The journey matters, but not as much as the destination in the quest for HBCU survival.
There are so many wonderful things that attract students to attend a school like Florida A&M University, most of which that matter to 17 and 18 year-olds matter very little to their parents. But one of the things that should matter most to everyone is its most recent example of historically black excellence: alumnus Ibram X. Kendi winning top honors for non-fiction at the National Book Awards for his book ‘Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.’
His book, his award, his speech, his appearance; everything about this video is what matters most about historically black colleges and universities in the 21st century. A 34-year-old dark skinned HBCU graduate with locs can win a national prize for writing a book that tells an uncomfortable truth about America, in courageous support of his people.
This is what HBCUs are designed to do. Not just to nurture students with faculty and students who look like us, not just to place the academically strong and unprepared in a cauldron that yields an elixir ensuring some measure of racial and political democracy for the nation’s underserved. It’s for this exact moment — when a black person with a degree from a black school receives crossover recognition for the work he intended to do by coming to and leaving that black school — to serve black people.
This is the unspoken discussion of racial pride that spurs the tough conversations about HBCUs vs. PWIs, and the brave actions from black students at PWIs to rally against racial threats and marginalization in space never intended for them. Black people are here to do well by, and to serve black people; because the more of us who forfeit this right inevitably subtract from the freedom-earning formula, that sometimes feels like we’ll never get solved unless all of us are all in.
Every dollar we pay in tuition to a white school, every vote we cast for a candidate who doesn’t address or hold a record on black issues of political import, every second of content we watch which denigrates the black experience, and every minute we spend on social media arguing about our pending destruction at the hands of all of these tools, while shrugging off the potential to do anything about it, seemingly, makes us collectively weaker by the second.
So we relish moments like Kendi’s big win, because some of us, inside, hope that everyone who isn’t “woke” or doesn’t “get it” may perhaps get a glimpse of what “woke” really looks like; when all cultural cylinders of head, heart and hand fire in support of black emancipation.
Kendi, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kamala Harris, Hadiyah Nicole-Green — nothing about them says diversity. Not their names, not their noses and not their nuances. So when some suggest that the ‘real world’ is one in which black folks accept the charge of perfecting white context of our blackness in order for our potential to be well received by white audiences in industry and in the streets, we with the countering view understand that their ideas are shaped by the same realities which shape our own, but with varying levels of optimism in the prospect of freedom.
Folks like Sage Steele, Ben Carson and others believe that existential affirmation of blackness will only come from our ability to subjugate that blackness to our American-ness. The alternative? That Americanness, at least where we live, work, play and praise God, only matters when blackness is given the space to flourish in all forms, by our own terms, in our own spaces, and on our time and dime.
Black flourishing is the HBCU; racial pride in the raw. And what we’ve been missing is the contemporary examples of how that flourishing looks in spaces that seemingly, are antithetical to that belief. It’s not being the richest black woman in the world like Oprah, or being the first black president; it is sweetest and most potent when black people with black ideas and black stubbornness break through to matter to people who neither understand or care about any of those things. It’s Clark Atlanta’s Kenya Barris with ‘Black-ish,’ and Howard’s Coates with ‘Between the World and Me.’ It’s Issa Rae with ‘Insecure,’ or Ava DuVernay with ‘13th.’
If you’re wondering why politics have taken over our boards and presidents’ offices, why alumni aren’t giving back in greater numbers, why campuses are closing and dozens more are set to close in the next 3–5 years, and why the first black president could not even force himself to support HBCUs beyond symbolic speeches and appearances, it’s because we’ve lost the ability to channel the fire of flourishing within our graduates. We let too many of them leave dissatisfied with the HBCU experience, searching to attach their ethnic loyalty to a fraternity or sorority, a church, or some other cultural staple as an outlet for their blackness that they can’t express anywhere else.
More than that, we’ve completely warped the public definition of black flourishing within the HBCU context, and allowed it to be replaced by individual notions of success. If one person makes it, that’s black excellence; but the institutions designed to hew black excellence from ‘black maybe’ are designated as outdated, inferior, irrelevant, racial relics.
And to compound it, we’ve in the last 30 years begun celebrating mirages of black flourishing. It is not homecoming, or the battle of the bands. It is not the Mannequin Challenge, and not the dozens of HBCU Twitter accounts chronicling the lewd confessions, selfies, suits and hashtags of a black millennial generation deserving of an identity shaped by strong and authentic racial politics.
It’s not the HBCU websites which avoid substantive critique of a culture that is uniquely in crisis, or even the HBCU presidents and advocates and chancellors who know there is a crisis, and are too politically immersed or socially afraid to do more than shrink from what the crisis requires.
Black flourishing is telling the truth, without regard for earnings or acclaim or white acceptance. And that even if those things come, they are received as a bonus to the original objective of spreading the good news of emancipation.
That’s what Kendi earned. We need a lot more people earning that kind of swag, that way.