Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Dinizulu Letter: 
Can Howard University and other HBCUs Survive?

 ...This question may be at the very heart of the larger question of what "education" in this nation is, or should be.
[...] I have exchanged many thoughts on this, [...] and the question keeps coming up, like that proverbial bad penny, as indeed it must, until there are satisfactory answers.  One of the most significant recent discussions might have been that "Saving the African American Child" conference which was held in Chicago last October, which went (dare we say "no surprise") in a direction other than what we might have individually and collectively hoped.

It I more than just glib rhetoric, in confronting situations like this, to say that the solution is more about questions than answers.  "In the beginning was the word...":  How we think about things and what we think about them is going to depend largely on the words we use, the presumptions embodied in those words, including cultural connotations and biases, and consequently how we understand and interpret the universe and our place in it.  The analogy of sports or combat reminds us that the victors are usually the ones who can impose their game plan on the situation, and take their opponents out of theirs.  "Name it and Claim it" is very much the name of the language game, which causes us to question (healthfully) what is really meant by "education," the myth of "race," and other American cultural iconic references which have shaped the discourse for decades, if not centuries.

Obviously, I'm not saying anything that we don't already know, only too well if anything, but I am invoking this awareness, this part of our heritage, to revisit this question of HBCUs with fresh eyes, so to speak.  Like everything else in America about "race," the very existence of HBCUs is a double-edged, or should I say double-pointed, legacy, which simultaneously works for and against us. 

"Race" is real for the same reason that money is real and that any number of American cultural artifacts (mental and spiritual as well as physical) are real, which is that reality and relevance, like the power of the mugger who steps out of an alley to change your life, is enforced at gunpoint.  Slavery could only be maintained by the unrelenting threat or actuality of violence.  That is because these things have no basis in natural law or even science (our feeble attempts to discern natural laws).  But, as such, it is a reality: our melanin has been deemed -- by our adversaries -- to be our military uniform in a one-sided war we have not declared, and they decide when hunting season is open.  But it is a reality named and claimed by "them," not "us," and therefore we must be very circumspect in how we embrace, accept, or use it.

In the matter of "education," for example, while we, acknowledging the imposed reality of "racial" separation and segregation, can (and must) fully embrace the wisdom of Dr. Woodson's "The Miseducation of the Negro," we actually know that, with very minor tweakings, his book could have very justifiably been equally called "The Miseducation of America."  Who in America (or in hell, for that matter) can be said to be being "educated" in any kind of functional or effective way if (s)he is being prepared and groomed for participation in (and perpetuation of) an artificially divided, mentally dysfunctional society where unearned and undeserved power and privilege are routinely enforced by ever-present violence, and the unquestioning acceptance of it?

We make no mistake about this: what is masquerading behind the very real psychopathology and quaking fear of the Negro among those who have been successfully programmed to called themselves "white" (an invention belonging to this side of the Atlantic; it did not exist in Europe before), is not just a fear/envy of people who are deemed to be "others," with darker skins, or even with greater sexual potency, but rather a morbid fear of Truth itself, among those who imagine their entire existence hanging on the maintenance of fragile lies and myths. 

That Truth, of which "history has forced, obligated, challenged, and blessed us to be the knowers, keepers, and tellers," is what we brought with us, naked and chained, in the bowels of ships, and have held as a collective patrimony in the violated slave quarters, in the migrant working fields, in the jails and prisons, in churches, in car washes, in sports competition, in movie houses, and in our homes, be they high or lowly, even as some of us have tried mightily to deny and distance ourselves from it.  It walks our streets looking ridiculous with saggin' pants but making its statement.  It stalks our classrooms in the form of disaffection and "acting out," sure markers of individuals to be selected early for the pipeline to prison.  It lifts our spirits every day with remarkable athletic and intellectual achievements and artistic expressions of the deep human soul.  It is, among more things than can ever be described, what Ayi Kweh Armah once referred to as "the zest for life as an end in itself."  To say more about that would be to give up living in the quest for words.

So the question of HBCUs and their survival becomes critical not for the shallower (but nonetheless real) question of how to obtain the resources to maintain physical campuses and to exist as institutions modeled on the American definition of higher academic education, but for the deeper question of the role that they can (and do) play in advancing the knowledge, "the African genius, which was absolutely required to be here, to keep this from becoming a disaster that would have been beyond human imagination," in the words of that Afro-Cuban Yoruba priest years ago, and which, if fact, has been proven by history to have built and saved a nation, at least thus far. 

