I have a few writing rules.
I do not write when I am angry and I do not write about HBCUs.
The former may go without saying the but the latter really flummoxes people. I am a graduate of an HBCU. I’m a third generation HBCU graduate. I study higher education. I study race and inequality. And I do not talk about HBCUs.
There became a point when the scope of my readership meant that what I write is often read through me. Intellectually, I go for the truth as close as I can approximate it and ethically, rigorously argue it. I fear that those two things may be in conflict. And I care too much to let that happen. So, I do not talk about HBCUs.
Except today I am talking at an HBCU. It is my HBCU. I am delivering the annual Mason-Sekora lecture. I am an oddball choice. I don’t really “do” anything of note. I’m not much accomplished if we’re still measuring that by having a job (I ain’t got no job, Craig). But, here I am. And I am happy to be here. There’s something about a moment in your life when you come full circle, only with new eyes and a greater capacity for appreciation.
Here is the text on which my address will be based. I do not read so it may deviate in person, as well it should. But, herein is the only thing I am, so far in this life, willing to say on the record about historically black colleges and universities.
I am truly honored to be delivering this year’s Mason-Sekora lecture. I am honored and surprised. If you knew how much money I owed in parking fines when I slipped out of here with a degree in political science and english, you would be just as surprised. But, dear ol’ NCC has seen fit to invite me home to the rolling hills and verdant green. And to quote Ms. Sophia, I am home.
It is an auspicious time for me to be here when the whole world seems to be debating our very existence. So I want to come out clearly, at the start, that I’ve got a dog in this fight: I live, work, and embody the HBCU mission. There isn’t a skill I use in the course of my writing or research that isn’t germane to my matriculation. The formal logic I learned here still orders my style of argumentation; the literature I was steeped in burrows into my academic writing; and the challenges I witnessed as a student here shapes how I live my commitment to education as a human right. When you see my career — to the extent that it is whatever it is — you are looking at a walking, talking, writing, hellraising historically black college mission in action. Do not ever let the smooth taste fool you.
When Dr. Wymer extended this invitation it was with a bit of hesitation about how I would pull it off. Or, rather, there was some concern about what, precisely, I might pull off. That is because I am a sociologist but my training here was in political science and english. I am a doctoral candidate without a real job, really. I conduct research on for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix and Everest and ITT. They are not you. I write and am sometimes published in the NY Times and Mother Jones and I give interviews at NPR and with Dan Rather on occasion. But, I am no one of real consequence. I recently sold a book about the tens of dozens of students, teachers, administrators and politicians that work and learn in expensive for-profit schools. But, my little book isn’t going to put me in the league with the greats you read here: Langston, Hurston, Morrison and DuBois.
In short, I am a work in progress doing work that doesn’t appear to have much in common with you, this place, or even with each other. Maybe it’s an HBCU thing, but for me it is clear what holds my hodgepodge of scholarship, writing, and publishing together. In every endeavor I am after what is and what isn’t. That is, in education, politics, culture and life I want to see what I am not supposed to see.
I learned how to do that here. Everything about our education at NCCU was about finding ourselves in texts, histories, stories, futures where we were not written and were not expected to be. It is really what HBCUs were founded to do, what they have done better than any other system of higher learning in the history of the United States (and with a fraction of the financial support and recognition, I might add). There are fancier universities. Trust me, I know them well. My expertise is in higher education and inequality. To understand either you have to understand places like Harvard, Princeton and Yale. And so I know their history. I know that almost all of the U.S Presidents have been produced by a handful of colleges. I know those hallowed halls of learning have endowments measured in billions and a historical debt to the labor of enslaved peoples. I know these places. I even speak at them sometime.
To be clear, training elite sons and daughters to read for histories of privileged people, places, and knowledge — or what they can clearly see in their lives and their campuses — is a special kind of prestigious educational feat. But it is a different, more noble business to educate native sons and daughters that still fight to safely walk public streets with hooded sweatshirts or vote without suspicion. To teach them to read for what has been written in official knowledge with invisible ink, all while trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents — well, that is nigh on miraculous.
The humanities and social sciences at hbcus have historically paid the higher education version of a black tax. They were charged with acquiring the formal knowledge of the ruling classes while simultaneously producing the knowledge of their own lives, histories, and ways of knowing. Indeed, DuBois’ famous invocation of the double-consciousness — the ever-present two-ness — of being black while being American is the institutional imperative of hbcus. They were called to be better and best; to achieve while overcoming. To pull off this remarkable feat, every facet of education at hbcus has to do double-duty. Sociologists talk about the formal curriculum — what we say we’re teaching — and the hidden curriculum — the transmission of what is “normal” through what we teach, how we teach and what we do not teach.
