A few years ago, there was an email in pretty heavy rotation that should’ve tickled the funny bone of anybody with at least a little sense of humor and experience as a student at a historically Black college or university. It started “You Know You Went to an HBCU If…,” and fired off a litany of hotmessness that most of us who survived four years of undergrad at any one of those 105 fine institutions could relate to, understand and chuckle about—now. Wasn’t so funny back when you were waiting in three-hour-long registration lines just to discover that you had a tragic $1,800 balance and 3 days to cough it up, or when you had to run an offensive play in order to get to the showers before the hot water in your dorm ran out. Not funny then. But now that there are a few years between us and those administrative fracases and facilities fallouts, that email list was actually pretty hilarious.
What also made those 60 odd observations so entertaining was the fact that, whether you went to North Carolina A&T or Del State, Howard or Grambling, Tuskegee or Lincoln, you could identify with at least half, if not more, of the things that that anonymous author highlighted from Any Negro Campus, USA. It proved that the HBCU experience sho nuff has some universal components that are shared across state lines and school thresholds. By the time I lay my nerdy tail down for my final breaths, I will have graduated from three—count ‘em, three—historically Black colleges, so I consider myself a firsthand expert and a ride or die, ra-ra cheerleader for their value, their merit and their importance as not just places where you rack up good memories and thousands of dollars in student loan debt. HBCUs are homes away from home that nurture their students through that weird, awkward, I’m-almost-grown-but-I-still-need-some-direction stage of life.
But more and more frequently, I hear my people knocking Black schools in some kind of “I have arrived” snobbiness, and it never ceases to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. Public institutions integrated just a shade under 60 years ago—and that’s only because they were forced to do so after the victory of Brown vs. Board of Ed. Some of us have gotten so sididdy in our newfound mixed company that we forget just one itty bitty generation ago, Stanford wasn’t sniffing around for the best and brightest in young, Black minds. Neither was Georgetown. Or Ohio State. And certainly not University of Alabama, where Gov. George Wallace physically thrust his body against the doors to prevent Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood from entering despite a federal order that gave them license to integrate the institution’s classrooms.
Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t capitalize on the sacrifices laid down by our forebears so we can take advantage of academic programs and specialized offerings available at mainstream institutions. I mean, it would be pretty pointless not to now. In the process of becoming a flock of multi-degreed hipster scholars, however, we ain’t got no business turning up our noses up at the Black schools that educated, prepped and nurtured us since the 1800s and we surely shouldn’t play a hand in perpetuating blanket conclusions about them like:
1) They’re party schools. Let’s be clear: barring Mormon institutions and anything with “seminary” in the title, you put some kids between the ages of 18-21 on a campus with dormitories, no parents, minimal adult supervision and a few fake IDs and sweetheart, you got yourself a party school. Black, white, red, yellow or indigo blue—it’s the age, it’s the mindset, it’s the hormones but it’s darn sure not just the institution. If you’re committed to getting an education, you’ll get it. If you’re committed to finding out how many glasses of Que punch it takes before your face is plastered against the ceramic floor in the girls’ bathroom, you can find that out too. Black colleges are only saddled with the reputation of being party schools because they’re—for the most part—smaller than institutions like a University of Maryland or a Penn State, who spread their party hardy ways across multiple satellite locations and big, sprawling campuses. But trust: they gets it in, too.
2) They don’t teach you how to operate around white folks. This one baffles me every time I hear it. When did you get your first lessons on how to talk to and act around “others”? My family made me hip to code switching, behavior modification and the social expectations of acting proper pretty early in life. It’s one of the many hand-me-down dualities of being Black in America. So if somebody is just learning those African-American life skills when they get to college, they’re already late, no matter what school they go to. I don’t know about you, fellow HBCU graduates, but my knees don’t knock and my tongue don’t tie up when I’m sitting across from Brett or Becky in any setting. I can communicate my thoughts, ideas, concepts, theories and questions just fine.
Under the tutelage of my lil’ Black school, I mastered the basic principles of knocking out a killer interview or delivering a presentation in a crowded boardroom, learned how to work the hell out of a networking opportunity—and talk to anybody from any background with the same easiness I have when I’m chatting with Peaches and Peanut around the way. Folks who raise this question are giving white folks too much credit, as far as I’m concerned. Are they really so complex and intimidating that you need a four-year academic immersion to learn how to interact with them in a corporate setting? Matter of fact, unless you’re getting a degree in international business, white schools don’t groom you to do business specifically with Asians or Europeans, who are just as integral a part of the business world.
3) They’re underresourced. Oh, on the contrary: don’t nobody but nobody teach you how to think on your feet like an HBCU. You just don’t come out of four years of duking it out in financial aid, besting technological issues and still be able to earn yourself a 3.0 GPA to graduate with honors without knowing how to maximize your resources. True to African-American convention, HBCUs teach their progeny how to make something great out of something that, to the outside observer, may not be all that amazing. Because they don’t have the endowment and alumni financial support of a Brown or a Temple University, most can’t afford top-of-the-line anything when it comes to technology. They sure won’t be handing out brand spankin’ new iPads on the first day of freshman orientation nor will they have the latest and greatest in touch screen this, that or the other, but the quality of education?
Priceless. (Unless you count those student loans, of course). And that, after all, is the ultimate resource that draws folks to school in the first place.