Date: January 2, 2028
My daughter has come to this point. Decision-making time. All applications are in with USC, Howard University and Georgetown leading the way. She is a high school senior and we’re taking a road trip to meet the rest of the family in Myrtle Beach. A Godfather-Boondocks-Wire marathon along interviews with the creators of those shows prevented us from being with the rest of the family; so being me and my daughter being my daughter, we stuck around to watch it and risk the ire of my wife/her mom. Fun stuff. My boy Sparks decided to tag along, largely because he has no life.
“Dad, why do people dog out HBCU’s so much?” she asks.
“My advisors are telling me that it makes little sense for me to attend a HBCU. My grades are too good and it doesn’t provide a real world experience. I should go for the bigger fish, they tell me.”
“What’s a real world experience? Are they implying that black schools can’t educate efficaciously or that the demographics of said schools will be a hindrance?
“Dad! You’re doing it again!”
“My bad. Why exactly are they saying it won’t provide a real world experience?”
My antennas rise and I know what’s next. The HBCU stigma has steadily gained steam over the past 20 years, ever since Barack Obama, now as revered as Martin and Malcolm in the Nubian sectors, honed his educational fangs at Columbia and Harvard. Now, if you’re black and smart, there’s no reason to straightjacket yourself at a HBCU. At least that’s the predominate notion. Sparks, ever the vigilant soul, tunes in from the back seat. He knows better than most the merits and demerits of HBCU’s and HWCU’s: he is a graduate of both FAMU and Georgia Tech.
“Because Dad, in an HBCU there are nothing but black folks. It’s not like that in life. It is important, essential even, that students learn how to succeed in environments that most resemble the real world.”
“Not true. Only in the U.S. where the black man is considered a minority. Internationally, white people are outnumbered.”
“You know what I mean. I don’t plan on going overseas to live, so I have to adapt accordingly…I mean, what is really the difference in numbers anyway? At Tuskegee, the undergraduate enrollment is about 2,500. At Georgetown, there are slightly more than 2,000 African-Americans there. At USC, the number rises to 2,300. Either way, the number of black people in both HBCU’s and large non-HBCU’s are about the same.”
“Where did you get that info from?”
“U.S. News and World Reports.”
“Don’t oversimplify things. Yea, a real-world simulation is what you want. But don’t undersell what a HBCU can give you: empowerment, which is the best spur a person can have. If one does not feel empowered, then one cannot achieve. Even if you’re at Harvard. But at the same time, I felt empowered in school, so I wouldn’t attribute that to an institution. Forget I said that.”
“I don’t want another four years around black folks. I’ve been around them all my life. The folks who cause the most drama…they’re going to HBCU’s. Want to see something different. Is that wrong…because I feel like it’s wrong to feel that way.”
“It’s not wrong. It’s a familiar feeling. But you can’t forget the value that HBCU’s have. At one point, that’s all black folks could…”
“I know, I know…”
“Don’t cut me off.”
“I’m just saying, I know that my great-grandparents and grandparents were schooled at Johnson C. Smith, FAMU and Howard. So were my cousins. It was their best option. But times have changed. The only reason they attended those schools were because they couldn’t go to the Yales. If they could, they would have. You now have top black professionals who came from Ivy League schools and those are the schools that are contacting me the most.”
It’s at this moment where the inevitable has arrived.
“Why didn’t you attend a HBCU?
The question that I have been dreading ever since the onset of this discussion. The writing on the wall was peeped a long time ago. Moments like this is when I regret raising inquisitive children. Moments like this is when I want to call my parents and apologize for all the times I put them on blast with awkward questions. It has come full circle.
So naturally, silence ensues.
“Why didn’t you attend a Historically Black College?”
“I was born and raised, much like you, in a family where full blackness was expressed. African artifacts in the house. Discussions of Black Greek organizations were abound. Walked outside, looked to my left and right and black people walking in and out of their house. Went to elementary, middle and high school and Nubians everywhere. Played baseball…there they were. So socially, I had a big incentive to want to experience something a bit different.
“But the primary reason for college is not to socialize. It is to be educated.”
“Not necessarily true,” blurts Sparks, who was turning blue in the face from his silence. “I’d argue that education cannot happen without socialization, hence making college as much a socialization process as an educational one.”
A moment of profundity was all he needed to continue his Gettysburg Address.
“If you take a random sample of 10 students from FAMU and 10 students from Georgia Tech, you would invariably see that the students from Tech are smarter and better bred for success. But if you were to take the top 10 students from FAMU and the top 10 students from Tech, they are the same. In fact, the students from Fam may be better.”
“How so?” said the incredulous high-school senior.
“At Tech, I was hardly the smartest cat in the room. I would study until 3, 4 in the morning on the daily and still come out making 50’s on the tests. It was crazy. But when it came to being able to communicate and lead group projects, I was the one delegating and being the lead on the powerpoint presentations. How is that?”
“I just read something the other day on that,” I cut in. “Communication skills are the biggest indicator of future success, or so they say.”
“So…do you feel like your communication skills suffered from not going to an HBCU?” she asked.
