Wakanda and the HBCU: Fantasies and Realities

Wakanda Atlanta.jpg

Each spring, thousands of young students and their elders descend on Howard and our sister institutions in the glorious annual rite of the HBCU college tour. Wide-eyed prospectives from fifth through twelfth grades from cities across the country make annual pilgrimage to my classes.  Our Howard University Alumni Club of Atlanta family, riffing off of a mid-February Howard  Twitter account declaration, presented me with a t-shirt at the close of their visit emblazoned with the phrase: “Howard is Our Wakanda."


Instead of “Wakanda Forever,” Chad Boseman, the Marvel’s Cinematic Universe’s Black Panther, declaimed “Howard Forever!” at his Alma Mater’s 150th commencement ceremony. Beginning his 27 minute speech by evoking the genealogy of teachers, most now Ancestors, who trained him in the craft that has made him famous globally, the 40 year old Boseman presented a powerful mediation on the value of place, community and standing in truth. 

Most of the attendees (and most moviegoers), untutored in T’Challa’s 52 year comics history and long-arc storylines involving Thanos, Infinity Gauntlets, “Secret Wars,” Kree-Skrull battles and other epic saga sources of Marvel’s movie machinations, are still reeling from unexpected traumas of Black Hero Death in “Infinity Wars: Part I.” Fear not: Having attracted a billion dollars of a heretofore undertapped Black demographic’s money into the MCU, Marvel will not soon allow T’Challa, Heimdall, Falcon, Nick Fury, Gamora and kin to go gently into that good cinematic night. 


Future months of agony and speculation should, however, remind us of Howard 1978 Honorary Doctor of Humanities recipient Stevie Wonder’s line in his 1972 song “Superstition”: “When you believe in things you don’t understand, then you suffer.” There are bright lines between fantasy and reality. As inevitable and imaginative showers of ironic, acerbic and comedic replies to the Twitter “Howard is arguably collegiate Wakanda” declaration reminded us, Howard is not Wakanda. No HBCU is. How could we be?


An Afro-futurist Wakanda flows from a central question in our subaltern imaginary: What might Africa be had it never been colonized?  Howard students enrolled at a univeristy shaped by and preoccupied with finding answers to help forestall or negate perpetual existential threats to Africans, far too rarely ask—much less imagine layered answers—to such a question.  The transformative natural resource of Wakanda is the Vibranium mound. Howard’s transformative resource is, and will always be, its people.


As I wrote in the afterword to Todd Burroughs’s book “Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, ” Wakanda is an American African fantasy. HBCUs are not Wakandas, any more than the African Diaspora or post-colonial Africa are Wakandas. As Black Panther comic writers from Don McGregor to Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin and Ta-Nehisi Coates have shown us, Wakanda represents a place to complicate questions of an African utopia, literally an African no place.


The responsibilities of Howard and our sister institutions are greater than those of any imaginary Africas. Memories, dreams and visions of generations of future Africans seek us as real destination repositories and sites of possibility, not imaginary ones. Comparing Howard to Wakanda reveals that desire. It is not a desire defined by soaring SAT scores and grade point averages but by demonstrations of heart and will that are far more relevant barometers of African and broader human possibility. 


Imagination driven by hearts and will caused Black students of the 1960s, inspired by Malcolm X and Black Power self-determination, to award Howard its most enduring honorific: “The Mecca.” An earlier nickname, "The Capstone" (from Howard's Jim Crow-era honorific as "The Capstone of Negro Education") re-inscribes an arc of contested HBCU hierarchy that reinforces each celebrant's fierce devotion to their chosen school. "The Mecca" nickname, however, emerged at a moment in Howard's history when a struggle to create curriculum and community linkages befitting "The Black University" widened ongoing schisms between its integrationist and nationalist intellectual thrusts. Howard emerged from that moment somewhat transformed and no less determined to retain its mythical crown as the leader of the HBCUs, albeit now with a more overtly Black cultural gloss. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me, The Mecca cannot be reduced to Howard University’s test scores and grades, and is rather “a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of All African peoples and inject it directly into the student body.”


The most current threat to the fuel for such a machine for the imaginary is a self-celebratory academic and popular culture that threatens to replace substantive effort with glosses of effort. As Wakanda’s Shuri’s cultural-scientific mastery reminds us, Wakanda’s genius is a cultivated one. When we do not seek hearts and wills of collective purpose as students, faculty or staff, we run the risk of conflating institutional excellence with the fragile appearance of individual mastery. Our Killmongers, stripped even of Michael B. Jordan’s righteous indignation, become masters first in damnable alchemies of finesse.


