This morning, a colleague forwarded this essay by Mark Anthony Neal (I can’t find the “original” but this text at the linked page is the same as that I received). In it, Neal addresses the historical and contemporary role of HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities” “at the center of public debates about ‘blackness’.” In the essay, Neal relates his early career experience at Xavier College (in LA) and his departure after only one year after he used “black vernacular” in class and supported a female colleague who was being “professionally hazed” by the chair of his department. Leaving Xavier for a career in non-HBCU institutions (he is now at Duke University), he is given to reflect on the value of historically black colleges and universities.
In short, he argues that HBCU’s have been “under siege.” He argues that HBCUs have “had to defend their presence and purpose in the so-called post-Civil Rights era.” Since “The founding of Historically Black Colleges and Universities more than a century ago was predicated on the desire of white power brokers to create a buffer class—a cadre of professional blacks and skilled workers that would serve as gatekeepers for the black masses” things haven’t changed, in Neal’s mind. As you may know, Booker T. Washington chose the site of a former plantation for Tuskegee University. And so,
As we think of HBCUs as sites of regulation, it is not difficult, to also think of them as sites of surveillance—a space to monitor blackness. While HBCUs figure less in the eyes of a so-called white power structure in the 21st century, they are still critical to the reproduction of a “not too blackly public” to appropriate Baker’s phrase—that not only denies the full complexity of lives at HBCUs, but also the complexities of private and public blackness.
In particular, the complexities he mentions in the essay are two: gender politics (that flared around incidents of sexual violence at Morehouse and Spelman and during Spelman students’ protest of Nelly’s performance on campus during the “Tip Drill” moment) and the “politics of respectability” (including debates over “sagging”–mores that proscribe or prescribe wearing costumes marked as “inner city black”). In regard to the latter, Neal writes:
This sensitivity towards sartorial choices, as if there aren’t faculty at historically white institutions who would love to ban the wearing of flip-flops to class, speaks to the extent that the very plantation culture that [Houston] Baker tethered to Booker T. Washington’s project of uplift, is rife with the belief that what has to be regulated and policed is a deviance thought normative to some black bodies.
In sum, he argues:
As many question the relevancy of black institutions like HBCUs in the in the so-called “post-race” era, black institutions might contribute to their own irrelevancy, if they continue to march out-of-step with the broad-based progressive politics that so many Hip-Hop generation Americans are desiring to achieve.”
I’m curious to read your thoughts on the matter, as I’m still mulling mine over. In thinking about HBCU’s, as such, I wonder about institutional features left unaddressed in Neal’s essay. For example, how well do these institutions provide for the many needs of students (intellectual, social, artistic and political)? Neal’s mention of faculty contracts (one-year, teaching 8-10 courses) and faculty management (the anecdotal evidence drawn from Xavier) suggests students may not be getting the intellectual leadership they need because faculty are strapped for time and besieged by idiotic administrators. First, is this a fair characterization of the field, and second, what other indicators of success might we use to evaluate these institutions (and how are they performing)?