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Black Colleges Should Be Black

by Lester Kenyatta Spence <> [bio]

Howard University, one of the best Historically Black College and Universities ("HBCUs"), has recently fallen on economic hard times and as a result, has had to fire or lay off more than 400 workers. In the wake of this incident, I thought it would be beneficial to begin a dialogue on the nature of education, and how "Black" colleges fit into the picture. More to the point, I want to ask the question, "What makes a Black school Black?"

The history of HBCUs are tied to slavery and Reconstruction. The first schools were created for the purpose of training and educating freemen, and those schools which were formed after Reconstruction (such as Tuskegee Institute) were based on this model. Some of these schools were started by Black men and women, whereas some of them were started by self-described "progressive" Whites. Since their inception, literally millions of Black people have become doctors, lawyers, and businessmen through these institutions, and even now when the legal barriers to White institutions have been lifted, many people continue to go to schools such as Howard, Hampton, and Clark-Atlanta, to receive their education.

However, all this information and history notwithstanding, is it correct to actually refer to these schools as being "Black?" The conception of Blackness I wish to consider here is one that ties into notions of culture, and consciousness. In some ways this is genetic or biological, in that one of the ways that culture is transmitted is from mother to child, but in other ways it refers to modes of behavior. Now I recognize that there are problems with this conception, as it can easily degenerate into questions like "Who are you to tell me what Blackness is and what it isn't." However, as I am sure that we can all agree to disagree when it comes to the specifics, we can all agree on the general notion that for the most part, we recognize that a Black community exists and that we desire to see it improved.

So how does this relate to the concept of "Black" schools? Imagine the following scenario. Clarence Thomas University is attended by Blacks, taught by Blacks, and run by Blacks, with one catch--in order to attend, teach, or be an administrator, you have to take an oath supporting European Chauvinism.

Is Clarence Thomas University a Black school? According to the definition I've used, I'd have to say no. In my opinion, in order to qualify schools such as Howard and Hampton as being "Black," something about them must be qualitatively different than their counterparts, different as far as structure, and different as far as educational purpose in order to address the unique problems that our communities face. Analyzing these notions one by one, I think that you'll find that it can be argued that, although these schools may fulfill some purpose, they do not qualify as being Black.

Take for instance the conception of public education. The purpose of public education in the United States has not been so much to inform, but to socialize individuals in such a way that they become model citizens of the state. We don't learn to be on time, to listen to our teachers, and to memorize inconsequential information in order to be well-informed, but to be good workers. This is not necessarily a bad thing, unless the people and institutions that we work for do not benefit our communities.

Higher educational institutions such as the University of Michigan, or Harvard University, are usually perceived of as different from regular public education, because individuals are expected to learn critical thinking skills which will help them to modify their environment for the better. This doesn't happen that often though. For the most part, the reason that people attend these schools is to get a job working for someone else. Which goes back to the point I made above. What type of job? What type of employer? Where is the job located? Usually the job is one that benefits specific individuals (as far as raising their income). But can we say that this benefits communities? There are already a large number of us who have received undergraduate and post-graduate degrees from institutions like Howard, Hampton, and Michigan, but most scholars realize that the Black community is no better than it was in the fifties. An example might help flesh this point out better.

Take John Doe. He has attended Duke University and received a Ph.D. in Physiology. How does this help Inkster, Michigan, the Black town he grew up in? Inkster has no labs in which he can work, no schools in which he can further educate others. Actually, upon further analysis we can see how John's degree in Physiology can definitely hurt Inkster--he had to leave Inkster to get his degree in the first place, and after he receives his degree he is not going to be able to come back. Some people may argue that individuals should have a right to leave his or her community and not come back. I don't disagree, but when I refer to community I mean not just to Inkster in this case, but all the other places like Inkster where John Doe would have "family." The only places that would be open to John in this scenario would be places with other Black people like him--people with a certain amount of status, and a certain amount of income. These places usually have little to no connection with places like Inkster--places where large numbers of us live and die.

Traditionally the term education referred to the process by which you were taught to work in and for your community, but that term is used in a different sense here in the States. This is truly illuminated by a question we all hear while we are in college: "So who you going to work for when you get out?"