Mastery work is slow and accretive. At Black Universities, it must never be disassociated with thinking work for collective liberation. Wakandans would never celebrate the to-be-expected as exemplary. Neither should we. Proxy Wakandas in the Global HBCU firmament emerged out of liberation struggles, from Legon, Makerere, Ibadan and Fort Hare to the Caribbean’s UWI system.  Black students who occupied Cornell and Columbia in 1968 and 1969 and who called for Black Studies and Black Cultural Centers at Brandeis, Oberlin, Ohio State, San Francisco State, Northwestern and elsewhere carved liberated Black spaces out of which to imagine and plan new Black worlds. And desegregation has further complicated liberation desires of HBCU students and Black students at HWCUs.  Lines of debates between nationalism and assimilation captured in Laurence C. Morse’s brilliant 1986 novel of life at Howard and HBCUs, Sundial, are much more blurred now, birthing new possibilities for new thinking.


Still, unlike what dreams of individual achievement youngsters on annual HBCU college tours might expect of HWCUs, Howard and our sister institutions are living Wakandas. They look to us for a larger common purpose. Unlike the home of T’Challa, Okoye, Shuri, M’Baku and their imaginary kin, these young people need fear no existential threat from Thanos or anyone else. Unlike the comics, they seek the places where we have everything we need to link our incomparable African pasts to our glorious African futures. The honorifics, from Capstone to Mecca to Wakanda to what will invariably come next out of Black creative imaginaries, are one school's generational labels among others to be found at all our our HBCUs, objects of that thankfully unquenched desire. 

Black Movements in America and Student Activism: Harmonies and Dissonances

[Note:  The following essay was published in the print and electronic versions of the Howard University student newspaper, The Hilltop, on Friday, March 30. I have chosen to publish it here, unchanged, from that version. As a former HBCU student body president (Tennessee State University, 1985-86) who also helped lead student movements as a law and graduate student at The Ohio State University and Temple University and who lives and works primarily in Black educational spaces, I am well familiar with the range of reasons that Black students feel compelled to take collective stands, as well as how those choices affect everyone left in their wake. As Fred Douglass reminded us, if there is no struggle, there is no progress. Each of us is faced with a daily choice of how best to make a difference to create a better world. For the children of Africa, that daily choice is punctuated with enhanced risk. At critical moments like this, we must recognize that and find courage in ourselves and in each other]. 

[Friday, March 30, 2018]: The death of Linda Brown at 75 on March 25 in Topeka, Kansas reminds us of the Black student role in modern American freedom struggles. Brown’s parents joined 12 other families from 5 states in filing the anti-school segregation lawsuits collectively known as Brown v. Board of Education. She spent the rest of her life advocating for social change.  Students came to symbolize possibilities of Black progress in this settler state, anchored in hopes that study and sacrifice would equip generations to make transformative changes, within and beyond Black communities.


Black movements in America, according to Cedric Robinson, emerged from enslavement with two distinctive and alternative political, economic and cultural orientations. Black elites shaped their resistance to dominant social and economic patterns, seeking removal of discriminatory bars to entry and elevation in a broader emerging American socioeconomic order. The Black masses shaped their resistance to more inwardly-oriented, collective aspirations, seeing collective opposition to permanent white racial terrorism as a structural feature of an over-arching white settler state.


During the post-Enslavement period of de facto segregation, these two social movement orientations combined to fight both racial discrimination and legally sanctioned and enhanced racial violence. From segregated schools, churches, businesses and social/cultural institutions, Africans joined forces to topple the most obvious discriminatory barriers to collective advancement. This movement reached its apogee in the 1960s with the passage of major federal civil rights legislation that ostensibly reinforced the “Civil War Amendments” passed a century earlier.


Since that time, Black elites have used the Civil Rights movement to struggle to maintain their precarious individual class status while Black masses have suffered increasing local and collective social and economic insecurity in the wake of the convulsions of late global capitalism. Narratives of African liberation have been largely absorbed into American settler state mythology, wherein individual Black achievement is conflated with/celebrated as group advancement in the fight against discrimination, negating the anti-Black physical, economic and political violence that frames the lived reality of the vast majority of Black America. Education, long embraced as “the great equalizer,” fits comfortably into that narrative of individual achievement as proxy for collective advancement against structural, group-based oppression.


