The picture at the top of the page is of Clark Atlanta University during the freshmen induction ceremony. A record breaking 950 freshmen came to the school this semester, and we're not the only HBCU seeing that kind of growth. We are at the brink of a paradigm shift. All across the country students are racing to HBCUs in record numbers thanks to a combination of movements affirming Blackness and our current political climate Black students are beginning to once again see the value in getting an HBCU education. Now of course, I love this. As an HBCU student and instructor it ensures I have a job and degree, but it also speaks directly to my beliefs. However, as much as I love HBCUs I also realize that this shift can present some problems. The HBCUs in America can really take advantage of their surge in popularity, but there are some things that need to be addressed in order for them to do that, and make sure folks like these 950+ stay at HBCUs.
In the tradition of Sankofa, we must go back to move forward. So let's start with the reason why students going back to HBCUs is such a major thing in the first place. I'm sure anyone with even a cursory (basic) knowledge of the history of race relations will be able to tell you about segregation and how people of color, especially Black people, were shut out of most establishments, including schools. Pre-1954, that is before the Brown v. the Board of Education case, schools were strictly either colored or white. After that, Black students were more or less able to go to whatever school they wanted. Of course they were abused and brutalized for going to the previously all white schools, but for many parents and students the opportunity to attend the well funded schools that the white kids went to was an opportunity they had been waiting for. No longer would they have to share raggedy textbooks in the Black schools, no longer would they have to feel inferior to their white counterparts because they were deemed "not good enough" to attend whatever school they chose. This feeling of inferiority led a lot of parents and kids to feel that since they were kept out of the white schools, they must be better. They felt that they must have to work harder to get the quality education that they were denied, and that being able to be accepted and flourish at one of these schools is the culmination of what Martin marched for.
That line of thinking was passed down. Parents who could've never dreamed of going to a white school did everything they could to give their children that opportunity because they thought it would be better for them. The kids who went to those schools grew up internalizing (accepting) that these schools were better, so they passed that viewpoint on to their kids. And their kids. And their kids and so on. Fast forward to today, we have youth many generations removed from those original integrationist kids who have still heard mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, auntie and uncle telling them that "You gonna get a better education at this school." and "Send them to a private school and tell them to use them folks for what they got!" and of course "You need to be able to work with and connect with the white folks to get ahead."Its definitely anti-Blackness but it almost makes sense. These people want the generation under them to have the greatest opportunities possible, and they truly believe that those opportunities are only available at private schools (the ones mostly attended and run by white folks) and PWIs. That is why it is so so remarkable to have so many people deciding to rebel against their family, friends, school officials, church members, and everybody else to attend an HBCU. Loving Blackness is a revolutionary act, and putting enough trust in it to attend a school founded on Blackness really speaks to the younger generation's love of self.
I ask my students in my first semester English composition classes why they came to this school. In the three semesters I have taught this class at CAU each time and in each class an overwhelming majority of them say that they came because they wanted to learn more about Black people, or that they want to be in a space with other Black people. I know my classes are just a tiny percentage of the students at CAU, let alone at other HBCUs, but I am wiling to bet that most of them would say the same. If our students are coming here to learn and be supported by Blackness, then why not give them what they want? These kids came and come to HBCUs mainly for the unique learning experience (and sometimes the unique fun experience), and HBCUs have to deliver on that. Now I'm not saying everyone gotta wear dashikis and teach from the school of Umar Johnson (and Dear God I hope you don't), but if these students are coming to HBCUs as a result of #BlackLivesMatter, at least teach them about the non-sanitized version of MLK. Do not insult these students: they know what they want, they know what they are supposed to be learning in this space. Give them what they want and need. That's why they came after all.
They also came for resources. One of the biggest problems with these HBCUs growing so quickly is that we unfortunately don't have the resources to support so many students. There are rumors and true stories of HBCU students not having places to stay, not having enough space to take classes, etc. While many call these "growing pains", they can also be very dangerous to the already fragile reputation of HBCUs. Not even the most "woke" of college students could really justify going to a school where they have to sleep in their car, especially if that news is just sprung on them. There are larger structural issues that prevent HBCUs from securing the funds to expand, but what HBCUs do have control over is preparing their students for what to expect. We cannot add to the negative reputation of HBCUs by giving our students false hope or not being realistic with them about what they can expect. More than anything else, that would destroy our reputation.
Reputation is such an important element of pretty much anything today. We live in a world where a lie could be told and spread via social media faster than you can turn on your phone. We saw how the story about that one HBCU student spread. We heard (or can imagine) what that did to people's view of the school, and can only imagine what administration had to do to try to quell that fire. Its hard work. Selling HBCUs to students who are predisposed to hate them is hard work, but one that can be extraordinary rewarding. To be able to tell possible future students how great the HBCU environment is can change worlds and minds. Trust me, I know. Strengthening the reputation of our HBCUs does not mean selling students pipe dreams (there should be no "Silence the Negative" campaigns), but it means being honest with students and putting our strong points first. The desire is there, the desire is growing, and all HBCUs have to do is catch the wave and show that these spaces are ones that are waiting with open arms.
What do you think HBCUs can do to take advantage of their "sudden" increased popularity? Do you think this popularity will last? Leave any comments, questions, and concerns below and don't forget to like, share, and subscribe!