Thinking Work and Group Progress: An HBCU Imperative

As of midnight last night, the United States federal government is temporarily closed.  The U.S. Congress has capitulated to the afore-stated agenda of the gerrymandered zealots of the Republican Party.  This knot of non-politicians have a simple agenda:  rescue their idea of what "America" is from the rising tide of color portended by the country's demographic shift and retreat behind the comforting ramparts of state and local entities.  Robert Reich, hardly alone in his assessment, captured the general arc of this strategy in a March 2013 column for

The creeping balkanization of the American state, fed by recent decisions at the hand of the Federalist Society-stocked Supreme Court of the United States, has the potential to unleash another round of intellectual warfare over the basic truths and notions of the American project.  This has the potential to ultimately be a good thing.  If Nick Bromell's new book, The Time is Always Now: Black Thought and the Transformation of American Democracy , is to be believed, African perspectives on the nature and experience of American democracy have always fed our perspectives.  What Bromell has not made clear is how Black sites of professional intellectual work have helped generations of African people develop and sustain these ideas and the movements they have birthed. To be fair, as Martin Kilson and others have observed, contemporary ignorance of the relationship between Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the production of Black Radical Thought is fairly commonplace.  The time, however, has come for HBCU-sited thinkers to take up the work of previous generations and set it once again at the center of the project of group progress in America.

Can Howard and her sister HBCUs become more consistent sites for nurturing deep intellectual work that transforms learners and scholars, fosters collaborative critical content mastery, and feeds deep-seated social change? Rhetorical pronouncements notwithstanding, this is by no means a settled question in a time of for-profit vocational education, with its inability—and lack of desire—to challenge or displace the long-standing American social and economic order. 

The first month of school saw Howard's students, staff and faculty observe signal moments in the memory of Africans in the United States. We marked the fiftieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.  We hosted an intense and provocative consideration of the purpose, direction and future of Historically Black Colleges and Universities during Howard-Morehouse-Spelman week.  We paused to contemplate the martyrdom of Black children in liberation struggles, symbolized by the “Four Little Girls” of Birmingham

The heartfelt pledges to convert the sacrifices of the past to work dedicated to improving individual lives and reshaping social, economic and political institutions made at these rituals of recommitment often obscure a lingering question. Have we lost our sense of collective purpose, sacrificed in part on an altar of material comfort and an easy aspiration to individual achievement as progress?

There is no more poignant moment to consider the tension between the pursuit of group objectives and individual ones than the civic nationalism of Constitution Day. At Howard, we observed Constitution Day with a debate on Stop and Frisk laws between a students from Howard’s undergraduate Martin Luther King, Jr. Debate Team and a debate team from the School of Law. Observing this exercise made me once again pause to consider the nature and relationship of America’s African citizens to the American national project and social structure. The question of African citizenship in America remains unsettled, our group status too often conflated with the fortunes of select individuals. In disconcerting ways, our thinking classes are less equipped to engage in the work of group social change than at any time since the end of enslavement.

A central challenge facing students in general and African students in particular is the challenge of literacy. The substitution of technological literacy for mastery of deeply-developed reading, thinking and research skills and techniques has obscured a crisis-level gap between the type of content mastery necessary for optimal participation in emerging national and international networks and our developed capacities at present. Simply put:  We all need more words and the will and skill to use them to influence people, institutions and politics.

College students are well enough along in the school year to have enthusiastically imbibed and repeated the official and organic sense of collective mission represented in their home institution's mission statements. We have certainly dutifully done this at Howard. Now, having sworn our fealties, we have settled into the rhythms and business of daily academic life.  The business of completing tasks, assignments, meetings and activities almost always displaces any sense of excellent learning and collaboration. Our learning objectives are filtered through a lens of vocational practicality that leaves little room for sustained, slow contemplation.  Everything at the university feels as if it issues forth at warp speed. Speed and efficiency at task completion is, sadly, too often a proxy for competence, for mastery, for knowing.  In fact, as Richard Arum and Josipa Roska write in their book Academically Adrift , acquisition of social networking skills, glossed with the approximation of content familiarity and critical thinking is what Mark Edmundson refers to as “knowingness” in his new book Why Teach: In Defense of a Real Education.

