Drake performs at Howard Homecoming

If you’ve never been to a Historically Black College or University — such as Hampton University or Norfolk State — you may not be aware that we’re in the midst of the most important season of the academic year: Homecoming. Homecoming at an HBCU is basically a national holiday that must be observed with the utmost reverence. Whether your school celebrates its homecoming in the fall with football or in February with basketball, the actual game is a mere speed bump in the line of the true weekend activities. And with social events comes a cocktail or two, but why drink what you drank in college? It’s time to up your cocktail game.

For those who have never been to an HBCU homecoming, here’s what you can expect: Band members march with their knees at 90 degrees, playing a remix of an old-school Earth, Wind and Fire song mixed with a new hit by Future. Your band dancers are wearing the same bedazzled body suits they made cool even before pop star Beyonce debuted hers in the famous “Single Ladies” video. The main campus yard has hip-hop artist Drake performing on the stage, and the University’s president is escorting the newly crowned homecoming Mr. and Ms. around campus, introducing them to esteemed alumni, all while fishing for donations. But the premier event is the tailgate, where you can find black Greek fraternities and sororities party-walking while you grill-out with your friends from your freshman-year dorm.

All these descriptions may still be foreign to you, but HBCUs are a cornerstone of the black community. The majority of the 107 HBCUs in the United States were established after the Civil War, but the first two were Cheyney University, established in 1837, and Lincoln University, established in 1854, both in Pennsylvania. Before integration, black Americans attended HBCUs. These institutions have educated thousands of the world’s most successful black doctors, lawyers, government officials, educators, and businessmen and women. Today, HBCUs welcome students of all races but they still serve as a sacred time capsule of black culture.

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The FSU Marching Band During Homecoming“Homecoming is just good for your soul,” says Kelly Mitchell, a Spelman College alumna. “It is an environment where you can be yourself, re-energize and connect with lifelong friends.” At HBCUs, homecoming isn’t just for current students; it’s a reunion for anyone who ever set foot on campus. Schools from around the country, such as Norfolk State, Virginia State and Morgan State, have several events during homecoming week such as a gospel show, a fashion show, a hip-hop concert, and a parade. Mitchell says, “Wine and spirits aren’t necessarily a major focus, but they simply enhance the social atmosphere.” Whether you make it to Howard University’s tailgate or you’re attending Virginia State University’s alumni gala, now that you’ve graduated it’s time to upgrade your drink choice.

Mitchell, who is also a wine consultant based in New York, gave me a few recommendations to take back to my Howard University homecoming festivities this October.

  1. If your first cocktail was an Amaretto Sour or a Long Island Iced Tea you thought you were “adulting,” then you might want to request a Negroni this time as a graduate. A Negroni is a gin-based drink with bitters and vermouth.
  2. In undergrad your party wasn’t popping if there wasn’t a batch of skittles punch or a game of Blue Moon beer pong. Trade those party refreshments in for a Venetian Spritz or a craft beer from the local brewery .
  3. As a working a alumnus who probably has to head back to the office on Monday, throwing back shots of tequila before the President’s Alumni Gala may not be a good idea. Instead, try a Mezcal Paloma. Mezcal is the cousin of tequila with a smokier taste. It’s made with grapefruit juice, your choice of mezcal, and a little soda.
  4. Give your neighbor a high five if you were witnessed drinking the “Infamous Oil” of a Divine Nine fraternity — some strong drink that had you on your behind after one red cup. Today, you have a reputation and a job with a 401K and benefits — blackouts are not OK. If you still want a strong drink but want to wake up in the morning, Mitchell recommends an aged bourbon or Scotch on the rocks.
  5. Finally, were you and your girls the crew that only did things that were exclusive, like drink Relax Riesling or White Zinfandel while watching “Sex in the City” reruns? OK, maybe you do still drink Riesling or enjoy a pale pink wine in your glass. But this time, reach for a 2015 Provence Rose or a dry German Riesling and show everyone your tastes have grown up.

From the southern schools of Morehouse College, Tuskegee University or Xavier University, to the East coast schools of North Carolina A&T or Bowie State College, regardless of where you pull up for the turn up, remember you are no longer a giddy inexperienced drinker. You are now a professional, sophisticated consumer and your cocktail choice must reflect that!