By: Imani J. Jackson
Black people in America cope with everything from daily race-based micro-aggressions to police officers killing us with impunity. These realities lead some young people to seek schools that do not hyper-police blackness or seek to eliminate black people altogether — environments that normalize the African Diaspora. So, it isn’t surprising that several HBCUs are reporting freshmen enrollment surges. Even students who started their educational journeys in other environments, like predominantly white institutions (PWIs), are transferring to HBCUs too. But, the question remains: will attending HBCUs to escape persecution at PWIs do enough to protect students from other forms of exclusion and oppression?
These increases in enrollment could cause HBCU advocates, alumni and allies to expect a national family reunion of sorts. This could be the ultimate time to flood the yards – our street adjacent campus meeting spots. We could reserve business lunches in the “cafs” – our dining halls. We could wear matching shirts at that special hill, spot or tree where our fore-folks congregated. We could book flights for every upcoming homecoming, spring festival, Black Greek Letter Organization picnic or affinity group meet-up. Obligatory love and promises to protect each other from outsiders could linger like the new shoe smell or aerosol oil sheen. But, we need HBCU advocates, administrators, faculty, and students to push back against more than racism alone.
For too long, HBCUs have made patriarchy and othering as traditional as booming bands and finessing dance formations. Transferring to or enrolling at an HBCU isn’t enough to change that.
HBCUs can, and do, serve as what Dillard University president, Dr. Walter Kimbrough, called “the original safe spaces.” So as HBCUs celebrate all that black institutions do well, we should also expect them to improve. We should resist the “no-snitching” sentiments that would have black people unite against white supremacy while ignoring gender hierarchies and enforcing the expectation that black people’s identities should always fit neatly into a box.
Despite black women making up the majority of HBCU student populations, HBCUs remain male-privileged spaces with regard to “pay and position,” according to University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education researchers Marybeth Gasman, Ufuoma Abiola and Ashley Freeman for the Higher Education Review. HBCUs should not privilege heterosexual black men with the highest status in the campus community at the expense of other identities, namely women. This means acknowledging the ways that toxic masculinity and rape culture intersect to make male-driven public spaces especially violent against black women. Hetero-normative patriarchy can include extremes like Moya Bailey named with misogynoir, the hatred of black women. Patriarchy can also include opposition to intersectionality, the intersecting links of oppression as applied to black women.
This means we should be celebrating positive news like Florida A&M University’s ascent to the number 1 spot for public HBCUs and the number seven spot for best HBCUs, while working against the male-centric culture set to erase FAMU’s historic first woman president, Dr. Elmira Mangum. Y’know, the same Dr. Mangum who led the university to more acclaim?
This means respecting institutional hierarchies and selection processes, such that the next Dr. Mangum is not expected to acquiesce to male board of trustee members needlessly babysitting her tenure. Real progress would have meant honoring the students’ support for their president and renewal of her contract. Instead, consistent tumult led to an agreement for Dr. Mangum’s exit from the position.
HBCUs should focus more on institutional deliverables than women’s personal lives. If they did, they might avoid having another female HBCU president forced to adhere to the so-called “love-clause” in Alabama State University President Dr. Gwendolyn Boyd’s contract. One can only wonder whether male presidents would be expected not to “cohabitate with any person” who is a romantic interest so long as they remain unmarried.
HBCUs should coexist with and willfully include black queer populations. They should reconcile the fact that some campus community members adhere to “traditional” Christian faith and tenets, and others find those ways of life alien.
Just as diverse physical manifestations of blackness are included (i.e. everybody from light-bright-darn-near-white Creoles to seeming blue-black people of uninterrupted Sub-Saharan African ancestry), diverse gender identifications, gender expressions, romantic attractions and romantic connections should be welcomed en masse – not merely tolerated, like seasonal allergies. HBCUs should remember that differences in life experiences and identities are not signs of anarchy. Rather, they are precisely what makes the African Diaspora so beautiful.
Personally, I know two young black men who recently graduated from solid high schools with selective credentials. Both are socially conscious. Both identify as gay. Neither chose an HBCU. Both acknowledged their desires not to deal with the burden of homophobia in black spaces like HBCUs. The issue is not that the schools need these two young men to continue their legacies. Instead, it is that our spaces should be more inclusive so that more promising people like them might “buy black” with their educations.
Clearly, predominantly white college campuses are not immune from these problems. We remember the unrest at the University of Missouri, with complaints of cotton balls distributed outside of the Black Culture Center, racial slur graffiti and reported pickup truck riders taunting a black student. We remember the feces Swastika. We remember Emma Sulkowicz carrying a mattress as protest of Columbia University’s handling of her accused rapist and her safety after reporting the assault. Higher education, in general, needs work on intersectional issues. We know that part of white supremacy is actively painting black aberrance as fundamentally more flawed because mainstream culture teaches that black people are inherently worse than everyone else.
Admittedly, HBCUs have always cultivated progressive minds and demonstrated a commitment to moving society from how it is to how it should be. Spelman College not only suspended a Bill Cosby endowed professorship, they terminated the opportunity amidst mounting evidence of Cosby’s habitual sexual assaults. Despite a $2 million donation to Central State University, the school covered up Cosby’s name on one of its campus buildings. But these individual instances won’t change the culture of othering so many HBCU campuses thrive upon.
For those involved with or committed to HBCU sustainability and development, we can no longer claim de facto “woke” status while minimizing the humanity of so many in our own community. Our rising enrollment tide should lift all campus community members’ boats. Failure to do so could leave the appearance of normalcy, but like dry drowning, prove terribly dangerous.
Imani J. Jackson, a policy adviser and journalist, is a proud Grambling State University and Florida A&M University College of Law graduate.