The move to a virtual homecoming has not been an easy change for the Historically Black College and University community nationwide as they fight to preserve traditions.
"People are really disappointed that we're not going to actually have a physical homecoming, because that would definitely be what is needed, at this point," said Kathyrn Boxill, who has been the leader of Howard's alumni band since 2001.
Music and Howard Homecoming are nearly synonymous. From countless name-drops by way of artists like Drake and the Notorious B.I.G., to Apple hosting its inaugural Rap Life Live virtual concert series at the university, Howard is a musical hub.
To preserve the sense of community and camaraderie, this year's virtual parade was coordinated by the alumni band.
"It was kind of like, well, let's do something so that people will still be able to get that opportunity to have a good time and forget about what's going on out there in the world for a couple of hours," Boxill said.
On top of the parade, a group of alumni DJs and club promoters developed "Can't Cancel Homecoming," a virtual event series hosted on Twitch, in place of the after-parties traditionally held after the campus events. Howard grad DJ Chubb-E-Swagg, a co-organizer of the yearly events and former tour DJ for the late Nipsey Hussle, broadcast his music mixes live to alumni nationwide.
"Being connected to people is probably the biggest part of homecoming; Restoring connections, rekindling fires, finding out more about people, understanding people, understanding my university," Chubb-E said. I feel like I learn something new every Homecoming. That's something you can't take for granted. I don't care if you went to Howard for a day, or you've got five degrees like you're Wayne Frederick. It means something to you. The bond is irreversible."
See also: In Photos, Black August in the Park
As the majority of the festivities migrated online, so have the various forms of campus and community activism.
Earlier this year Howard made the unprecedented decision to move all undergraduate courses online for the fall semester in response to COVID-19. Howard students who would otherwise be marching in D.C.'s ongoing demonstrations against police violence are almost entirely absent from the city.
Sarah Etienne, a current undergraduate student studying television and film production is currently residing off-campus, and talked about the change to campus life:
"The vibe is definitely different in these Shaw-Howard streets. I mean yeah, the iconic staples are still there: Go-Go music blasting from the MetroPCS store, the grass on the yard keeps its pristine look. But without the students, it's just bleak. However, dog-owners seem very cozy having the campus grounds to themselves. You go through a lot as a Bison, to even become a Bison… But there's hope inside of me that things will get better."
Advocacy as Celebration
Students are doing their part to make sure things do get better despite the difficulties, taking to social media to organize and inform their immediate communities about issues like voter registration and community investment.
Last Bison Standing is a 501(c) nonprofit dedicated to fundraising for scholarships and community activism programs for the university and the surrounding community. Its most recent initiative, a capital campaign named "Bisonopoly," calls for alumni and students to donate funds to buy a property in D.C. Ward 1 that would serve as a community space for D.C. residents and as a headquarters for the alumni-led nonprofit.
But the absence of the abiding and iconic institution that is Howard Homecoming, even if temporary, was felt in waves of disquietude extending far from the bounds of the campus. Under siege by the threats of poverty, gentrification, and public health disparities, the meaning of celebration has had to evolve, becoming all the more acute for the Howard and Shaw communities which represent a microcosm of Black experience. Howard's current president, Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, addressed this reality in his remarks this year.
"I think we have to look at celebration through a different lens, as we look at celebration only through the lens of revelry, but celebration can take on many different forms. This is an opportunity for us to lift each other up. That's a form of celebration. I think we have to participate in our community. And that's part of the celebration that we often don't think about…"