This year’s BET Awards captured the organic and dynamic nature of blackness. Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson hosted comically, without overreliance on tropes and stereotypes. Smokey Robinson accepted his tribute, and played Great Uncle Smokey, yanking younger artists’ collars for egoism. Janet Jackson re-emerged from her chrysalis as mere mortals, mainly Ciara, did her justice. Bad Boy reunited. Jidenna’s “Classic Man” reminded viewers of the “I am a Man” Memphis sanitation workers strike in the 1960s.
However, for many HBCU alumni, affiliates and advocates, the apex was seeing Tuskegee’s own, “the fly jock” radio host Tom Joyner, awarded for humanitarianism. Joyner is a reminder that HBCUs can and do educate and embolden students. He is also a reminder that HBCUs should be transformative sites instead of cultural safaris.
Joyner, who routinely awards competitive students scholarships to attend HBCUs, advised viewers, “Pull someone up.” He said, “That’s what I believe in. That’s what I do.”
Truthfully, HBCUs cannot afford complacency. HBCUs cannot and should not rest on our laurels, as community colleges, other minority serving institutions and, large and small schools alike compete for applicants.
Much like BET as a network, and hip-hop culture by extension, ebbs and flows, so do perceptions of our schools. Having disparate histories and transitioning people from chattel property into citizens in American society is important. Yet, for HBCUs to remain useful options, those most invested in them must push the envelope and the community.
This means honoring history and heritage, and respecting elders. It means embracing innovation, newer ways of knowing and teaching students how to healthfully, and helpfully, engage democratic society.
This means advancing the humanity of various vulnerable groups. It means recruiting students whose stats empirically help our schools, along with people whose lives would be enriched by the opportunities college affords.
It means providing student-centered services, and employees not being so overly familiar, because of race, that students do not receive professional and personalized guidance from people on payroll solely to provide such.
It means being aware of graduation and retention rates, but also seeing the value in successes that won’t be counted by national averages the same way: like students who transfer, take longer than usual to graduate or otherwise join the HBCU family in non-traditional ways.
HBCU advocacy also means not hustling backwards. So, like, if environments with sizably black and of-color compositions are your personal purgatory, or worse, hell, either improve something, leave or suck it up. It means supporting progressive programs like North Carolina Central University’s global security program, Alabama State’s partnership with the University of Liberia and Bowie State’s STEM center.
Pushing HBCUs forward also means keeping the historically black in historically black colleges and universities, without defaulting to exclusively black American students in an increasingly pluralistic society.
As diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba continue improving, HBCUs can recruit many, largely Afro-Cuban, people with aspirations of American education and deep Diaspora ties as evidenced by art, music and tastes on the island. (I studied abroad there. Save for my Spanglish, it felt like a family reunion.)
HBCUs do commendable outreach to Caribbean and African students, other Latino communities and can expand that pursuit to include South Asians, Arabs and indigenous people, some who identify, and whose histories parallel, with blackness anyway.
Much like the BET Awards addressed the multiple levels of black art and speech in America, HBCUs can continue to address, and improve, domestic disenfranchisement.
All of this means continued work against a climate that positions Detroit police officers to run over black children, state actors to kill unarmed black people and terrorists to target black places of worship. At HBCUs, we see it. We study it. We call it out. We resist.
The HBCU thrust thrives off of authenticity. White female Howard University alumna Rachel Dolezal learned this the hard way. Dolezal sued Howard for reverse racism, lost the suit, moved clear across the country, constructed herself as a tragic mulatto minus the whole black ancestry bit, and waxed on and on about a fallacious black female identity, before being exposed as someone to whom elders would say, “Girl. You a lie.”
Even Dolezal likely saw, in a roundabout way, the kind of wisdom Joyner shared at the BET Awards. Admittedly, everyone is not open to HBCUs. But for the people who are, the HBCU trajectory and options should continue providing value. As Joyner said, “No one should do it better than we can.”