I was destined to attend a historically black college or university (HBCU) once my parents met at Delaware State decades ago. Fate resulted in a childhood characterized by religious viewings of A Different World. Aside from sending me on an early quest for my real-life Denise Huxtable, the Cosby Show spinoff helped frame the black college experience that my parents and their friends had long told me about. This made the decision to attend an HBCU simple, especially after dealing with the "too black, not black enough" paradox of growing up in an all-black neighborhood, attending a predominantly white high school, and not fitting perfectly into either environment.
My parents conditioned me to anticipate casual patronization about my decision to attend a black college, so I was war-ready by the age of 18. But what I've learned through the years is that I'm often defending my college experience to other blacks the most vehemently.
Ever since I spent an afternoon on Howard University's Washington, D.C. campus as a high schooler, I knew that's where I was going. Even before I took the SATs, I figured I'd field at least some questions about my motives from my white acquaintances. I was correct, although many of the answers I provided were in response to inquiries asked in jest.
"Julian, do you hate white people now?"
"No, I don't hate white people," I'd say, sarcastically.
"Julian, are you tired of us white folks? Are you trying to escape us?"
"I'll never escape you," I replied, volleying the humor.
I recognized, however, that some moments were teachable opportunities. For example, it was once posed to me that the notion of an "all-black" school was discriminatory. Citing what we had literally just learned in history class, I reminded them of the role that the American Civil War played in this. Prior to that, blacks were largely barred from pursuing an education; this was their opportunity to do so. These institutions born as a result of discrimination were not, in fact, discriminatory, because they admitted white students. They're historically black, not exclusively black.
These conversations were productive, because some people were genuinely unaware. But, even as an adolescent, the discussions were at their most intense and infuriating when I was defending the merits of HBCUs to people who looked like me.
Over a decade has passed, and I still remember the day clearly. A classmate, who had recently adopted a quasi-pro-black stance, said she would never attend an HBCU because she'd "never get a good job." Flummoxed by her contradictory position, I considered reminding her that my parents, both of whom went to an HBCU, were doing a little better than hers, who did not. I held back, deciding that the obnoxious overtones of that statement would overshadow its hard truth. Instead, I echoed a sentiment that had been stressed to me: when recruiters go to job fairs at predominantly white institutions (PWIs), they might not look for you first. The possibility of being completely invisible at a PWI exists, even when you stick out. More importantly, how ridiculous do you sound praising Toni Morrison's writing, I asked my classmate, only to trash the very educational institution that produced her?
So why, years after this eye-opening experience, am I still defending my four years at an HBCU to other blacks? Part of it is ignorance, as some of us simply lack knowledge on the matter. But the more troubling answer is the distinct, foul odor of self-hatred. Some of us are taught by multiple sources—be it our parents, television programming, or something else altogether—that "white is right," and this unhealthy mentality trickles down, internally corroding the black community. In a USA Today article written last spring, students at HBCUs and PWIs broke down this toxic pathology.
"I think people only discredit HBCUs because of how people view blackness," Indiana University-Bloomington's Nakia Williams explained. "So, when you speak of black institutions, people kind of turn their nose up. People automatically elevate PWIs because they're white colleges and there's this idea that a majority-white school is quality."
The lasting effects of slavery have tragically conditioned a subdivision of the black community to think that white guidance is essential to success. Sadly, that's why some black people will complain about the absence of blackness on television, but would almost rather die than give their money to a black-owned business. Worse, while society piledrives the ideology into our brains, parents also press this fallacious gospel upon their offspring. Over the years, I've noticed friends' parents casually cite administrative issues that some HBCUs face as reasons they should be avoided. But this mistaken belief goes much deeper. As Kendrick Lamar says on "The Blacker the Berry" from his new album, To Pimp a Butterfly: "This plot is bigger than me/ It's generational hatred."
Still, everyone who lobs shade at the black college experience doesn't do so deliberately.
During my senior year of high school, I encountered a guy who believed the environment at an HBCU was "unrealistic," because "in the professional world, it's unlikely that all of your co-workers will be black." It was a misguided, though not uncommon, sentiment. My response? That's why you do as many internships as possible—that's where "realistic" professional experience comes from.
I've found that this unconsciously condescending attitude is shared by those who write HBCUs off as party schools. I've engaged in several conversations with other black people who either went to large state schools like Ohio State or private institutions like Georgetown and heard them speak of my alma mater as if it is more reputable for parties than academics. In fact, I recall one particular conversation where a girl, with a smile on her face, insinuated that Howard students are more concerned with material possessions than their GPAs.
"Oh, well you know how Howard is," she said to me, the Howard graduate. "Everyone wants to show out and be seen."
I get it. Many people who aren't in the know are more likely to associate Howard with its star-studded homecoming celebration than any scholastic achievement. To put the event's magnitude into perspective, homecoming famously attracted the likes of the Notorious B.I.G. and Howard product Sean "Diddy" Combs in 1995—and has since seen the likes of Jay Z, Serena Williams, T.I., Drake, and Kanye West partake in the weekend celebration. The assortment of festivities (and inevitable glut of parking tickets) make it an annual cash cow for D.C., and people who never enrolled in a single class at the university flock to the city to participate.
But Howard Homecoming only turned 90 last October, while the university was established in 1867. Studies preceded the festivities, so treating the school like it's inferior outside of opulent partying or, rather, merely the best black school is disrespectful. And anyone who thinks students at Howard (or any HBCU, really) value trivial things over graduating on time have it ass-backwards. If anything, we celebrate with such enthusiasm because we work hard.
There's a false notion hovering above this conversation like one of those menacing drones. It's that HBCU alumni don't like to hear anything negative about our precious alma maters from outsiders. To some extent, that's correct. If you didn't go to Morehouse or Hampton or North Carolina A&T, are you at all qualified to analyze something foreign to you? Even if you have a degree of awareness, it's not your experience to comment on. I took two accounting classes in college, and although I did very well in both, I wouldn't try to tell my friends who are CPAs a damn thing about their profession. That's not a fight I'm remotely equipped to win.
The inclination to guard HBCUs like Fort Knox is driven by a feeling of obligation. They've been erroneously regarded as second-rate since many were founded in post-Civil War America. For over a century, stones have been cast at black education, as well as the very community they were created to serve. In defending it, I, like other HBCU alumni, am defending the non-monetary worth of my education. I'm defending my identity. It's a major problem that I'm still defending it to people with at least the same amount of melanin as me, and that's perhaps even more reason to protect its sanctity.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]