Boo-hoo Betsy: Understanding the Power of the Black Institution

Drake’s “Best I Ever Had” came on via shuffle while I was driving the other day. While to most this song symbols the metamorphosis from Degrassi’s Aubrey Graham to Drake the rapper, for me this song bears an irreplaceable nostalgia. When I hear this song, I think about being twenty-two years old, seated in Howard University’s Burr Gymnasium with my friends weeks before our college graduation. Drake’s “Best I Ever Had” echoes in the gym with nearly everyone singing along. I knew this moment would embed itself into my mind forever, but the reasoning would not become clear until almost a decade later.

I graduated college on May 8, 2010 and approached this day with an unusual contempt. College, an unstated yet mandatory requirement for all my mother’s children, appeared to end just as my adulthood began to sink in. College was bittersweet. It acquainted me a cruel dichotomy– the ugliness of the human spirit and the unexplainable beauty of black intellect. I moved to a new state to where I knew no one and made friends, foes, and everything in between. Howard taught me that the world was not a kind place, but that it was a classroom. Thus, graduation did not make sense because it suggested an ending to what felt like a beginning.

The 2010 graduation ceremony bore this unstated theme of “a new beginning.” Although rumored as long and boring, the ceremony was quick, fun and memorable. Robin Roberts and Hill Harper were our ceremony speakers. Collaboratively, they made the graduating class of lawyers, doctors, dentists, political scientists, writers, philosophers, mathematicians, engineers, thespians and students of life collectively embrace our accomplishments and our budding contribution to the world. They reinforced that this degree was not for us, but for our community. This statement was undeniably powerful, but perhaps more powerful because like us our graduation speakers bore the melanated hue of America’s despised race.

Thus, I say this to say that the students at Bethune Cookman had every right to disprove of their keynote speaker. Bethune Cookman graduates made the news today after graduates booed commencement speaker and the White House Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in her keynote address. The jeering appeared to reach a new height when DeVos spoke of the importance of engaging with those of which you disagree.

The media will predictably spin this story to depict the HBCU graduates as rowdy and unreceptive to  DeVos pseudo “generosity.” However, the conscious minded understand that DeVos’ presence was only to appease her short-sighted and utterly oblivious comments regarding HBCU’s just a few months ago. In these comments  DeVos referenced “choice,” illustrating an ignorance or convenient disregard to the reason for the American historically black college or university. HBCU’s began of course due to the lack of choices available to blacks who sought a collegiate education. On the surface, HBCU’s exist to provide a competitive skillset to those who would otherwise be denied a right to an education. An HBCU education however, is far more invaluable than anyone of the privileged faction could ever fathom.

At an HBCU the black experience is central. So whether you’re taking a course in Kemetian culture, Shakespeare or Astronomy, blackness remains at the forefront. You are not taught white supremacy, with the exception of a few professors who seemingly take this position to throw off the institution’s intention to elevate the black mind from the saturation of western culture. Perhaps most importantly, historically black universities teach you to think. They teach you to read between the lines and to actively engage with the facets of the western world designed to enslave the black mind.  From decoding music, fashion, movies and language, the HBCU is one of the sole places where black bodies gain a platform to unravel western culture and undo the favorable portrait  our enemies pain of themselves into the black subconscious. HBCU’s make it a challenge to hate yourself in a place where blackness is at its most purest and most noble form.

Yes, there are some professors that posses an elitist attitude and seek to make you feel worthless. But for every pseudo professor with a PhD there is a black educator and true intellectual who wishes to raise blacks from an ingrained whiteness to the height of African greatness. Thus, a white speaker, be it Betsy DeVos, or any other member of the oppressive caste is a disgrace to the legacy of black institutions. The purpose of these institutions must remain rooted in not only only providing an education to those who would normally be deprived, but to implement an education that is non-existent elsewhere. If this motive does not remain clear, than the institution should be called a regular university and not an HBCU.

Interestingly, as the jeers became more emphasized, a black faculty member interrupted DeVos’ speech and threatened the graduates stating that if this continued degrees “would be mailed.” This assertion was troubling for the following reasons:

  • most schools mail degrees anyway
  • a black man should not be chastising black freedom of expression: black students should be praised for thinking and not coerced into “what” to think

And finally, the assertion wrongfully paints faculty members or school officials as powerful in school hierarchiery. Power exists at the illusive bottom because if there are no students there is no school. Therefore, if there were no students, there would be no graduation and therefore there would be no need for a graduation speaker. Moreover, if the students had decided to boycott the ceremony, they would silence  DeVos in a powerful move mastered by their oppressors. Instead they experienced a white person telling them how to behave in a white world, an unoriginal experience that will dominate their lives as black people in a white world. A world that perhaps appears overwhelmingly white after emerging from a historically black college or University. Devos robbed Bethune Cookman students of their HBCU experience, an experience Miss Bethune attempted to alleviate when she raised the money to start this institution. For Ms. Bethune knew the white man’s money made you for sale, and in order for education to truly be something that the world cannot take away from blacks, it must remain a product of the black collective.

While undeniably flawed, HBCU’s can very well be a positive component to black life. It was not until being acquainted with the evils of whiteness that I found myself reminiscing about my times at Howard when DC was still somewhat “Chocolate City.” But Howard warned me that these times would come, but I knew that when they did my heart and mind would always have a place at Howard. Despite meeting great mentors and coming into my own as a graduate student across the country, Howard would provide a platform for my personal and intellectual evolvement as it did for my peers and countless others since 1865.

Howard was the best I ever had, and HBCU’s are best we have in terms of academic institutions for higher education.HBCUs are perhaps most invaluable in their ability to enable the black mind to hold hands with our ancestors across time, death and circumstance. So no, Ms. DeVos cannot ruin what blacks have spent hundreds of years creating, but let this ripple in the current be a signal that the tide is coming…

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