This is the opposite end of that double-pointed legacy from the one that is pointed at us as a weapon of desperate ignorance, hate, and greed.  This is the point by which we make our positive mark on the earth, to honor Ancestors and guide next and future generations yet unborn.  We know, from our experience, that there is as much to be learned about life from the stereotypical drunk on the corner as from the graduate school classroom.  (Indeed, it is proverbial that even "When the fool speaks, the wise person listens," as many have done to me.)  So what, then, is the specific role of the classroom in this drama, and this agenda, as it might well be called.  (Prof. Marvin Dawkins at the U. of Miami, has suggested replacing the idea of "the African experience in America" with "the African Initiative in America" -- not inconsistent with that Yoruba priest's assessment.) 
Schools, and specifically the HBCUs, have a definite role to play in the education of America and the world, not just of African Americans.  The survival of these institutions depends not on what next clever fundraising ploy might be concocted, or what rich sponsor might be found to provide some erstwhile bailout, or even a lasting endowment (subject, as present endowments are, to financial crises and the like), although those quests and challenges have their place, and in themselves might stimulate our creativity.  Obviously, however, something more viable and sustainable as an ongoing mission and source of inspiration must be found.

I have shared with you all in the past what might be a signpost pointing in the direction to be explored: There are many radical differences between our situation here and that in Bahia, Brazil, but, as wisdom ever reminds us, these pale in comparison to the similarities that unite us, and unite us to "other" peoples as well.  So, we have to take the differences into account as we look at the Ile Aiye school and performing group in the inner-city Liberdade section of Salvador da Bahia:

Brazil has the largest African population outside of Africa, who are mostly concentrated in the northeast, so that Bahia is best known for its Blackness -- even though, as folks are pointedly aware, most of the positions of power and influence are held by non-Blacks.  In the sprit of "lighting a lamp rather than cursing the darkness," we might say, Mae (Mother) Hilda, and her son, known as Vovo, began an effort to revive and build upon traditional African survival skills and community values.  Strangely (but not in light of the power matrix), their first attempt to enter their group into the Carnival celebration was rejected by the judges; it was, by some accounts, "too African."  Their response was not to try-again-next-year or to assimilate more, but rather to establish their own Carnival in Liberdade, which (comparable to the same kind of phenomenon in New Orleans) would become the "real" one in comparison to the more commercial downtown version.

Their efforts morphed into the establishment of a school, which unlike here, is able to accept "only African students," who learn skills from hair plaiting to fabric printing along with their academic subjects, with an emphasis on self-reliance and, perhaps even more importantly, African community values.  To African American eyes it is almost an unbelievable sight to witness the sheer, genuine joy with which these children attend school, and the love, care, and dedication that their teachers very obviously bring to the classroom.  To glance into a classroom and see the only words on the chalkboard being "Unity is Strength" says something powerful. 

It is therefore a bit ironic that Ile Aiye is not known primarily as a school at all, but as a performing arts group that travels the world, thus raising funds and support.  (In fact, one young man there remembered me from his travel to Miami years previously as a 10-year-old with the group for one of Chuck Davis's "Dance Africa" presentations.)  With all this emphasis on self-reliance, the group does not put much stock in grant-writing or "standard" fund-raising, but, after 30 years of persistence and success, found themselves rewarded by generous grants from Petrobras, the national oil company, and the Odebrecht corporation, allowing them to build a brand new complex of classrooms and performance space across the street from their former cramped quarters in a three-story house.  (Another of those notable differences between Brazil and here.) 

I think our own history here shows that the early days of the HBCUs were not very different from that model.  Groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers became legendary as they toured the country and filled auditoriums.  One of Hampton's main buildings was said to have been "sung up" from the ground by a similar effort.   Tuskeegee, and George Washington Carver's role there are legends in themselves, with benefits to the whole nation and the world.  (Peanut butter, anyone?  Mr. Reese?)  Howard is a story unto itself. 

But then, historically, there was that old double point again.  It was certainly wisdom that Hampton was established for both African and Native Americans, but that brought with it some of the same mentality that went into the odious "Indian Boarding Schools."  It is ironic that Howard, with all of its promise for Black students, was named in honor of Gen. O.O. Howard, he of the "Tell General Howard that I know his heart..." in the opening of that powerful speech by Chief Joseph of the (finally) defeated Nez Perce nation (which I still can't read without choking up).  Our gain at the expense of another oppressed people's loss is not our way.