Black student activism has always troubled the relationship between Robinson’s two alternative orientations. Frequently fueled by youthful energy and courage, students in segregated schools organized against inequitably distributed resources, conservative curricula and instruction and racial terror. These movements stretch from the emergence of common school, normal school and college and university education during the First U.S. Reconstruction through the Civil Rights movement of the Second U.S. Reconstruction. By the late 1960s, however, the Black Power Movement revealed irreconcilable fissures between the two orientations.


At the university level, calls for Black Studies were re-launched at HBCUs before taking flight at HWCUs. Fifty years ago this month, Howard students demanded that the university become a “Black University,” defined in part as one that became “relevant” to the needs of “the Black community” in scholarship and service. Some faculty were recruited to Howard with that specific mission, which brought them into deep debate and negotiated truces with others who did not see this as their mission. Black students at Howard and in other Black institutions attempting to determine how to both represent and advance the interests of Black communities were introduced to and became the most salient embodiment of these greater and lesser dissonances.


In the fifty years since the emergence of full-throated global calls for Black Power, Pan-African Internationalism, and even for The Black University, Howard, like every other institution in Black America, has worked—and failed—to reconcile discordant strains of the two alternative class orientations. This American inharmonic may be only a localized manifestation of African experience in the larger racial capitalist world system.  Following in the footsteps of their predecessors in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s, a new generation of Howard students question that system and its local impact on everything from basic human needs (food, shelter, healthcare) and related human activity (education, employment) to what Black Arts Movement theoretician Larry Neal would call “visions of a liberated future.


HBCUs led in transformative social activism due to circumstances. Legal genius architects of Brown v Board were trapped by segregation at Howard. Student activism blended with this artificial, Apartheid-contained racial class of Black America to force collective action. Common interests began to fracture during the post-desegregation 1960s, and calls for The Black University came at the very moment when the Black elite was perched to escape close association with Black masses in search of aspirational escape.


Ironically, whereas Black University-oriented thinkers from W.E.B. Du Bois and Vincent Harding to Andrew Billingsley, Eleanor Traylor and Ron Walters once worked at HBCUs, great calls for radical restructuring of higher education are more recognized now when made by Black (and other) academics perched at elite White institutions, whose cherry-picked concepts of “diversity” hardly impede their colonization of surrounding areas and re-inscribing of existing social orders.


As Paula Giddings noted in her 2018 Charter Day Convocation remarks, however, student movements at Howard, like movement at other HBCUs, commingle love for a people and an institution with deep disappointments and demands of better. Love is the element that makes the often-discordant strains cohere.  From distance of age, both progress and retreat can be glimpsed, celebrated and bemoaned.  Meanwhile, the larger society continues to attack Black bodies from every class as a frightened coming white minority doubles down on hatred, hyper nationalism and self-immolating isolationism.


As Jules Harrell reminds us, a university is the faculty and students, with attendant support. What is the role of student activism in those enterprises, especially as ruptured and restructured literacies remake the nature of learning and HBCUs remain deaf to Du Bois’s call to define themselves in a post-segregation, post-industrial world? What is the role of faculty teaching, learning and research?  What is the role of administrative support of those enterprises in this world?


One of our collective roles is to always remind ourselves that love is the element that binds us together. That love cannot, must not, evade frequently painful collective work. We must always also remember that anti-Black settler state violence is our permanent common enemy, and that deep study and multi-literate collective action must frame our distinct missions as Black institutions. The choice to act collectively to contain the dissonances and search for harmonic resolution remains, for the time being, ours.

Returning to the Nile Valley: A Prelude

It has been sixty four months since the so-called "Arab Spring" erupted, interrupting our regular journeys to Egypt with students in order to conduct on-site study of early African Nile Valley society. Nearly six years since the last time we've taken students from Howard and, in our 2010 journey, Chicago State University, Miles College and Northeastern Illinois Universities as well.  This is the longest I have gone since my first journey to Egypt in 1996 without being surrounded by the tombs, stelae, pyramids, temples, study chambers, statuary and the literal human remains of the world's most influential ancient civilization. 

Sitting in Manhattan before heading to JFK, I decided to write my first blog post in quite some time as a downpayment to help chronicle why what we are doing at Howard, with ASCAC and with a developing constellation of scholars at HBCUs is vitally important in a moment when streets are flooding with the energy of people working to #StayWoke and declaring decisively that #BlackLivesMatter .

