The Future of HBCUs Will Be Determined By The Place of Black Women

Twenty-first century historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) stand at the precipice of a hard-fought past and an unknown future. To contend that the future of HBCUs is precarious is an unpopular, though accurate characterization. For all of their more than one and three-quarter century existence, these institutions have served as safe ports amid the storm of prejudice which rages against Black people in the American experience. And in a sociopolitical climate in which many Black people in America are still seeking refuge from a country which has not fully welcomed them, it’s painful to draw attention to the proverbial elephant in the room: nobody who loves these uniquely-missioned institutions wants to be associated with casting gloom, much less spelling doom on them.

Although HBCUs have stood apart on the higher education landscape as places of refuge for Black students and faculty, they remain bound by the same toxic structures that have, for centuries, plagued America as a whole.

Those of us who occupy these spaces inherited a history harnessed on the backs of Black people, most of whose names we will likely never know. But in much of their histories, white missionaries and white legislators are largely credited with establishing HBCUs — all but negating the herculean efforts of the Black folks who made it possible for them to exist and persist, in service to scores of Black students, faculty members, and leaders.

Even so, it’s painfully apparent that, despite presumably operating beyond the confines of a white supremacist structure, HBCUs are bound by the same patriarchal system that binds American society. In kind, most HBCU histories praise men, often at the expense of should-be Black heroines. A few — including Bethune-Cookman University founder Mary McLeod Bethune, feminist Anna Julia Cooper, journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells — are included in some histories, but all are far from household names.

The achievements of these Black women, and others like them, remain hidden from the full view of HBCUs’ overwhelmingly patriarchal cultures. Despite being limited in size and scope by the forces acting upon them, their remarkable achievements remain anomalies in a story that largely centers men as heroes.

Much like its storytelling, HBCU culture is still largely characterized by the commitment of Black people (and, ostensibly, of Black institutions) to upholding the intractable place of patriarchy.

The notion that the future of HBCUs will be determined by the place of Black women is a radical contention for a culture where Black women’s struggles are often served up as sacrificial offerings in deference to the white gaze and as prisoners of Black respectability.

Whether at the presidential mantle, within the ranks of its professorship or amid its student body, how women dress, how women walk, if they smile, and with who and how many persons a woman sleeps remain justifications for the unwillingness of HBCUs to upend toxic masculinity, misogynoir, and gendered respectability politics. These paltry excuses are also offered as legitimate rationales for why HBCUs haven’t deeply aligned with campaigns to end violence — especially sexual violence — against Black women. This practice of patriarchal preoccupation has been costly to Black women, and to all of HBCU culture.

The difficult truth is that men, whether Black or not, are not the only ones invested in patriarchal traditions. A principal reason that patriarchy is so difficult to undo is because many women, including many Black women, are also deeply wedded to sexist ideas. These ideas lend themselves as easily to notions of men as protectors and providers as they do to gender discrimination, wage inequality, and sexual harassment and violence against women.

And yes, this is even true — perhaps especially true — at HBCUs, where Black women are expected to die on the proverbial sword of race-related matters for the sake of all Black men. At HBCUs, conversations about sexual assault are even now, shrouded in the obligation to keep quiet to “protect our brothers.” It was at an HBCU where an unmarried woman president was subjected to contractual mandates about the company she may or may not entertain in the on-campus presidential residence.

Even as the frenzy over the release of Beyoncé’s Homecoming wanes, consumers and creators of HBCU campus culture should be mindful that Mrs. Knowles-Carter’s opus was largely powered by HBCU Greek Life, band, and majorette traditions — all inextricable, insurgent parts of HBCU campus culture. But Beyoncé’s powerful imagery would never pass the very real respectability tests of actual day-to-day HBCU campus culture; this means had she enrolled at her father’s alma mater, Fisk University (as I did in the fall of 1999), it’s unlikely that Beyoncé would be, well, Beyoncé.

In the more than a half-century since their initial formations as a mere feminizations of the male “drum major,” the dynamism of HBCU majorette dance lines persist as much as a fleeting freedom as they do a protest of the lack of freedom Black women have felt in the expressions of their bodies in the HBCU experience. They laugh in the face of respectability politics, which demand that Black women dress, speak, and act “ladylike” all while staying in their “place.” As both consumers and creators of HBCU campus culture, culture-keepers must ask themselves, should HBCUs value the very real Black lives of women on their campuses: Why it is that Black men continue to outpace Black women in campus leadership, from the student government association to tenured professorships and from senior-level administration to the presidential office? Is HBCU support of #MeTooHBCU and the commitment of HBCUs to ending sexual violence against Black women all that it should be? And how is it that in almost 200 years of operation, HBCUs are still laying claim to various female firsts, including the first woman president to first woman drum major? While ceiling breaking is a laudable achievement, the fact that there remains a gendered barrier to Black women’s demonstrations of giftedness in all fields remains troublesome. HBCUs, if they are to survive and thrive, need to harness the limitless potential of every member of their campus communities — especially Black women, who, like Black men, are also very much under attack at HBCUs and beyond. Amid the love fest that Beyoncé and her Homecoming documentary deserve, members of the HBCU community should interrogate whether or not Black women are truly free to offer themselves and the HBCU landscape the kind of innovation and liberation desperately needed for HBCUs to survive and thrive.

About the Author

Crystal A. deGregory is the founder of the HBCUstory and an associate professor of history at Kentucky State University. A historian and storyteller whose research interests include black higher education and college student activism, she is a proud native of The Bahamas and an alumna of Fisk, Tennessee State and Vanderbilt universities.