The HBCU: Bleaching the Black University

This week, Howard University reported that it has a new Editor-in-chief, a title the university awarded to a woman of Asian descent. As editor-in-chief, this non-black woman of color will assume responsibility for the university’s Magazine.

What stands out most about this appointment is the word “storyteller.”

For centuries, the HBCU has authored a significant page in the black narrative. It has cultivated some of our greatest leaders, teachers, and artists, from Sterling A. Brown, Kwame Ture, and Amiri Baraka, to Francis Cress Wesling. It has become a haven and a home for black thought and offers an unmatched experience for black scholars.

The HBCU is certainly not a perfect space or place and not all of its students select or use the space for the richness of its black legacy. The HBCU does, however, encompasses the great and not-so-great components of blackness, which makes it like a Sutton Griggs, Toni Morrison, or James Baldwin novel—bearing the imperfections of rare beauty.

Howard University has transformed in this last decade. A quick look through the yearbooks of previous classes, present-day Howard University is unrecognizable from its inaugural gaze. The bleaching of the HBCU is certainly not limited to this past decade, as the medical school and graduate programs have been inundated by non-blacks for years. The past decade, however, has seemingly led into this present moment, as has Harvard’s class of 2010, who’s black female graduates now occupy leading roles in black female businesses and media correspondence. I say this to say, that a university’s palette is not without intention. These palettes reflect who this anti-black world will select as the faces of its next wave of supremacy. Moreover, the gentrified university takes on a more hurtful role in that it launches an epistemological attack on a demographic that has worked hard to archive their own history.

Early HBCU graduates like Toni Morrison, reflected on their inability to study black people or topics central to the black experience in the first century of the University’s existence. Scholars like Alain Locke pushed for what the university would actualize on the heels of the civil rights movement.

I say this to say, the role to attain and create an epistemological space for the black scholar and student of black culture and history has not been easy. So to see a non-black person of color enjoy the fruits of anti-black labor and sacrifice is both insult and injury to the people of the black collective. It is an act implemented to bleach black resilience and hard work into an American feat.

This country anchors said “bleaching” in this country’s work to shift the narrative from abduction to migration— a shift epitomized in Alumnae Kamala Harris.

This shift occurs under the guise of inclusiveness and universalizing the American experience. When “we are all immigrants,” America becomes a shared space of opportunity, not stolen land transitioned into a nation by stolen people. America as a shared space of opportunity becomes the premise for the black university bleached in its mutilated portrait of America.

I shared my thoughts on Harris’s nomination and victory— her status as an HBCU graduate a core component of her “diversity”—so, I won’t repeat it here. What I will say is that I feel the same way about Yu’s appointment. Though hardly captured by a colonial language, I will put it this way. The feeling proves commensurate to being buried beneath an anti-black embodiment of our legacy as black people.

Bleachinsg is perhaps the perfect word to encompass this practice: it beard a fetid smell, is painful to be around, and has fatal effects. For example, HBCU students remain an under-funded demographic, a truth that makes watching these institutions pay the African-adjacent that much more insulting and injurous.

Once again, a country that prided itself on the pseudo altruism of “say her name” for slain black women Sandra Bland and BreonnaTaylor continues to be a country where the non-migrant black man or woman is more likely to be murdered than to represent themselves or hone an epistemological space in their narrative.

But, while it’s easy to render criticism in response, allow me to place the interrogative as a collective interrogation and invitation.

The question is: What are you doing to fight the gentrified epistemological role with regard to the black collective?

The invitation, is to use the systemic stones cast against us to rise. Whether that’s applying for positions, attending these schools, creating your own space or platform, or speaking up and out, there are multiple ways for us to resurrect from the countless efforts to put us down.

May the “hurt” they give be as heuristic to us as it was to Nat Turner, Martin Delany, Harriet Tubman, and all the other faceless black ancestors of our past.

They won’t change, but we can.

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