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On any given night of the week, Republic Gardens, U Street’s primary black middle-class night spot, attracts a sizable crowd. But this past Saturday, one of the coldest nights of the year, the line to get into the club snaked almost a block down the street.
Jack Frost, it turned out, never stood a chance against black America’s carnival of excess. Republic Gardens always attracts the best-dressed crowd in the city, and on Saturday, the potential party-goers were decked out in leather and a few furs. Limos periodically pulled up to the club and deposited VIPs at the establishment’s front door.
U Street was logjammed the entire night. Parking spaces were members of an endangered species.
The club’s big night came courtesy of Sean “Puffy” Combs. Earlier that evening, the hiphop sensation had been honored by Howard University with an alumni achievement award. Fittingly, Combs was celebrating his award with an after-party featuring D.C.’s most fabulous.
Combs’ receipt of the award has left some on Howard’s campus in no mood to party. Combs never graduated from the university. Moreover, the apolitical stance of Combs’ music rankles more than a few Howard watchers, given the fact that the very same award once went to novelist Zora Neale Hurston and sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. “Our core values speak to truth and service,” says Jonathan Hutto, undergraduate trustee for Howard. “Those who receive this award should speak to our core values.” Puffy would do a fine job of that if the university decided to introduce a new bitches-and-hos curriculum.
But in an age of tight university wallets, Combs did something Hurston and Frazier could never have done: He presented a $500,000 check to Howarda university that, until recently, struggled with alumni contributions. “We need folks that give like that, and we need millions,” says Howard graduate trustee Randy Short. “We have a lot of people who are bluebloods with their heads in the clouds who won’t give Howard a quarter.”
Still, Hutto says he’s saddened by the award. As he sees it, it’s a case of a university with a long history of political activism and critical thought deciding to fawn at celebrity by nominating a man who brags in one song, “I keep the hos from nation to nation.” Meanwhile, Hutto has been pushing for Howard to name the late civil rights activist Kwame Ture a distinguished alumnus. According to Hutto, that effort is moving slowly, at best.
More than anything, the award is a sign of the times for a university whose main concern is keeping the lights on. Combs may not have graduated, and his lyrics may not exactly be in the tradition of Ture or Frazier, but his phat checkbook renders those points moot. It’s a practical movemaking a banner alumnus for the alleged mecca of black America out of a man who considers having a Mercedes Benz that he “ain’t even drove yet” one of his great achievements.
“I do want people who aspire for the highest ideas to be given reverence,” says Short. “I think his half-million-dollar gift puts him halfway there. I hope that with time he finds the rest of the way.” CP