I didn’t go to Mills just because it was the only MFA program to accept my application. I loved Oakland. The idyllic campus, 135 pristine acres of East Oakland territory, appealed to me twofold, for its beauty and for the city that surrounded it, the greatest second city in all of America. More to the point, being one of maybe two or three Black men on a private-college campus (I had never attended a private school in my life) in the heart of the Blackest city west of Chicago appealed to my sense of the absurd.
Now that Mills College has announced its transition from a degree-granting institution into an as-yet-nebulous Mills Institute, effective 2023, I find myself thinking a lot about 2003. That’s when I arrived at Mills as a 22-year-old.
“They won’t coddle you,” a professor at my undergrad university had told me when I’d first decided I would pursue an MFA. I was not independently wealthy, and I knew that the ROI on an MFA was unlikely to make me financially comfortable, never mind coddled. But I was born a writer, so if there was a program out there that would have me, I figured I could hide out for a while and learn something about structure and craft and briefly escape my descent into adult America.
Then there was the fact that Mills was a women’s college that accepted men only into its graduate programs. I was aware of the student protests of the 1990s to keep men out. “There will be girls who march past you with raised fists and cuss you out for being the Man,” a friend warned. I wish I could say that I had a Twitter-ready social justice comeback for that, but in reality in 2003, I didn’t care. I was going to Mills to become a novelist, and everything about Mills was novel to me.
If I had gone elsewhere for my MFA, or if I had waited until I was older to pursue graduate study, I would have had a different, probably less formative experience. But I chose Mills straight out of undergrad, so the college is unique and indelible for me: It was on that campus that I listened to Victor LaValle, barely 30 years old himself at the time, read an essay about touring Iceland. Victor was a writer in residence, on leave from his life in Brooklyn, and everybody was there, a standing-room-only audience of students hanging on his every syllable. I remember thinking that I had never seen a mere writer hold so many young people so spellbound, a Black man from Brooklyn by way of Iceland, no less.
By attending Mills, I made myself a double minority: Black and male at Mills. Where before my racial being had led to my profiling by police and peers, at Mills being a minority meant something else, even if campus security was still called seven consecutive Saturday mornings to come monitor me and the Black male high school student whom I tutored in the campus’s open-air quad. Meanwhile, in classes that were otherwise exclusively female, I saw how much freer women were with the male presence reduced to a minimum, that minimum being me. And though only a couple of years prior I might have thought first about how much more marginalized this would make me, instead the experience opened my spirit, compelling me to think of other people first, their needs, their space of security. This was excellent for my future as a fiction writer, because fiction is not memoir, is not a ceaseless explanation of the self, but the exploration of a society.
By that very fact, that novelistic untethering from the self, I saw more than I ever would have if Mills were merely my memoir. Instead, the society of Mills opened me to full-throated progressive politics in all its forms, to a true left wing that America circa 2003 had no dollars for. Mills introduced me to Marlon Riggs’s Oakland and Paris Is Burning and un-normed sexuality and gender, theorizing an America that only now is coming into being.
Mills being a quintessential American experiment, its fine arts programs challenged ideas of what art is. In a creative writing seminar, instead of rehearsing the basics of what’s at stake and narrative momentum, Micheline Aharonian Marcom exposed us to the uncategorizable experiments of Clarice Lispector, William T. Vollmann, William H. Gass, and Bessie Head. I learned what language poetry was, spending an entire week on two words of Hamlet in Stephen Ratcliffe’s Shakespeare class. I got to know great writers—Laleh Khadivi, Carolina De Robertis, Marc Anthony Richardson. For a regional college that has never boasted top-tier national rankings, Mills has punched well above its weight in novels out of its MFA program.
“I can’t believe you went there,” the same professor who had recommended Mills to me said to me years later. I reminded her that she was the person—the only person—who’d suggested I apply to the college. “Wow.” She laughed.
It’s usually better to laugh than cry, but now that Mills College as such is closing, me and other Millsies are doing both. Mills alum Congresswoman Barbara Lee has decried the transition. But the campus, which has been closed for over a year owing to COVID restrictions, already feels inert, its grounds blocked, its lights turned out, like a person who would rather pass quietly in peace than in public view. Some alums are organizing last-ditch fundraising to keep Mills College a college. Hopefully, this will come to something, though the campus administration, the architects of the closure, seem committed to the death spiral. I will put my dollars behind all last-ditch efforts, no matter how hopeless, because the point of Mills, like art itself, is not ROI in dollars, but its beating heart and all the willful hearts it’s havened, however briefly.