black utopias: the wonderland of hbcu’s

April 26, 2019
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Beyonce’s Coachella performance was peak utopia for many viewers new to the epic pageantry of Black college performance. But for students and graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the sight of dancing tubas and sky-high baton twirls, between jump splits and drum battles was every Saturday morning during football season (and basketball, too). This daytime joy was a nice entre to nighttime fun; step shows, concerts, poetry sets, parties and the like, all swirling around the African-born drum beats and future tunes blended to please every corner of the Diaspora.

But the half-time shows and after-dark dream worlds were just a slice of the HBCU effervescence. The experience itself is a rainbow of Blackness, a pantheon of traditions, cultures, and histories. Whether you’re from Brooklyn, or the hills of North Carolina; small-town Belize or big city Lagos; first-generation American or first-generation college grad or third-generation legacy; working class, new money, or hanging onto middle class with both fists. Black colleges are home for descendants of the enslaved, the colonized and the not-so-subtle combinations of both and neither. We are up and down the LBGTQ spectrum, all under the flag of new Blackness.

Ayokunle Odeleye’s W.E.B.DuBois statue at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

Whether you’re debating the theories of W.E.B Dubois (who founded Atlanta University’s sociology department), hyper-analyzing frequency patterns in music (yes we did that), deep diving into uncovered histories, or reading bell hooks for pleasure, HBCUs are an understated playground for the Black imagination, theory and application. With a dual lens on the future and reclaiming a past, we were walking in the Sankofa tradition.

I had the pleasure of matriculating at Clark Atlanta University. (CAU alum will understand this nod to the word “matriculate.”) The college, a mergence of the century-old Clark College and Atlanta University, was wedged at the heart of the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of HBCUs that includes the all-male Morehouse College, the women’s college Spelman, Morris Brown, the Interdenominational Theological Center and Morehouse’s School of Medicine. I witnessed first-hand multiple HBCU communities in the midst of an African Diasporic wonderland, with the surreal city of Atlanta as our ever-loving backdrop. My relationship to Afrofuturism as both practice and theory was born in this space – not because there was a formal Afrofuturism class, but because the campus was amuck in stardust.

I tell people all the time that discussing intersections between Black culture, the imagination, tech, liberation, and mysticism was like a favored past time on campus. They think I’m exaggerating — I’m so not.

My first true conversation about Afrofuturism was literally across the street from the Woodruff Library with a Philly-born student. We sandblasted through P-Funk and hip-hop lyrics, Octavia Butler, quantum physics, and speculative ancient technologies to decide that our commonality lay in the fact that we read from the same metaphysics texts.  

I was talking to a Morehouse alum recently and we laughed about how natural Afrofuturism was for us in these spaces. “I thought nothing of the fact that my calculus teacher would mention Kemetic principles,” he said. Just like the students practicing Yoruba rituals on the yard, or women chopping off their tresses and going natural, or learning about the foundation of bebop in a freshman topics course, it was all a part of a day’s sojourn. We’d hold court on our visions of the future beside statues by Elizabeth Catlett.

Another Morehouse alum echoed the same sentiment. “Blackness was just a norm,” he said. You didn’t have to fight to connect, deny it, nor prove your worth. Simply being and doing your best was enough.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that among HBCUs greatest achievement was how it helped countless people heal their subconscious issues with Black and African identity, often doubling as a safe place to explore African religions, activism, artistic voice, and experimentation. Marginalizing oneself, despite the dominant narrative, was just not an option.

ATLANTA – JULY 18: Harkness Hall at Clark Atlanta University (founded in 1988) on July 18, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

Understanding the wealth of histories within the African/African Diasporic framework was a superpower of sorts that helped me and many others push past socialized limitations or assumptions. Repping for the hometown aside (Chicago, South Side, thank you very much,) HBCUs are perennial reminders that Blackness is global.

The first day of my African-American history class with Dr. Thandekile Mvusi blew my mind. I expected the course to begin with the arrival of the enslaved on new world shores. Instead, she began with Australopithecus, the ancestor of modern man and then went up the evolutionary chain to homosapiens on the African continent. Day two continued with a general summary of empires that rose and fell on the African continent. By the time we got into the arrival of Africans in America, we were well-versed in Amazigh history, the Moors and were assigned Toni Morrison’s Beloved to understand the experience of the enslaved. We spent weeks on the often-ignored Reconstruction period.

We read the Egyptian Book of the Dead in our World Literature class. Even the course on the African-American religious experience began with a summary of African cosmologies — because at HBCUs, Black history and our place in world knowledge was not a mystery washed away in the sands. It was alive and well and easy to access.

My dad was the one who really hoped his children would select an HBCU. A graduate of Prairie View A&M, he was a faithful member of his alumni group for many years, and had a plethora of folk-tale-like stories about his years there — along with a healthy dose of Kappa pledge anecdotes that were the makings of legends. There’s a funny family video with my dad, a cousin who’d just pledged Omega Psi Phi at FAMU and another who was an AKA at Morgan State, doing their trademark step-show moves in my uncle’s living room on Christmas. I was in high school at the time. Seeing, my dad, a proud Kappa twirl a plunger in the absence of a cane is the joy of life. I’m sure this moment played a role in most of the family going to HBCUs. All of my siblings went to Black colleges, as well as most of my first cousins. We held our flags high for Howard, FAMU, Morgan State, Hampton, Morehouse and CAU, respectively.

I lived every life I could in my four years CAU — dancer and yearbook editor, Kappa queen and news producer, writing for both the CAU Panther and Morehouse’s The Maroon Tiger. At CAU, I fully realized that I am a citizen of the world, not in spite of my Black identity but because of it. My culture was as enriched as everyone else’s, and I had a tangible experience in an array of Black cultural pantheons across the U.S. and beyond. That empowered perspective and an appreciation of humanity is eternally advantageous.