The HBCU discussion has become a frequent component in many of my current conversations. This is partially in lieu of BET’s new series “The Quad” which issues multiple perspectives regarding the HBCU experience. My HBCU experience is scrutinized for one of two reasons. One, from those who believe that black means inferior, thus are convinced that my skill set reflects said inferiority. The second, and possibly more prevalent, is the scrutiny that accompanies those who attended an HBCU but did not pledge.
I want to begin by saying that attending an HBCU is perhaps the greatest decision I made as an adult. Attending an HBCU was also the very first decision I made as an adult. But I would be remiss if I did not state that I arrived at Howard an outgoing, outspoken, eighteen-year-old who was completely confident in where she wanted to be. I planned on majoring in Political Science, and ultimately attending law school. I planned to join a sorority and meet my husband. The common gaze would say that Howard broke me down, but Howard broke me out of western ideologies and showed me that while the world pressures you to fit in—there is beauty in standing out.
One of the most common criticisms of HBCU’s is that they do not prepare you for the real world. I suppose this comment operates on the premise that white people encompass the real world, and blacks will not get far if they do not know how to interact with whites. This statement also operates in the problematic ideology that school is about finding work, and not about creating work. If the HBCU dynamic succeeds at anything, it proves the black collective as able to render their own education and employment. The HBCU is also inundated with factions and presents immense pressure to find yourself in one of the factions. Perhaps the greatest component of the HBCU is its duality— a social scene that seduces you to belong and a classroom that focuses on those who did not belong. As an English major, my courses acquainted me with those who colored outside the lines of 9-5 employment and other attributes of western convention. If the backdrop of an HBCU proves successful, you’ll value yourself in a way that others deem low self esteem in their acquiesce to conventionality.
On my road to adulthood I attended a few “interest” meetings, none of which encompassed the totality of who I was at the time or who I’ve become. Interestingly, all factions required that I become less of myself to prove worthy of the faction’s membership. I remember attending an event put on by one group and being confronted with sheer condescension until they realized that I had an item of interest. Any query posed received a vague answer that was typically another query that encouraged interested parties to chase them. The exchange was degrading and it not only changed the way I saw the group but the participants. The participants did not appear remarkable any longer. Suddenly they appeared weak and willing to do anything to belong. I recall seeing friends chase down members of factions they wished to join. It was hard for me to see, and even harder for me to accept that their lack of membership was not due to a moment of enlightenment but due to eventual rejection.
I also find it very interesting that the Divine 9—which inconspicuously attaches itself to HBCUs is all in greek letters. At institutions supposedly designed to celebrate blackness, why are these coveted letters Greek and not representative of our indigenous land? Thus, it becomes hard, if not impossible to see acquiring such letters as anything but a journey to acquire whiteness veiled by its presence at a black institution.
The factions function to break individuals down and build you up in their image. An image that although birthed from an HBCU campus, reflects the slave breaking process once inflicted by white slave masters. I have friends who have branding seared into their beautiful black skin, a symbol to their belonging to an “esteemed” group. I have others who cling on to these factions seven years after our departure from the Mecca, factions they hold in higher regard that the lessons of our story rendered by some of the most brilliant minds in North America.
Some may read this post and deem my words as “sour grapes.” This is course in accordance with the contemporary label of “hater” that accompanies anyone who deviates from what most deem “normal.” I assure you, as I have in the past, that while I speak from the limitations of my individualistic self, I reference a collective issue. If all blacks seek to become part of organizations that celebrate ancient white organizations, yet pass it off as black pride— we perform the collective amnesia that keeps us enslaved. If blacks continue to believe that they are better if broken down and built up in someone else’s image, we remain a contemporary manifestation of ideal slave nurtured by traditional America.
These groups also nurture a form of elitism that is not only pseudo but dangerous to the black collective. So many of my peers were deemed largely unremarkable by the general HBCU collective until obtaining greek letters. These letters became their claim to relevancy, their beauty, their intelligence, their popularity. A campus that once deemed them an unremarkable face in a crowd, now gave them a spotlight that would prove prevalent at every homecoming moving forward. I am not saying that heightened self-esteem is a bad thing, but be it Frat or Sorority letters, Jesus, Beyonce, Lebron James or Drake, blacks are continually handed everything and everyone to believe in but themselves. This truth is a means of control and inevitably detrimental.
In I am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin speaks to his inability to find himself in the factions that dominated the black experience in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. This statement spoke to me as the journey of an individual is a lonely one. My inability to fit in spilled into my employment and graduate studies. While it did afford me years of loneliness, I discovered that these feelings only encompassed what I though I was supposed to feel. My inability to fit in enabled me to love myself in a way that I could not if I was too focused on loving other people and things. Furthermore, my experience as an HBCU student showed me that I do not fit in, but I was born to stand out.
I write this post not to be self-congratulatory but to inform those who have a hard time finding a space to belong that there is nothing wrong for you. There is something very wrong with a world in which nurtures individuals to seek conformity. The space to which you belong is any space in which you stand. Some of us fit it and cast greatness onto faction in tune with our gifts. Others simply can not shine in an already established lane and must endure the burden of embodying the new, the original, and creative fold of our formative world.
Furthermore, to commemorate Howard’s 150th Anniversary I wish to express my gratitude. Thank you, Howard for fomenting my journey to self-acceptance. I thank you for not telling me I was special but showing me in what I once saw as rejection.