Over the past few weeks, the U.S. has found itself coming face to face with the reality of its racist past and present. Another young Black life is gone at the hands of someone who was called to protect and serve. Mike Brown’s death is encircled with unanswered questions, frustrations, grief, rage, disappointment, and for some of us who have lived this story far too many times, numbness. Just as people had begun to see the scab form on the wound from the senseless death of Eric Garner, and had thrown away the bandages from the cuts caused by the death of Yvette Smith, the story of Mike Brown came from Ferguson, MO to expose our not yet fully healed selves to the bitter sting of injustice. Mike Brown, just days away from attending college, lost his life in what appears to be an abuse of authority and power. So we are left to wonder, are young African American lives of any value in this country? Do Blacks get a chance to live to their full potential or are they simply fodder to be used and discarded at the whim of those empowered by a country that has yet to fully exemplify the liberty and equality it loudly professes to believe? We don’t know the answers to these questions. But, one thing we can undoubtedly say is that in the United States there has always been one place where young African American lives, minds, and bodies have been and continue to be cherished and that is the HBCU campus.
HBCUs were founded as institutions where Black youth received an education, at a time when most colleges would not let Black students step foot on their campuses—Black students had no value. HBCUs became places where Black youth could be seen as people, as young minds brimming with great potential and brilliance. For many HBCU faculty, these students were seen as extensions of themselves and as having the potential to be great Black intellectuals and leaders that would do well for the race. They were seen as the ones who would help to empower, uplift, and strengthen Black communities. These Black students have always been seen as an asset and never as expendable. Over time, as policies and attitudes began to change and the doors to some historically White institutions (HWIs) opened, sometimes reluctantly so, to Black students, HBCUs were always there as safe havens for those students who did not feel the need to engage with the psychological and often physical danger of integration. During the Civil Rights Movement, HBCUs became hotbeds of unabashed Black pride and political thought. They encouraged students to fight the status quo and demand respect not merely acceptance by Whites. HBCUs’ curriculum, leadership, and environment fostered pride and leadership within their students. These campuses did so not because they saw their students as youth that needed saving, but because they saw them as leaders and beacons of light. They saw their value and they felt compelled to show it to the world.
Today, HBCUs are still places that value African American lives. They are places where young men like Mike Brown can go and his body would not be seen as a threat or a weapon. Rather his body would seen as a home to an open mind waiting to be nourished and supported. These campuses are places where young women like Tarika Wilson are given the resources and opportunities to be great women leaders and not seen only as collateral in the war on Black life. We are not suggesting that HWIs cannot be places that serve Black students well; they can. However, we must consider the ramifications of having one’s worth questioned at an HWIs and the damage that the questioning might do to young Black minds. Do HWIs have the concerns of Blacks at heart? Do HWI campus communities see Blacks as valuable members or just necessary pieces and pawns in a great diversity experiment? An experiment where White people’s desire to break out of their comfort zone trumps the concern for how the diversity experiment makes Black students psychologically and sometimes physically have to walk into danger zones. Are some HWIs places that do not respond to national, local, and campus racial injustices? Do we hold these institutions accountable for their lack of response to injustice or do we give them a pass? Do student groups of color have to fight for space to honor the lives of murdered brothers like Mike Brown while their counterparts who find Blackface a humorous past time receive steady financial support? HBCUs give Black students who are searching for it, something that is beyond monetary value—peace of mind.
Though HBCUs are not perfect, they are places that do not see Blackness as a marker of dismissal. They celebrate Black bodies, invigorate and stimulate Black minds, and do their best to protect and enrich African American lives. They give Black students a space to be unapologetic about the injustices and atrocities this country has done to their people and to them as individuals. They don’t ask Black students to turn their heads to the racism that has looked them in the eye since they became a part of this society. They do not silently affirm that their students’ Black skin is a plausible reason for authorities to use them as target practice. HBCUs give Black students and all who have felt oppressed because of their Brown skin, a place where they can take off their armor and feel free to fight another day – a day that they know, unfortunately, is not promised.
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