The Art of the HBCU Dark Side

Decades from now, books will be written about the life and times of President Barack Obama. Some of those may detail the president’s legacy on historically black colleges, which from nearly all angles will be among the low points of his historic terms as leader of the free world.

His disconnection from HBCU communities, advocates, culture, and policies are very real. They forced the interruption of thousands of students’ educations, cost HBCU millions in tuition revenue, and forced the institutions into an emotional tug of war for HBCU students, graduates and advocates between the schools they love and the president they never thought they would see.

And some of these advocates will point out that HBCUs were not his sole responsibility as POTUS; that healthcare, economics, and war were, justifiably, the common priorities for an uncommon president in uncommon times. They will reject the mentioning of his HBCU shortcomings alongside the symbolism and success of his presidency because to them, it will be an unnecessary chapter added to a story which represents so much more than the measure of his work.

This is the point that presidents and advocates continue to make about BET’s ‘The Quad,’ and about the forthcoming Netflix feature film, ‘Burning Sands,’ which captures in brutal detail the journey of initiates into a fictional Greek fraternity at a fictional HBCU, as imagined by HBCU graduate, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. member and writer/director Gerard McMurray.

“I wanted to tell a story set at a black college,” McMurray told Variety. “I went to an HBCU and I wanted to show the culture of fraternities and sororities. I thought it would be a great time to explore that world and that subject matter… and what it was like to pledge a Black fraternity.

HBCUs, fraternities and sororities, the black church – all of them ran by black folks, all of them flawed, and all of us know it. The same is true for predominantly white colleges, predominantly white fraternities and sororities and churches; and they know it too. But the difference is that their art can reflect the darker sides of their humanity without entire institutions being called into question – by white folks or anyone else.

Narrative matters, and the black artists seeking it as a reliable vehicle to show the whole of black humanity are willing to exchange community anxiety for that mission. It is the same struggle for black journalists who cover crime or politics in black communities, and daily find themselves at intersections of racial preservation and stereotype threat, realizing that no matter what we do or how we cover these issues, there are not enough words to make society view us beyond the perceived frailty of our culture and history.

The movie ‘Goat,’ based upon a 2004 memoir written by a former Clemson University student, has been described as a ‘horrific’ showing of fraternity pledging. Inside Higher Ed covered the movie as a potential vehicle to dissuade students from becoming potential victims of its dangerous rituals.

The hazing depicted in Goat is a far cry from the cheerful debauchery seen in fraternity classics like Animal House and Old School. With its big-name stars and opening to strong reviews, hazing prevention groups are hoping the film is part of a larger change in how people view the darker side of college fraternities.

‘Sweet/Vicious,’ an MTV series centered around vigilante justice for rape survivors on college campuses, has attracted more critical acclaim than viewership, but hasn’t divided PWI communities on the notion of their ability to protect students from sexual assault.

“It’s amazing that all of these different films and television shows are being made, and they’re all so different,” says Sweet/Vicious creator Jennifer Kaytin Robinson. “We’re stepping away from the after-school-special version of this story of being a survivor, and making it more accessible and empowering for women and men.”

Part of this narrative is simply mathematics. There are thousands of PWIs, millions of students who attend them, and so many billions of dollars circulating in, out and around these institutions that television and movies about these communities simply are not enough to jeopardize their business, or worthy of disruption in their media and culture.

This isn’t true for HBCUs. With just over 100 campuses and the majority of their pop cultural resonance attached to Civil Rights leadership and athletic success achieved more than 50 years ago, our attempts to show human complexity with these campuses as a backdrop often does little to illuminate how far we’ve come. In fact, they most often show how much farther we have to go.

This is how we are simultaneously divided about rape, murder and scandal at Georgia A&M and real HBCU leaders meeting with Donald Trump and conservative lawmakers next week. In many respects, both are necessary for improving our institutions and their prospects; but because both have made, and will continue to make us look bad in the spectrum of who we are and who we hope to be, we cannot be on one accord about these issues.

Maybe that’s the devil of racial respectability politics. And maybe these artists are years ahead of their time in showing us how to live and to love all of ourselves, independent of history and the pain and discomfort that our lives carry. But today is not the future, and we have to wonder why so many of the artists with ties to our schools are pushing so hard to tell pieces of a story, instead of the full narrative of our success and failures?

Years from now, President Obama will be protected from the worst parts of his own narrative by the very nature of his position. So what have HBCUs done to disqualify themselves from the same insulation?

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