And nobody should have a problem with that.
Kentucky State University has an obligation to get its money from the places and pockets where its story is most likely to resonate. In America’s heartland, Billy Ray Cyrus is not a bad draw for that cause as country music fans around the nation are celebrating the 25th anniversary of his hit, ‘Achy Breaky Heart.’
He has resonance with those fans, and clearly some allegiance to Kentucky State as a native of the commonwealth. So why wouldn’t Kentucky’s flagship HBCU with an increasingly diverse historically black campus bridge the two realities for its benefit?
In a perfect world for many HBCU advocates, Cyrus heading up philanthropic efforts for one of our schools is a slap in the face of our missions, values, alumni, students, ancestors and likely a few other black folks.
But a bigger slap in the face to all of those groups would be to miss an opportunity for high-level advancement over race, something dangerously sacred in this country but which can be trivialized in a heartbeat when attached to the prospect of money.
One of the dumbest sayings in American cultural lexicon is ‘transcending race.’ The term is usually used to describe the work and acceptance of some uber talented black person, who was not held back by his or her race. In these examples, its not that a black person transcended their identity, it is that society transcended its own biases to appreciate talent and the ways in which it can be monetized.
Predominantly white institutions have been transcending race for decades now – to the tune of billions of dollars from black students who believe in the idea of racial transcendence, and who spend to match the concept.
But every time HBCUs try their hand at this concept, they are attacked by black people for racial betrayal and yearning for a place in the white man’s heart. Sometimes, even fake HBCU experts join in and try to convince us to be less than strategic about advancing our own causes.
We can continue to pretend that more than one out of every ten black students is attending HBCUs, that our trustees will one day leverage their personal wealth and professional connections to help us out, that our alumni have transformational wealth, or that antiquated forms of fundraising will work.
Some of us can pretend to resent white people attending and teaching at HBCUs, while earning our graduate degrees and angling to send our children to PWIs. And we can pretend that we don’t have to broker with racists in the White House and that we’ll make it 150 years being the best-kept secret in higher education.
Or we can call Billy Ray.