By Jarrett L. Carter, HBCU Digest
Living black history and learning it are two very different propositions with two invaluable outcomes, HBCU faculty and students say. But as the nation kicks off its annual celebration of Black History month the two propositions suddenly go head to head.
Do HBCUs, given their history and mission, need to celebrate Black History month?
“We shouldn't have to promote black history, but we all should want to,” said Dr. Edna Greene Medford, Professor and Chair of Howard University’s Department of History. “We don’t neglect other history, but we're well aware of our role in developing American society and the global culture.”
Several professors and deans at historically black colleges and universities are opting to integrate black history into the HBCU experience, but not through remembrance of heroes and role models past. Instead, by shaping the black history figures of tomorrow. Most of their work is done out of personal obligation, and because they believe some of today’s HBCU students don’t have the kind of connection with black history that they should, a connection that extends beyond familiar names like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriett Tubman and Malcom X.
Dr. Medford, whose expertise focuses include Abraham Lincoln and the black American experience post-Civil War, says that the challenge of promoting black history, even on a black college campus, is in getting students to appreciate its value by understanding their role within it. One of her courses, African-American History to 1877, has in recent years struggled to attract more than 30 students at the Mecca for historically black higher education.
“At Howard, we are very much focused on Diaspora studies, study of people of African descent is a major part of the campus. Every student gets the experience of people of color. Many students say they want more, and say they want to learn more about black history, but they may not be taking advantage of it or may believe that the opportunities aren’t there.”
Hampton University history professor Robert Watson says that students coming into HBCUs are missing vital information on black history, and that disconnect reaches back far beyond their time as students.
“Since integration, black students coming into black colleges come in with a limited scope of black history. Some of the names we used to hear all of the time, like Booker T. Washington, they know little more than his name. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and many others, they don’t even know about.” In Chicago, a recent investigation revealed that some public schools may not be teaching black history at all.
Watson says he feels a personal obligation to infuse black history into his curriculum, even beyond what is already naturally presented, commonly discussing topics and people that are critical to building awareness around black contributions to the country and the world.
“For me, it’s a mission. Being a black school does not automatically generate a sense of black history in students. Black history isn't always a 'feel good' history. We have to teach the truth, and when we do that, it encourages students to seek more of the truth.”
That truth is usually folded intricately into lessons and lectures across most majors. In literature, for example, black college students are taught Countee Cullen and August Wilson alongside Chaucer and Shakespeare. In engineering and architecture, lessons on city planning, design and sustainability are couched with talks on innovation benefiting urban sectors with a high density of minority citizens.
For Dr. Chance Glenn, Dean of the College of Engineering, Technology and Physical Sciences at Alabama A&M University, black history is more about showing students how to make history instead of memorizing it.
“We have the capability to make history at any time. Those blessed to work within science and tech fields have the capability and the responsibility to make history about what they do and create. How do you know who the next George Washington Carver is? Are they sitting in the classroom right now?”
AAMU will soon host Dr. Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker and holder of several patents in alternative and thermoelectric energy. Dr. Glenn says that Dr. Johnson, a Tuskegee University graduate, is an example of how HBCUs bring visionary people to serve as living examples of black history to students, even beyond what Black History month celebrations can deliver.
“We are the living embodiment of black history,” says Dr. Glenn. “We wouldn’t be able to have these things without being able to stand on the shoulders of giants who have paved the way. Looking forward, we can be the next example for students who will look at us and say, ‘I can be a dean, I can work with Boeing.’ We can perpetuate the future by doing more than reciting history’s names, but by being the living examples of the history that is here and the history that is to come.”
While most black colleges hold great prestige for the actions of former students in early demonstrations and desegregation efforts -- such as Miss Albany State College 1961, Annette Jones, who was jailed, suspended and forced to give up her crown amid protests over civil rights -- some HBCU's identity in the movement is a complicated one. Over the years, many schools like Albany State, who eventually returned Jones' crown in 2010, and Alabama State, who reinstated nine students expelled for off-campus protesting 50 years prior, have worked to make amends with those they dismissed.
More than 50 years since the rise of those students’ advocacy in the civil rights movement, history-making headway continues among HBCU students and young alumni in battles for social, economic and environmental justice.
In 2011, students from the Atlanta University Center (Morehouse, Spelman and Clark Atlanta) joined students from public HBCUs Albany State University and Savannah State University in demonstrations against the execution of Troy Davis. In 2012, Howard University captured national headlines in its viral campaign to raise awareness about the murder of Trayvon Martin. Students from Maryland’s four public HBCUs are continuing a campaign that has covered more than four years and a historic lawsuit to secure equitable funding from the state government to make the schools comparable to predominantly white institutions.
Each of those student groups and efforts had no published record of opposition from administration at their schools, showing just how far the prospect of making black history has evolved. And as a result, stories and advocacy opportunities like these are the kind of black history moments HBCU students have come to expect in their living and learning campus experience.
“It's always important to promote black history and Black History month. But, it doesn't have to occur in isolation. Since black history is world history and American history, everyone can always afford to learn more, even the HBCU community,” said Imani Jackson, a journalist and first-year student at Florida A&M University’s College of Law. “With that said, HBCU academia is uniquely qualified because of our history to share black history in an all-encompassing way. Our schools tend to share counter-narratives and have prominent black perspectives embedded in the curriculum.”
Many students look to their HBCUs to offer more than instruction or discussion honoring Black History month, but programming that builds individual service agendas in students. Mark Landry, a junior political science major at Hampton, is chair of the university’s Black History month committee, and says that serving to commemorate the month is a privilege in honoring those who paved the way for his learning experience.
“I know I need to step up, and not just stand around. I need to make sure I'm honoring and representing our leaders well. I stand on the idea that it's not about one man reaching success, but the whole community reaching success," he said.
HBCUs with iconic moments in black history, in particular, take great lengths to advance knowledge and reverence for the month. At North Carolina A&T State University, for instance, home to students who organized one of the nation’s first lunch counter sit-ins, the university offers several elective and general education courses on the university’s role in the movement, along with year-round activities celebrating black history and cultural achievements.
“There are several courses throughout the University on Africana subjects in the humanities and elsewhere," notes Dr. Conchita Ndege, Professor in the NCA&T Department of History and Chair of the university’s Africana Committee and A&T History Project. "A&T still does have other Black History month events or lectures too. But many other black history or arts events are held during the year.”
But Landry adds that it is up to HBCU students to take the initiative on how much they learn during Black History month and beyond, and to incorporate history’s lessons into their lives.
“[History lessons] are what we stand on all the time. Without them we would be in the same segregated era. This month should be a passion to remember those who came before us and to honor the quality members of society who are still working to improve our race."