In many ways, the upcoming Netflix documentary series ‘Marching Orders’ puts a lot of undue and unfair pressure on the Bethune-Cookman University Marching Wildcats. The band’s stories, it’s determination, and the inside look we may get at life within HBCU marching band culture may temporarily distract from what’s going on with the school, but it will not solve it.
The band and the institution are two separate and unique entities linked by three letters, BCU, and shared intrinsic value to Daytona Beach and the international HBCU community. Many HBCU advocates and supporters are so hungry for positive content about our schools, the series may be a salve to heal, even just for a few hours, the hurt caused by this proud school being in the midst of financial crisis.
Bethune-Cookman’s marching band remains among the largest, most well-respected and innovative bands in the country. If they come to your town and you don’t have at least 150 strong or 25 tubas or some combination of both, your home football crowd will be giving the Wildcats a standing ovation at the end of their show on your home turf.
And the practice and personality that goes into creating such a brand is likely to be on display in ‘Marching Orders,’ just as it was in ‘Drumline,’ ‘Bama’ State Style,’ and a plot line in ‘The Quad.’ The story of HBCU marching bands, despite the backdrop of HBCUs powering black students to high-level careers in all areas of industry, groundbreaking research, and revitalizing work to save black and animal lives, continues to be the best and only story we’re willing to share with a national audience.
But that’s the BCU Marching Wildcats. BCU the institution has lost million of dollars. Its leadership has been in upheaval. It faces several lawsuits from development companies and banks, and has pending litigation against its former president.
Prices for students, including those marching in the band, are increasing. And there seems to be no relief in sight for how a board allowed a president to put an institution in the same financial straits which have all but closed several HBCUs around the country.
Most of us want to be able to separate the two realities of band and institution. It is the same challenge for schools like Southern and FAMU, which while not in the same financial crisis as Bethune-Cookman face similar challenges in the politics and corruption eating away at their leadership infrastructure and profitability while their bands help strengthen the blinders for students and alumni, while camouflaging the work of campus enemies.
We cannot separate the two. If marching bands were the marketing and branding cure for all that ails HBCUs, the sector at large would have more than one out of every 10 black students enrolling in our institutions. If the Marching Wildcats could go on tour like the Fisk Jubilee Singers of generations ago and raise the money to pull Mary’s school out of debt, they would have published the traveling schedule by now.
So we can watch the series, help it to trend on Twitter and make it a feel-good story for the weekend. But that won’t raise the attention or the resources necessary to save this school — which even if it can broker and settle its way out of its bad contracts and lawsuits, will still have big bills, big distrust amongst its core stakeholders, and likely the same old board calling the shots.
But there won’t be a Netflix series to tell the story of how such an important HBCU will survive its darkest hour and an uncertain future.