Tomorrow, three dozen students and faculty from Howard University will arrive in Cairo to resume our work of glimpsing far African antiquity on something of its own terms. Although our Department of Afro-American Studies' regular journeys to the African continent--which now include Ghana and South Africa in addition to Egypt--are formally labeled "study abroad," they also have a gloss of "study domestic" for students of African descent.  There is a discernible African residue in the cultural DNA of global Africana, as well as in the grafted cultural DNA of every settler society in North, Caribbean and South America into which we were introduced. Animus among Africans toward searching these DNA in any deliberate way for connecting rhythms, impulses and influences is one more unfortunate side effect of the traumatic hierarchical racialization that enabled modern, European-centered world systems. When forced to consider that traumatization by the fundamental question posed by Malcolm X ("who taught you to hate yourself?"), prevarications from even our most eloquent thinkers too often amount, as W.E.B. Du Bois famously remarked in the context of the problematic of Black life in White worlds, to "seldom a word."

As I have tried to explain elsewhere, any disciplinary thrust of "Africana Studies" must be fed by deliberate attempts to imagine possibilities for fashioning new human possibilities by searching these residue intellectual traces for lessons.  In his book Of Africa, Wole Soyinka calls the traces to be found in the modalities and texts of Africa its "dynamic possessions," potential commodities of exchange as-or-more valuable than any material resource.  Recovering these traces and repurposing them can lead, according to Ngugi wa Thiongo in his book Something Torn and New, to "the decolonization of modernity."  Ayi Kwei Armah, considered by some the continental African writer most committed to imagining the intellectual and social possibilities of a deep historical African "re-membering," refers to the process for undertaking such work in his book The Eloquence of the Scribes as "the dance of inspiration."

Such work is not an exercise in "fomenting race pride," but something that transcends the stifling, losing game of "race." Asking Africa fundamental questions in our search for human meaning shatters externally-imposed labels by finding contributions to human understanding from one's own people, throughout time and space. Learning a language is the well-accepted port of entry for beginning to think about how people imagine themselves, their worlds, and human possibilities. While more and more students of Africana have begun studying the languages of contemporary Africa as part of this process, the number of Africans who have studied older African languages in order to ask deep African antiquity questions is, in the words of Armah, "uncomfortably close to zero." 

As doctoral apprentices of the eminent Egyptologist and Linguist Theophile Obenga , a handful of students at Temple University in the mid 1990s were able to learn the fundamentals of Middle Egyptian, the most influential iteration of Egyptian Hieroglyphs, as the first necessary step of engaging the most influential period discovered-to-date of African antiquity.  With that foundation, I completed a (probably) overly-ambitious dissertation that investigated how select 19th and 20th century African thinkers and activists imagined the process of interrogating African pasts as "dynamic possessions."

The work of searching for what Obenga called "philosophies of history" in African antiquity while tracing how diasporic African thinkers attempted the same commingled two streams in my training and experience as a scholar.  My first lessons in Egyptian hieroglyphs had come before Obenga, in the late 1980s, from the work of Jacob H. Caruthers, Jr. [Djedi Shemsu Djehuty], his comrades at the Kemetic Institute of Chicago and their federation of researchers, activists and institution builders under the federation called The Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations (ASCAC). I became aware of Carruthers's work after my first year of law school, when I read his book Essays in Ancient Egyptian Studies, along with Manning Marable's How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, Molefi Asante's Afrocentricity and Harold Cruse's Plural But Equal.

I went to law school to  master the possibilities of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, among other weapons, and then fight for the preservation and growth of Historically Black Colleges and Universities like my undergraduate alma mater, Tennessee State University.  Thinking like a lawyer requires a severe, unforgiving analysis of language in the perpetual search for weaknesses of logic and argument. I found, and have tried to teach my students in subsequent years to search for, such strengths and weaknesses in texts. Carruthers's work combined the structural analysis of a social scientist with the expertise and cultural insight of a linguist.  He remains one of the least-known and most brilliant thinkers I have ever read, listened to and come to know.  When he told me he was one of the segregation-busting law school classmates of Heman Marion Sweatt at the University of Texas, I felt as if the Ancestors had guided me to a kindred spirit. 