The fundamental brilliance of historically black colleges is that they taught the formal curriculum, the hidden curriculum, and a counter curriculum! It was not as perfect as some would demand or as revolutionary as others would have liked, but the very nature of that criticism is possible because HBCUs re-inscribed black thought and humanity in every single course of every single discipline. American literature was also African history when we watched Haile Gerima’s “Sankofa”. The film dramatizes the slave trade, tying black modernity to african history. We read America – theirs and ours — through the imagery, soundtrack, and narrative. Public speaking class was also black rhetorics. We did not just learn to perform speaking, we learned to value speech and speechifying as an oral tradition with political possibilities. My final presentation drew on the rhetorics of the black power movement, although Mrs. Forte told me that, yes, bad boys move in silence and violence but my all black one-piece catsuit may have detracted from my message. And the sciences! Let us not forget the building block of STEM which, as I learned during the genetics lesson in bio 2, was a historical tool to rationalize the natural inferiority of people who looked like me. It was in the slave narratives of Equiano and Charles Ball that the apotheosis of my intellectual life was forged. In my ancestors’ stories, nothing figured as prominently as their desire to know. To learn, to master the master’s language was to begin to reassemble their humanity in a hostile world. I took away that in any endeavor, any discipline — from literature to math to sociology — there is a kind of power in learning the tools that had once erased me that I might reassemble myself and people like me. The masters tools may never dismantle his house but they can help you climb your way out of its cellar.
So, that, to me, is the work that I do.
How I do it varies but the tools, the approach, the translation of power that I learned here — that is constant.
What does that look like? Well, take my core doctoral research — the work for which I am most often called upon. I am sitting around one day, like many of you, and I see a commercial. It’s some guy yelling at me to “get off my couch!” and…anyone heard this one? Start college today. Now, the Dean or financial aid folks at Central were known to get baptist revival loud on occasion, but I had never heard of someone yelling at me through the TV about going to college. That seemed strange. Suddenly, the ads seemed to be everywhere. I didn’t need to just get off my couch, I needed to rise like a phoenix, follow my dreams, do homework on the train, write a paper with a baby on my hip, call now, start today and enjoy a rewarding career tomorrow. These were ads for what a few researchers call for-profit colleges. They’re expensive. The drop out rate is awfully high. Consequently, People — capital “P” for powerful people — started asking questions about them. The official line of questions — like formal official knowledge — was that the problem was about debt and fraud and taxpayer money. Only, I am trained to see what I’m supposed to see — e.g. science — and what I’m not supposed to see — e.g. scientific racism. I’m from an HBCU. So, I see these ads, these data, this inquiry and I ask who is present and who is missing. All those ads — well, you tell me. Who do you most often see in them? I saw a lot of people that looked like me, going to college there instead of NCCU. And I wanted to know why.
And again, I know about missing stories in the archives. I don’t want to start where everyone else was starting, at the top of the prestige food chain. I wanted to talk to the people in these schools. More importantly, I wanted to talk with them and not at them. For about a year and a half now I have interviewed men and women, black and white, who are in for-profit colleges. They heard the commercials, the same ones we heard, but they actually called. When I ask them why they tell me about sociological processes that are historical, that show up in literature, math, science and rhetorics at HBCUs. They tell me about needing a degree so that employers, family, friends, landlords and suitors don’t treat them like a chickenhead. They tell me about pursuing an education to be in the will of God. They tell me that as high as the tuition is, the cost of not resisting how the world would define them if they didn’t get up off the couch is too high. I write their stories. They call it research, which is fine by me. It’s mostly close reading for what is said and what is unsaid. Now when the Official Black Mother, Claire Huxtable is the official voice of the University of Phoenix I’m there, close reading it against these histories that the official knowledge would leave unrecorded.
Similarly, in my other life I once wrote a thing about Miley Cyrus. Bless my heart. Never write a thing about Miley Cyrus unless you forever want to be the person who wrote a thing about Miley Cyrus. I saw Miley Cyrus at the American Music Awards. Miley is in her black phase. The daughter of a superstar musician (goddaughter to Dolly Parton), raised in Tennessee, has decided she is hood. She was performing her flattened version of blackness at the AMAs. She slapped the behinds of the sistas keeping the actual beat behind her. She gyrated and unleashed her faux blackness against a back drop of actual black bodies and I immediately began close reading. Who was there? Who was absent? Who had a voice and who was silent? And I wrote an essay about the economic value of upholding white female beauty ideals and the cultural capital of doing it while playing at blackness. The article went viral and was republished. It came up on NPR and MSNBC. It’s now being taught in classrooms from Princeton to the University of Kentucky. And as of a couple of weeks ago it joins another essay I wrote — a close read of poverty and status symbols like hot shoes and bags — in a textbook from Oxford University Press. That essay has gone places that someone like me was never meant to go.
I may not make much sense, as a formal curriculum of research, writing, and public speaking. But, I’m from an HBCU. Like the history that produced our institutions, I come from a people who live sociology. We know structure, constraints, conflict, and class because when your life is about swimming upstream, you get to know the ocean hella well. I was, quite literally, born to do this…and so are you. That is the great secret of an HBCU education, the one that formal knowledge condescends to and capitalists haven’t ever managed to affix a value to. That is the greatest potential and pitfall of what we do here as a matter of business and salvation: when we succeed, when we get this right, a lie that has been recorded as The Truth must fall. What we do here, in any discipline but perhaps most critically in humanities, art, and social science is a fundamental act of writing ourselves into the here and now and the by and by. As it is often said where my people are from: a hit dog will holla. The debate about the value of humanities, the relevance of hbcus, of any college but the most elite slave wealth holding colleges, is a hollering dog. I encourage you to pick up the tools and to hone your second sight. There’s a world, a history, a future being written without us, the fullness of us, and who better than us to read what isn’t written?