“No,” I answered. “I feel like me going to a majority white school actually forced me to become assertive. I don’t think I would be as motivated had I gone to an HBCU. Sparks isn’t saying that non-HBCU’s lack communication pedagogical skills…his point is that it doesn’t matter what school you go to, the largest drivers of success are individual drive and the ability to effectively convey your point in a way that resonates with the listener.”
“Yea…that,” chimes Sparks. At this point, it appears that his work is done. He downs his head into Homicide by David Simon. Confident in my quest to quell any more questions from the inquisitive one, I tune my ear to “In a Sentimental Mood” on the radio. My daughter on the other hand, is not as easily satisfied. “So what’s the real reason?”
“Real reason for what?”
“You said that going to a black school would have held you back in a sense. But I find that kind of odd coming from someone who went to public schools around nothing but black folks all his life. How would being around those same people hold you back in college when they got you there in the first place?”
I couldn’t be more irritated, yet proud of my daughter. God forbid the professor who has to deal with her chin-checking wit and curiosity. I take a deep breath.
“I felt that HBCU’s didn’t have the financial or intellectual resources to train me in the way I needed to be trained. The beauty of my upbringing and what I tried to impart into you is that I never felt pressured to go to a black school even though 95% of my immediate family did. I recognized, though subtly at the time, that a sacrifice was made so that me and your aunt could have the opportunity to learn at the best universities…”
“Isn’t Spelman, Morehouse and Howard considered top universities in general?”
“Aren’t Spelman, Morehouse and Howard considered top universities?”
“They are. But they’re viewed as exceptions. I resented the stigma that came with HBCU’s. Truth is, HBCU’s have a real bad perception and I didn’t want to be put in that box. Accreditation issues, bureaucratic nonsense and archaic curriculums are just the start of the lacks. Then when you go to the social aspect of it…I didn’t want a repeat of high school. For the longest time, I felt like an elitist for thinking this way. I mean, if it wasn’t for my upbringing and genealogy, the opportunity to go to Maryland or Emory or Columbia isn’t even an option. After my grandparents received their undergrad degrees, they matriculated into Wake Forest and UNC. This was in the 1960’s. They knew that to truly succeed in a culture in which they are the minority, they had to be privy to the mechanisms of the dominant culture. In this regard, HWCU’s are invaluable. This was the reason I didn’t go to an HBCU.”
“Was it worth it, going to a majority white institution?”
“Yea, because I realized that, as you said earlier, there are copious black people to be found, anywhere you go, unless you go to North Dakota or Wyoming. Black organizations were plentiful and I received the same education that many of the nation’s best minds of all races received, in the same environment. I feel like I got the best of the both worlds. But I was fortunate to go to a school that focused on including minorities in its operations.
“Means a lot. Didn’t you see that word on the SAT?”
“Why do you use words like “copious” and “efficacious” and “pedagogical” in regular conversation? Is that because of the non-black colleges you went to?”
“Naw…contrary to popular opinion, white folks don’t really speak that properly. Another fact gleaned from schooling with other cultures.”
“So you’re saying I shouldn’t go to an HBCU?”
Sparks dropped the book and peered straight at me. My answer was the key between a existential blowup in the car or a safe trip to Myrtle Beach. I take another deep breath.
“That’s not what I’m saying. Don’t fail to consider that HBCU’s hold the largest collection of successful African-American college graduates in the nation… many employers do come to black schools to recruit, because it’s such a large collection of black talent there. You can succeed ANYWHERE you go…it’s about your needs and growth. If you feel that a certain school – black or white – won’t give you what you need, it’s OK to admit so. It’s all about options.
Break in discussion. Enough was said, but somebody wasn’t through.
“You alluded to something earlier, about the schools that are contacting you the most. Ever since 2008 and Obama’s ascendancy, more big universities have been chalking out dough to minorities. Four-year scholarships and massive stipends from these colleges then were as common as cringes at a Beyonce movie.”
I’m then met with a real dubious look. Beyonce just received an Oscar three years ago for “Best Actress” for her portrayal of the tragic-triumphant story of Oprah Winfrey; so as far as baby girl is concerned, Meryl Streep has nothing on her.
“Truth is, black colleges and universities can’t keep up with that kind of “benevolence”. It’s hard to compete with $6 billion dollar endowments and state funding that is more inclined to give their money to more “productive” schools. In times where the majority of the nation is more willing to vote for a black man than a white man to lead their country, HBCU’s were considered more unnecessary. At one point right after O’s inauguration, Wake Forest was even offering free tuition to MBA minority students. On the heels of Obama’s campaign, Harvard was even paying for low-income high school students’ tuition and room and board.
“This isn’t to say that Obama had white people curious about the negro intellect and how many future Obamas they could crank out if given equal resources,” Sparks added, without looking up. “Not to say that at all. Merely coincidence.”
Sparks and baby girl then shoot each other knowing, furtive glances before dropping their head in their respective tomes. She says nothing else. She probably made her college decision at that moment. She would spend a lifetime figuring out why.