Yesterday, the graduating class of Bethune-Cookman University, one of the nation’s more than 100 historically black college and universities (HBCUs) booed United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. And it was magic.
Not the kind of commodified, packaged, Disney-sold magic. I’m talking about the magic of blackness; I’m talking about the strength of generations of women and men of whose names we will never know. I’m talking about standing on the broad shoulders of a people with a will so strong, and a character so tall, that thousands upon thousands of us have not only seen, but now inhabit the mountaintops of all endeavors.
I’m talking about the kind of magic that led fifteenth of seventeen children born to former slaves, Mary McLeod Bethune, to attend Barber-Scotia College (then Scotia Seminary) in Concord, North Carolina from 1888 to 1894. She, like many HBCU students today, depended on scholarships, part-time jobs, and familial sacrifice in order to attend college.
So y’all, I’m talking about the kind of magic that never allowed her to forget her beginnings, and the magic that prompted her to start the Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in Daytona, Florida in 1904 with just $1.50 and six students — five girls aged six to twelve, and her son Albert.
Y’all, I’m talking about black magic, personified.
I’m talking about the magic of HBCU graduates who used their feet and their voices on their day — that’s right, their day — to protest a figure on a platform who does not represent them, their experience, or their interests.
When I graduated from Fisk University in 2003, my speaker was the decorated historian Lerone Bennett Jr. All I can remember of what he said was that he’d called a long-time of black heroes — all men. And from my seat I belted out, “What about the women?”
While I wasn’t threatened by the president with being put out for having done so, I would have gladly welcomed having that as a caveat to a moment that I had gotten what I came for: an education of my mind, my heart, and my hands — or in this case, of my voice.
An institution’s commencement day isn’t just the graduates’ day alone. It belongs also to their families and communities. But let’s be clear: commencement day also belongs to the college. This is why graduates won’t love every commencement speaker.
Still, what Bethune-Cookman University President Edison O. Jackson seemingly lost sight of — when he signed off on Secretary DeVos as keynote speaker, and dug in his proverbial heels despite representative rank-and-file opposition to her being given the university’s most distinguished stage and its highest academic honor — is that a university’s commencement does not belong just to the presidential office either.
President Jackson, in the midst of doing what we all should regard as a very difficult job, lost sight of the primacy of his institution’s mission and the indomitable spirit of Bethune, its famous founder.
It is no secret that Secretary DeVos got off on the wrong foot with HBCUs — and I’m not certain that what she clearly wants to be reversed can be righted. With most hope having waned in the Trump administration’s interest in preserving HBCUs as valuable centers of education and black culture, HBCU students and supporters are not soon to forgive DeVos for her characterization of HBCUs as paradigms of school choice, when in fact, they were founded as a result of the absence of choice, and also because of the omnipresence of racism in the American experience.
The founding of freedmen’s schools-turned-HBCUs in the aftermath of the Civil War spurred the expansion and wider acceptance of public educational opportunities among southern whites, and they forced the creation of the first public educational opportunities for southern blacks, although they remained racially segregated for more than a century. So HBCUs, it could be argued, are really the nation’s paradigms of public education for all. On this, we’ve got to get and keep the story right.
Mary McLeod Bethune once said: “If our people are to fight their way up out of bondage we must arm them with the sword and the shield and the buckler of pride.”
Bethune-Cookman University class of 2017 armed themselves with pettiness, and in turn, made many in the institution, and around the world, very proud.