Granted, at this time you may be saying, "well why are you going to school?" This is actually a good question. I do believe that, with the proper amount of counter-education, it is possible to perform services for our community--there are too many examples of other individuals doing this to name here. However I also believe that because of its inherent problems, we really should be highly critical of the grand benefits of education that commercials and "role models" advertise.

Can it actually be said that the schools we refer to as "Black" are any different from their White counterparts, at least as far as their conception of education goes? Although schools such as Howard and Hampton probably have a higher graduation rate for Blacks than schools such as Wayne State, or Eastern Michigan, does this actually mean anything, if the educational purpose for both sets of institutions is to give people the skills to be able to go out and work for white people?

One possible counter-argument is that many Black businesses and institutions were started because of these schools, institutions which have had a beneficial effect on our communities. This is actually a good argument, but there is a problem. Have these institutions been created because of Black schools, or in spite of them? Looking at Black fraternities for example, it is interesting to note that the same number of major fraternities were formed at Black schools (2), as White schools (2). In the case of the fraternity [I am a member of Omega Psi Phi--started at Howard University], I know that it began in spite of rather than because of or with the aid or Howard University [Howard officials actively worked to dissolve the organization when it first started because of its radical potential]. Unless the number of "in spite ofs" outweigh the "because ofs," this argument falls flat on its face. With the institution of racial integration in the middle-fifties, I see a drop off in the number of "because ofs."

Looking at the structures of these schools, I can't see much difference. Both sets of institutions have similar majors, similar curriculums, and similar grading systems. Although there will be minor differences between schools, I can be pretty sure that if I met a Political Science major from Florida A&M University ("FAMU"), I would know, within certain parameters, what courses the student took. In fact, if I met a student from FAMU who majored in something totally unrelated to my field, such as biostatistics, I could be pretty sure that the class was structured in a similar way (probably a certain number of labs, a certain number of lectures, run by one person, with a certain number of tests given throughout the semester, with a letter grade as the final result) as classes at Michigan (where I attend school). The principle reason is that the model most "modern" universities and colleges follow was established at Gottingen University in Germany in the early 1700's--the same place where the scientific basis for European Chauvinism was created.

The Gottingen model has been criticized by many scholars for emphasizing:

  1. compartmentalization,
  2. individual work based on competition,
  3. the emphasis of objective knowledge, and
  4. the separation of knower from the known.

These are the trademarks of what some authors refer to as a "White Supremacist" structure. Now, I can see a difference between Black and White schools as far as the teaching staff goes, and I do think that this is important. There is definitely value in seeing people who look like you in positions of power, and positions of intellectual excellence. How much of a value is this though, if they aren't counter-educating you-- teaching you to work for your community, building institutions?

It has been established that the definition of "education" isn't that different, and that the model of the university itself isn't that different either. So what do we have left? What is it that makes a school "Black?" Although the example of Clarence Thomas University (which, again, I don't think is a Black school) is an extreme one, many of the schools that we refer to as being "Black" are not all that different.

At this point let me say that I am not making an argument to dismantle schools such as Howard and Hampton. I have visited several of these schools and know that they are definitely more alive than their counterparts. However what I am arguing for is a more critical understanding of those "Black" institutions that are supposedly substantially different from the White ones that continue to subjugate our communities, and demonize us as people. A critical understanding which will hopefully lead to either, a) restructuring these institutions so that they may better fit their titles, or b) the creation of entirely new institutions which will serve as a model for other communities. I think these institutions could learn a lot from the many Black grade schools and high schools that exist--schools that are qualitatively different from other schools in that they emphasize self-determination, cooperation, and collective responsibility, as well as African and African-American history.

In order to give props where it is due, I suggest that readers unfamiliar with this argument read Carter G. Woodson's work, The Miseducation of the Negro. After I re-read this piece, I realized that much of what I've said here had been influenced by reading Woodson's work long ago.

Lester Kenyatta Spence is a third year graduate student from Detroit, Michigan, studying Political Science at the University of Michigan. Although labels such as liberal, conservative, left or right don't fit, if he were to apply any label to himself he would refer to himself as a "traditionalist." (Ask him what he means.) His long-range goals include starting a Traditional foundation/think-tank, writing, publishing, and helping his wife to start her own school. His interests include playing basketball, chess, listening to jazz, house, and Detroit techno (according to him there ain't no other kind), as well as reading and writing. [back]

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Meanderings 2.01 -- January 1995