As far back as I can remember, I have been in close physical proximity to historically black colleges and universities and their culture. Before elementary school, I lived in Gonzales Gardens, a now-demolished plot of government housing in Columbia, South Carolina. Our home was two blocks from two HBCUs: Benedict College and Allen University. In fact, my mother worked in the kitchen of one for a time.
While we would eventually move from those projects to a two-bedroom apartment and then to a three-story home in the suburbs, I would return year after year, month after month to Benedict and Allen for a variety of experiences.
Those moments came rushing back when I watched Beyoncé perform on stage at Coachella this past weekend, with a troop of 100-plus dancers and musicians, many of whom were HBCU alumni, putting the black collegiate experience on display. And I was reminded that I ultimately chose not to attend those schools, and instead set my sights on whiter pastures.
Starting in middle school, I spent time on the campuses of Benedict and Allen when I began to get slotted into academic programs in collaboration with those colleges, such as TRIO’s Upward Bound, which helps first-generation low-income minority students to get into college, and a W.K. Kellogg initiative, which aimed to expose more minority students to public health as a career field.
Those experiences opened my eyes to campus life. Year after year, I attended workshops and service days at these schools, the occasional pep rally and the much-anticipated step shows. In those halls, I was tutored in algebra and English in an effort to keep me ahead of the curriculum at school. In breakout sessions, I was taught about code-switching and how brown people learned to be chameleons, able to fashion ourselves depending on whose spaces we were hoping to navigate. And in the dorms, when I stayed overnight for summer programs, I had frat brothers as resident advisers, gently impressing on me their ideas about how to walk through this world as a black man.
As I watched Beyoncé’s performance, I was reminded of how I had watched the fraternities in awe, my heart always set on joining Alpha Phi Alpha. I was reminded of cheerleaders and majorette squads whose sharp and precise movements would instantly bring out the most genuine smiles of appreciation. I was reminded of the sense of community I felt, being among all those brown bodies. And I was reminded I ultimately chose to attend a non-HBCU institution.
HBCUs have served an important purpose in this country since they began to crop up en masse after the Civil War. They were created to educate black folks. Period. To educate us in ways that are for us, knowing our histories, our cultures and our challenges. Knowing how the world is set up to receive us and to not receive us. And the schools do that. According to the United Negro College Fund, “Controlled comparisons prove that HBCUs outperform non-HBCU institutions in retaining and graduating black students, after accounting for the socioeconomic status and academic preparation of enrolled students.”
But when I was taking the bus from campus to campus on Saturdays through those Upward Bound years, there was the sense that those schools were meant to educate black folks, sure, but black folks who couldn’t get an education otherwise.
“Where are you considering going?” an admissions officer asked me one gray Saturday morning, while on a tour at one of my state’s HBCUs, of which we had 10 in all. I rattled off a few names, all of which were PWIs, or predominately white institutions.
“Mikelle is very smart,” an Upward Bound counselor said.
“I can tell,” the officer replied. He had his hands in his pockets and we were walking a few steps ahead of the rest of the group. “Well, you can’t come here. You’re better than here. Have you thought about Vanderbilt? I have a friend in admissions there. Or the University of Miami?” The fact that I would attend a PWI seemed a foregone conclusion. I was a “smart” one and as such had “better opportunities.”
And so I spent my first year of college at Sewanee: The University of The South and the next three at the University of South Carolina, getting an education that felt like it could have come from any institution. There was nothing distinguishing about my education nor anything that I found to be integral to my life after college. Most of my skills were obtained from getting involved outside of the classroom and from a few internships. And so I wondered, briefly after graduating and again now, why didn’t I go to an HBCU? Pledge the fraternity I’d always dreamed of. Swag surf in the stands of a football game while watching the majorettes doing stand routines.
Why didn’t I go get an education in a place where professors would tell me about the brown bodies that my books forgot or purposely omitted? A place where I didn’t have to write for the opinion section of the paper about the rising racial tensions on campus or tiptoe around respectability politics as I worked my way up through student organizations. Why didn’t I do that?
Because of the prevailing notion that “black” meant bad, marginal or less than. That you got an education at one of those schools because you couldn’t get an education at a regular college. And that as such, the education was simply subpar (regardless of evidence to the contrary). I thought the schools were not worthy of me. When in fact, those spaces were built for me.
In a video interview released by her estate, singer and activist Nina Simone once spoke about blackness in a way that Beyoncé (who sampled the musician’s song “Lilac Wine” in her Coachella performance) seems to have been mirroring for her last few projects.
“To me, we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world, black people,” Simone said. “And I mean that in every sense, outside and inside. And to me, we have a culture that is surpassed by no other civilization but we don’t know anything about it.”
“My job is to somehow make them curious enough or persuade them, by hook or crook, to get more aware of themselves and where they came from and what they are into and what is already there. Just to bring it out,” she continued.
And that’s, in part, what Beyoncé’s Coachella performance has done for me, and was intended to do all along. To cause me to be more aware of myself and my culture. Had I seen that in high school, maybe I would have put a different value on HBCUs. I can only imagine how it might affect a generation of black and brown college applicants, encouraging them to seek out the culture of their ancestors at HBCUs.