By: Thomas Calhoun Jr.
Recently a UVA student, Jordan Brandon, deemed himself worthy of enlightening Black people on the “big picture” as it pertains to the HBCU vs. PWI debate all the while proving the persistent relevance of the 1933 classic, The Mis-Education of the Negro. Mr. Brandon’s perspective on the “big picture” is [not] shockingly specious at best. The HBCU vs. PWI debate has nothing to do with such superficial issues as “black excellence” or “uplifting one another.” Any half-witted person can clearly see neither brand of higher education has a monopoly on those topics. After all, many examples of the talented tenth, including myself, spent some portion of their educational career at both.
The HBCU vs. PWI debate is, at its core, about something much deeper and more complex than those things yet it can be explained simply by these three concepts: pride, commitment, and economics.
Pride. We HBCU attendees and alumni have an intense connection to the rich history of Black intellectualism and athleticism possessed by each of our institution. Each institution has a unique story like the secret game or the Tuskegee Airmen contributing to the tattered fabric of a race weary society. Yes, we point and clown when we see PWI bands’ feeble attempts at cultural appropriation during halftime at a football game. But as the saying goes, the same thing that makes you laugh will make you cry. And we do, inside, when we watch Black players and students celebrate a blowout victory against an overmatched HBCU team playing with, at times, second-tier talent. In high school, when I was internally debating what’s best for me, I received a valuable word of advice from my dad which was “this is the last time in your life you will ever be in the majority as a Black man.”
Having integrated neighborhoods almost my entire childhood, that was an interesting proposition. So I took his advice and attended Norfolk State University. As I’m sure every other HBCU attendee can attest, I enjoyed learning in peace, i.e. never feeling culturally out of place, discriminated against, or tolerated rather than celebrated. Many of us went from being the only Black person in our classes in high school to lecture halls full of Black math and science majors. That, my friend, is priceless!
Commitment. Like excellence, Black people “uplifting one another” is predicated upon commitment. Success in this area mandates a level of selflessness and cooperation from a critical mass of Black people that the Willie Lynch teachings have made all but impossible. HBCU alumni have an imperfect yet very real dedication to the path laid before us and our continuation thereof. This isn’t to say the only way to show commitment to the Black community is by attending an HBCU. It is to say, it’s a great start! We all sacrificed the plush amenities and inflated starting salaries waiting for us throughout and after our academic careers at a PWI. In exchange for waiting in long lines and forced maneuvering through outdated policies, we have our own club of Black folk who are unapologetically Black and who truly believe that being around other Black folks is what’s best for them. And let’s not forget, we get to celebrate one another’s accomplishments every year at homecoming events made especially for us by us.
Economics. I remember watching #34 for Auburn run up and down the sideline, over and around people in 1983. At seven, I thought he was superhuman. Ironically, I’ve no recollection of watching Jerry Lee Rice put together a historic season just one year later. The reason is because I lived in Virginia and the game wasn’t on television – like all the other HBCU games except the annual Bayou Classic. We HBCU alumni and sympathists are sick of our institutions being given less but expected to do more. We are sick of watching PWI coaches and recruiters come into our communities, take our best athletes by hook or crook, make billions off of them, while offering nothing in return. We are sick of Black entertainers aligning themselves financially with schools who don’t need their money while HBCUs suffer.
Quite frankly, we can’t understand why Black PWI attendees and alumni aren’t sick of it either. Is it a lack of pride? Is it a lack of commitment? Do you not understand the economics of the situation? Or, is it that you just don’t care since it doesn’t affect you individually now that you’ve done what’s best for you? Any Black person in America who has to go to a PWI to become “hyper-aware” of his or her so-called Blackness is badly in need of a Trayvon Martin-sized dose of reality! Here’s the first treatment: in a country built off the blood, sweat, and tears of African slaves, there has never been and [if the Koch brothers have their way] likely never will be a shortage of opportunities to tuck away your pride, shirk your commitment, reallocate your resources, and selfishly do what’s best for you.
I assure you, choosing a college is only the beginning. So take that one piece of wisdom along with a tall glass of Howard homecoming and get some rest. You’re in for a long life. #wahoowa
Thomas Calhoun Jr. is an entrepreneur and investor in Washington, D.C. He earned a Bachelor’s degree from Norfolk State University in 2000 and a Master’s degree from the University of Virginia in 2008.