Over the arc of the next few blog posts, I hope to consider the topic of thinking work at Howard, considering small moments that might translate into larger conversations about purpose, literacy, commitment and critical intelligence.  In the words of Fred Moten and Stefario Harney, perhaps we can lay bare the energy and sentiments of an “academic undercommons,” or the lives of thinking, living and committed people engaged in the hard work of translating thinking into doing, not as a grand theoretical project but as a subversive, joyous and life-giving act of self-liberation.  And perhaps, just perhaps, we can reach out, one to the other, and do more together.


Remembering Four Little Girls: Hope and Responsibility

10:22 a.m. this Sunday will mark fifty years since Addie Mae Collins (14), Carol Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Diane Wesley (14) were murdered at Birmingham Alabama’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.  While members of the Ku Klux Klan were directly responsible for their deaths, these four—enshrined in African memory as the “Four Little Girls”—are, with Emmitt Till, Latasha Harlins, Ahmadu Diallo, and most recently Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, among the more recent victims of state-sanctioned violence against African youth in this country.  Few outside Birmingham know that, on that same day, James Robinson (16) and Virgil Ware (13), two Black boys, were killed by Birmingham police who declared martial law in the wake of the Sixteenth Street murders.  The girls became, in the words of Martin King at the funeral service for three of the four, “the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.”

The triumph of life over death has become a central theme of the modern global African experience, frequently symbolized by the frozen entelechy of Black youth martyrs.  The survival and resistance of Africans cast adrift in the Western Hemisphere takes on added potency when it is remembered that as many as a quarter of those taken during enslavement were children.  The separation of children from parents became a metaphor for the assault on Black families during the domestic trade in Black bodies.  In the 20th century, violence against Black youth, more so than assaults on Black adults, prompted insurrections and violent reprisals, from Tulsa and Chicago to the Watts section of Los Angeles and HBCUs in Jackson, Mississippi and Orangeburg, South Carolina.  The murder of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson in 1976 by South African police galvanized the youth of Soweto and accelerated the destruction of apartheid in South Africa.

Two years ago, a group of Howard students stood outside the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto, talking with his sister, Antoinette Sithole. Ms. Sithole is a guide at the museum, which we have visited a number of times as part of the summer study abroad class I've co-taught over the last decade. Reflecting on how these students drew connections between African youth and elders on two continents reminds me of the motivating power of community and the responsibility we owe each other to advance it, especially in the face of trauma.

The irrepressible hope and defiance contained in the eyes of Black youth has remained a motivating force behind our resistance and determination to choose life over death.  Young people entering normal schools and HBCUs in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow-era U.S. South.  Young people, in Sunday clothes, standing firm before Bull Connor’s German shepherds and fire hoses in Kelly Ingram Park, across the street from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Youth who, as SNCC mentor Ella Jo Baker observed, often “have the courage where we fail.”

What is the responsibility of our parents, elders, and academics to young people engaged in the struggle for education? How do we, through our teaching, scholarship, and advising, model and convey lives and life-giving information and tools to students who have chosen this institution and ones like it for exactly that reason?  The frequently impossible and desperate choices many young people make in the face of a transformed political economy should make this question the baseline for our intellectual work. 

In his Birmingham eulogy, Dr. King drew a distinction between individual murderers and “the system, the way of life, the philosophy that produced the murders.”  This is a critical distinction that we must continue to draw.  The physical, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional killing of our people—from crime, economic inequality, educational apartheid, or cultural strangulation—are the direct consequence of a system, a way of life, and a philosophy that has produced a toxic objectification of African humanity.

Howard’s Alabama Club observed the fiftieth anniversary of the Birmingham “Children’s Crusade” on March 22nd in Cramton Auditorium.  Drs. Yvette Richardson and Jonathan McPherson from Miles College and Ms. Janice Kelsey, who participated in the famous “Children’s March,” recounted that it was young people who had formed the vanguard of the Birmingham movement.  They joined with Howard students to renew a pact to remember both the beauty of our history and the sacrifices that give that history meaning.

Predictably, the violence against our children continues, and regrettably, instances of violence are explained away, responsibility displaced.  Attempting to deflect conversations on state-sanctioned violence to discussions of Black-on-Black crime ignores the distinction between individuals and systems drawn by Dr. King in his Birmingham eulogy.