The following year, I took a summer clerkship with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York to immerse myself in Civil Rights law, especially in the area of education. I also took the clerkship so I could spend time with ASCAC scholars and activists like John Henrik Clarke of Harlem's legendary First World Alliance study group. Among many lessons, I learned the value of searching for insight in community with anyone who demonstrates the interest and discipline to study, regardless of licensure, network or position.  After completing the law degree in 1990, and at the advice of Marable, I completed an M.A. in Africana Studies at Ohio State before moving to Temple to take the Ph.D. while absorbing, challenging and learning from the possibilities of Asante's Afrocentric methodology.

Obenga's arrival at Temple in 1994 supercharged my apprenticeship and that of my closest fellow students. Soon, Obenga took up intensive work with Carruthers and ASCAC scholars to achieve a technical proficiency that enabled an unprecedented fusion of scholarship and activism. For these workers, including Armah, the study of "Ancient Egypt" required a mastery of Middle Egyptian Hieroglyphs, which, in the words of Obenga's senior colleague, the late Cheikh Anta Diop, should strip the scholar of any racialized hyperbole, leaving her or him with "the serenity to appreciate the facts as they were." After completing the Ph.D., I decided to spend a brief period immersed in K-12 education. My goal was to work with teachers and administrators to fashion fundamentally different models of intellectual work that would enable young people to develop as scholars able to investigate Africana and use what they learned to transform our communities. 

Over the next fifteen years, beginning in 1999, I selected high-level texts, including the aforementioned texts by Armah, Ngugi and Soyinka as well as Du Bois, Ella Baker, Michael Gomez and many others, to discuss and absorb with teachers, administrators and over a thousand high school students in the School District of Philadelphia as part of our Philadelphia Freedom Schools initiative. Our collective interrogation of the ideas and techniques in those texts fed a flowering that shaped Lessons in Africana Studies, the curriculum framework for the District's African-American History course. The attraction of joining my K-12 work for the District to a faculty position at Howard in 2000 was the possibility of joining the deeply undervalued HBCU scholarly community that had shaped me, while simultaneously taking on the challenge of collecting a community of scholars in Africana Studies and related disciplines to link genealogies of what Carruthers had called "African deep thought" to the highest standards of teaching and research in service of social transformation.  

By 2013, we had collected one of (if not the) country's largest contingent of Ph.D.s in Africana Studies in one small department. With the support of the College of Arts and Sciences and the University at large, we have been able to develop curriculum innovations that have resulted in singularly unique learning experiences in the American academy.  

For example, our Freshman Seminar/Common Text program has, over the last five years, used the study of texts (and Scholar-in-Residence visits) by Ngugi and Soyinka to fashion first-year research projects aimed at translating engagements with long-view genealogies of Africana into contemporary problem solving.  In 2014, the year after Soyinka's engagement, over one thousand freshmen used W.E.B. Du Bois's severely under-utilized set of essays, The Education of Black People, to produce projects aimed at influencing American K-12 and undergraduate education. Last year, another thousand-plus Howard freshmen read Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me and Claudia Rankine's Citizen, using them to interrogate the meaning of citizenship in the modern world.  Both authors came for Scholars-in-Residency.  In Coates's case, it was a return home for the Howard alum, and the launch of his book tour, taking place on the eve of the announcement of his MacArthur Foundation award.

What began as an attempt to help shift paradigms in the study of Africana at HBCUs has taken root at Howard in remarkable ways.  In many ways, our study abroad work in South Africa (2004, 2007, 2009) and Egypt (2008, 2009, 2010) has been deliberately grounded in the work of Obenga, Carruthers, Diop and the community-anchored intellectual thrust of ASCAC, which took one thousand African-Americans to the Nile Valley for their third annual conference in 1987. One of our faculty recruits, Dr.  Mario Beatty, is Obenga's finest American-born student, the current President of ASCAC, and the architect of the Egyptian Hieroglyphs program at Howard. Over the last five years, he has implemented a course sequence that has trained hundreds of students in basic Middle Egyptian, Hieratic and Coptic, and identified a small number of students with advanced translation expertise.

Some of them will be landing in Cairo tomorrow to take the next steps in what Ngugi has called the vital work of translation and recovery. As the journey unfolds, the expectation is that we may be on the eve of participating in a quantum leap.  Please feel free to comment so that we can share your observations, questions and insights with the students as our journey unfolds.

Some previous iterations of the Howard Study Abroad in Kemet [Egypt] can be found by clicking the following link:  http://coas.howard.edu/studyabroad/kemet/