"A people's culture is both a window and a mirror."  It is the lens through which we grasp our knowledge and unique interpretation of the universe.  It is the reflection in which we see and confirm who we are, individually and collectively.  And it is the portal through which others see us and form their own interpretations, informed or otherwise, honest or not.  Quietly, in typical fashion, almost unbeknownst to the people of the United States, the United Nations last year declared the decade of 2013-2022 to be the International Decade for People of African Descent.  This, as you know, is a follow-up to the 2011 International Year, and emanates from the work of the 2001 Durban Conference and the 2009 Durban Review Conference ("Durban II) in Geneva.  I have referred to these initiatives as a global call to the human family to acknowledge that some members of the family have been treated very wrongly for at least the last 500 years, which needs to be made right, but also as a call to global Africans to "show the world what we've got" -- culturally, spiritually, and in every other realm in which we can show ourselves strong.  Obviously, this all includes that gorilla stomping about on the table of humankind called Reparations, which ("They think that we think like they think") means much more than money (which, in the end, might just be irrelevant).

The only people to receive any reparations for the wrongs done to them are those with the power and ability to enforce their claim.  Ours is arguably the last Reparations case ever to be decided, not only because it will ultimately be for the benefit of everyone, not just us, but mainly because, partly for that very reason, it will not follow any of the established guidelines and procedures.  The stereotyped notions of cash in our pockets to take to Wal-Mart or the Cadillac dealership are so far away from such real needs as removal of land mines from Angola, economic justice and environmental repair in the Congo and Niger Delta, healing, healing, healing of "child soldiers" and gang-rape victims, sufferers of the AIDS pandemic, etc., etc., etc., and the building of viable educational institutions that are consistent with traditional values of righteousness ("right with God, right with Nature, right with the rest of Humanity). 

This (re)definition of the Reparations agenda (we ourselves owe reparations to the earth for our erstwhile roles and participation in the violence against her, Truth to be told) is integral to the question of redefining and stabilizing the roles of our HBCUs.  By defining reparation by our own initiative, actions, and example, on our own terms, will take charge of that discourse and determine the scope and nature of what we demand from others.  That is one way to frame the new, viable, sustainable agenda.

With that in mind, we also know that the HBCUs must be dedicated to what the late African scholar Ibrahima Baba Kake called "la popularization" of academic knowledge, so that it is accessible to all, just as the knowledge, insights, and concerns of the working class are readily available and commonly known by scholars.  Obviously, slavery to the student loan industry must be abolished, and other, better, more creative ways of sustaining our university campuses and resources need to be found.  (The new, phony-campus, on-line corporate "universities" might actually be offering a glimpse of what might be -- the equivalent of "virtual tours" and the like, as a possible methodology). 

I have also shared in the past that great insight that was shared by some folks in Haiti, about the way higher education (medical school was the example) does not generally prepare us for work in our neighborhoods, rural areas, or in other environments radically different from, say, hospitals with state-of-the-art gadgets.  We cannot contribute (any more) to the "brain drain."  Our students preparing for law school need to see the value in dedicating themselves to cases like Trayvon Martin's rather than to dreams of making Jaguar car payments. 

More than anything else our HBCUs have to be agents whereby we can "emancipate ourselves from mental slavery."  Slavery has imbued us with deeply negative attitudes toward work, toward the land, toward man-woman, parent-child, and other human relationships, etc.  Schools do not even offer courses in these matters, and "accreditation," that carrot-and-stick by which all higher-ed institutions are driven, does not recognize any such needs.

In summary, what is more than obviously, almost desperately, needed is top-to-bottom reform of what passes for "education" in the USA, for ALL Americans.  But we can't teach what we don't know, and certainly can't teach much if we don't know that overcrowded classrooms and poorly maintained schools don't even allow us to teach what we do know.  Those who know the most and know the best are the ones who need to lead this effort.  The HBCUs, redefined along the lines outlined above, recapturing the kind of energy and purpose that created them in the first place, are arguably the most logical place for the remaking of education in America to begin.
Everything that has ever sustained itself in human history has done so because of a political will for it to do so, even in trying times when the king (or, today, the interests of capitalist greed) and his royal court of parasites has been opposed.  "Where there is a will, there is a way."  By "popularizing" the will, by making the campus more relevant to the community and vice-versa, by daring to make education something "real" -- an oasis in a desert of phoniness and preparation for lifetime flunkyhood -- surely there are those with resources who will see real and permanent value in this, and support it accordingly.

Or is that just wild and naïve hopeful speculation?  The real question is, Do we have the choice?

Thoughts are weclcome.

A luta continua,


1 comment:

Adabu said...

please check out my piece on this, very similar to your insights. Can't find anyone in Tallahassee to even discuss this openly.