This Sunday at the Kennedy Center at 6 p.m., actors from Howard’s Department of Theater Arts will lend their talents to a staged reading of “Four Little Girls,” a play directed by Howard Alumna Phylicia Rashad.  This play, and the ritual of remembrance it observes, allows us occasion to recommit and to resolve to continue to choose life over death.

Hilltop coverage of the Alabama Club’s 50th Anniversary of the Children’s March:

Information on Sunday’s staged reading of “Four Little Girls” at the Kennedy Center:


The Howard-Morehouse Presidential Symposium on HBCUS: This is Not a Game

 Charles Hamilton Houston, the Dean of Howard Law School born 118 years ago this past Tuesday, trained minds that transformed American jurisprudence with the attitude that a lawyer is “either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” Howard and her sister HBCUs have approached a century and a half of teaching, research, and service with the same attitude.  Having led in the fight to dissolve American Apartheid, HBCUs now face a broader opportunity to complete their journey to global relevance as social engineers in a post-integration, post-American world.

On Thursday, September 5, students, faculty, administrators, and alumni convene in Cramton Auditorium for the Third Annual Howard-Morehouse “More Than a Game” Symposium.  The topic: The future of the country’s 105 historically Black Colleges and Universities.  One hundred and seventy-six years after the Institute for Colored Youth (the forerunner of Cheyney University) opened its doors in South Philadelphia and 146 years after the founding of Howard and Morehouse, HBCUs face a higher education landscape that has often used Black students parasitically, to the incidental detriment of the very Black learning institutions that helped engineer America’s social transformation.

Integration had an unanticipated effect on HBCUs. Once-segregated HWCUs now exhibit dismal graduation rates for the Black students they admit.  Surgical integration by a self-celebratory American polity, however, has allowed many of these schools to celebrate the “progress” symbolized by the presence of Black athletes judged by the content of their athletic skills and not the color of their skin. Black children trapped in public education undermined by encroaching privatization now dream of glory on the athletic fields of HWCUs that market semi-professional, rented Black players. Ironically—and predictably—the most successful of these schools are disproportionately found in the states of the old Confederacy, site of the most striking and tragic of the morality plays now safely sanitized for the cascade of fifty-year commemorations upon us.

A stream of Black gold, human fuel for a billion dollar college sports/entertainment industry, exacerbates and dramatizes the growing division between the haves and have-nots in higher education.  Many American schools being pushed into lower tiers of resources increasingly struggle to reinvent themselves as places that produce scholarship and prepare students to engineer innovative economic, technological, political, and cultural landscapes.  Through faculty and student bidding wars and strategic corporate, state, and federal partnerships, each school now searches for a “niche,” an education-as-corporate-marketing strategy tethered to the ambient catchphrases of the moment:  STEM, globalization, cyber education, and the like.

HBCUs, still at the epicenter of Black education, continue to provide opportunities for determined students to realize their vast human potential, producing an outsized number of America’s graduates of African descent. They do so buoyed by alchemies of pride, determination, and expertise that consistently offset gaping inequalities in services, facilities, pay, student debt, and the erosion of morale that can flow therefrom.  Evidence of continued successes to the contrary, the existence of HBCUs, the competence of their administrators, and the quality of their students and faculty are questioned more than ever.  The Obama administration’s handling of the Parent PLUS Loan Program, its decrease in federal grants to HBCUs, and its recent feint toward a college quality rating system tied to federal funding makes the President’s occasional paeans to the importance of HBCUs ring hollow.

Thursday’s symposium offers an opportunity to identify the most important themes and strategies for the transformation of HBCUs.  The time has come for a renewed generation of social engineers and transformative thinkers.  Each of the college presidents participating in today’s symposium—from Howard, Tennessee State and Paul Quinn— have demonstrated leadership and innovation in several key areas.  Over the course of several panels, faculty and students from Howard, Morehouse, Spelman and other HBCUs will outline, debate and articulate informed, grounded and at once improvisational and vital visions for these indispensable institutions. We must have that thinking, that accretive blend of contemplation, mastery, and action that does not surrender to sound-bite scholarship, stunt-laden rhetoric, or market-driven theatrics.  We will not squander this opportunity to reset our agenda as social engineers. 

Details on the day's symposium, as well as other events (such as the Mordecai Johnson-Benjamin Mays Debate between Howard and Morehouse's award-winning student debate teams on Friday, September 6) can be found below.