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Speak Not In Mournful Numbers

It’s Black history month. You know what that means: elementary classrooms all across this nation of ours will be inculcating in the impressionable youth names like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Park, Marcus Garvey, and Thurgood Marshall. A diverse group of talented individuals that make up approximately 13% of the country will be reduced to a trading card game of notable figures. No doubt at some point a White person on Twitter will ask why there isn’t a White History month to which I might respond THIS  guy just won a Grammy each for Best Rap Song, Best Rap Album, and Best Rap performance. Deal.

It’s not just because it’s February that I am writing for the blog again. I’ve been busy. Like studying for the Bar exam busy. But I wanted to take a short break from prepping for that test because of an article that just appeared in the New York Times today. You can read it yourself here, and then meet me back on the site for my thoughts.

Right. So. My thoughts. Ummmm. Yeah. The article is couched in the context of Howard University. A pillar of Washington, D.C. if ever there was one. But the article seems to use that school as a springboard for the greater discussion of the continuing relevance of Historically Black Colleges. How they have defined themselves in the past and what they must do going forward to continue their mission to educate Black people. But this article focuses on Howard, I think, because of its position amongst HBCUs. Viewing Howard as the canary in the coal mine of sorts to ask the hard questions and show the sobering statistics of historically black institutions.

Not pictured: Hillman College

Let me be the first to say that I have reached an exasperation point with this discussion. I went to Morehouse College. I am as proud of my HBCU as anyone can be. It was the place that made me the man I am today. I owe an incalculable debt to the brothers, faculty, staff, and administrators that helped me grow from the tall tee-wearing child I was when I moved in on that sweltering August day in 2006 into the soon-to-be lawyer I am now. And that’s just it. That’s the qualm I have with articles like this one in the New York Times. It makes it seem as if the value of an HBCU is measurable solely in the admittance rate, or six- or four-year graduation rate. Or endowment size. Or number of PhDs or MDs they yield. In a manner of speaking . . . it aint that simple.

HBCUs to me, and to many, many others I have spoken to in my years living in Washington, D.C. and in my travels, are a unique place where a Black person can feel truly free. To be sure, the number one job of ANY school is to prepare its students for the world of productive employment. Instill knowledge and graduate them. Mission One. Period. HOWEVER, HBCUs were never, and should never, have be too locked into a simple by-the-numbers measurement of their value to a student, and to society.

For example, I had the occasion once of dining at the President’s house while at Morehouse. My brothers and I were received warmly by Dr. and Mrs. Franklin. At dinner, President Franklin moved the discussion to our desires for the school. What we thought it was now, and where we wanted it to go. But at one point, then Provost Jackson remarked about his time at Morehouse. And how Morehouse took a chance on him when many other schools would not have. He genuinely felt that but for Morehouse reaching low to select him, he might never had traveled beyond his humble beginnings. THAT is the value that HBCUs do and must have while still managing to educate African Americans for a modern society.

Far too often schools pride themselves on selectivity. The admissions portal on just about any flagship state institution or Ivy touts the number of applicants it gets every year and the chosen few who get admitted. And while picking among the best will surely raise the prestige of the institution, we must ask ourselves, what mission do HBCUs have that other schools might not? What raison d’être have HBCUs had from their very creation that has made them the special place they are now?  Why were they necessary in the 1860s and necessary now? In short . . . because SLAVERY. Like the recent SNL skit, we need HBCUs like we need this here Black History month.

From their earliest days in church basements, before new dorms, and state-of-the-art facilities, and fried chicken Wednesdays, and lush campuses, and computer labs and step shows and homecomings, Historically Black Colleges were about taking the least of these, people who hadn’t even been considered people for very long, and giving them hope to make it in a world that treated them as chattel. Can you imagine? Last year your master could have sold you to the highest bidder in the 1865 version of Craiglist, then all of a sudden this year you were free. You’d never read before because it was illegal for you to do so and now you were expected to thrive in a culture that scorned you? Who was there for you? Who recognized the vast potential in the dark-face masses set loose upon this great nation? HBCUs.

“He felt his poverty; without a cent, without a home, without land, tools, or savings, he had entered into competition with rich, landed, skilled neighbors. To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”

Yes, the world has changed much since then. Blacks aren’t barred from attending PWIs. Has this lead to a brain drain from HBCUs, you bet that can of Murray’s hair pomade under your Auntie’s bathroom sink it has. But may students choose HBCUs for reasons other than graduation rates or “prestige.” Many choose them because of deep family histories at the institutions. Many saw Bill Cosby wear sweaters with names like Morehouse, and Howard, and Fisk, and Hampton, and FAMU, and Bethune Cookman and wondered where those places were. They saw movies like School Daze and thought “that’s what we wanna be.”

Still others did the research and knew the less-than stellar stats. A student looking at the top five HBCUs according to US News now would see the following six-year graduation rates:

Spelman College: 73%

Morehouse College: 56%

Howard University: 65%

Fisk University: 54%

Tuskegee University: 34%

Three of the top five don’t even graduate 60% of their students in six years and one of the top five barely graduates a third of its students. As the Times article notes, endowments are much smaller. Facilities much older. Curricula less diverse and shrinking due to cost overruns. Why on Earth would student applying for the class of 2018 choose an HBCU?

History, tradition, fellowship, culture, acceptance, brotherhood, sisterhood, a sense of belonging, pride, that’s why.

Sure, these are the intangibles, the immeasurable, the touchy-feelies of colleges that HBCU grads often tout as the selling point but they cannot be overemphasized in my opinion.

Am I biased? FUCK YEAH I am biased and I have a right to be. I am proud. Proud of my HBCU and its mission to educate Black males. I’m proud it took a group of men who largely had never been told they were worth anything outside of an athletic or entertainment context and told them they could be doctors, lawyers, CEOs, engineers, mathematicians, filmmakers and philosopher, surgeons and stylists, bankers and brokers and whatever-the-hell-elses they wanted to be. My HBCU told me I could travel the world.

I’ll tell ya’ll something personal: I didn’t get into a single other school I applied to when I was sending out my applications back in 2005 and 2006. Not a one. I owe literally all that I have become to my HBCU like the Provost at dinner and like hundreds of thousands of other Blacks throughout this nation.

I can’t put a price on my experience. I struggle often to qualify and quantify it. Do HBCUs face a struggle many other schools do not in this modern age? Short answer: “Yes.” Long answer: “Hell Yes.” Must they diversify and cut costs and curricula and figure out a way to make a way out of no way? They did it for that first class of freed slaves and they can do it again.

So speak not in mournful numbers. “Aint nothing new under the sun” as your country granny might say. The odds have been stacked against HBCUs. In the words of the immortal big homie OG Han Solo:

“Never Tell Me The Odds.”

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