Literacy, Liberation and Historically Black Colleges and Universities


The third week of September, 2013 was proclaimed “National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week” by President Barack Obama. In a proclamation, he observed that HBCUs met and meet the need of higher education “focused on meeting the intellectual curiosity and spurring the academic growth of African American Students.”  We will shortly move into the second month of the year, a sweet spot in the academic calendar for deep study free from the anxiety of mid-terms and buoyed by the eminent return of Spring and, for some, the finish line of graduation.  It is a perfect time to revisit the linkages between Black learning institutions and the mission of so-called "Black History Month," a time that Carter Godwin Woodson said should be set aside for inventorying what we have done the rest of the year to advance the study of African people.


How best to accomplish the goal of linking literacy, memory and liberation through Black learning institutions has never been a settled proposition for Africans seeking to produce Black professional thinking classes working for group liberation.  As we are reminded in tome after tome, the concept of the university conceals a Western intellectual genealogy and structure, one that hides its normative assumptions beneath a modern demographic subterfuge by counter-posing the foundations of “predominantly” White institutions against those of “historically” Black ones.  This was a subterfuge that W.E.B. DuBois debunked nearly a century ago and that academic communities such as Howard attempted to take major strides towards dismantling with initiatives such as the 2010 Presidential Commission on Academic Renewal (PCAR). Sadly, we continue to stand at a crossroads, tentative and unsure if we will complete the work of deep reflection and reconnection to clear purpose in the face of intrusive, noisy distractions that whisper “you must first seek permission” into our collective ears.


Grounded in the idea that learning and literacy are Western propositions with, at best, some non-essential, non-Western accessorizing, historically Black educational institutions continue to use externally-derived intellectual and institutional markers to feed the intellectual curiosity of students and faculty they attract, ostensibly for the purpose of group growth and achievement.  The cruel irony in this behavior is that group progress in nurturing the linchpin activities of Black intellectual life— developing deep critical literacy and content mastery to serve group progress—is promoted by celebrating individuals whose achievements are frequently lauded for being indistinguishable from the objectives and values of a society that has maintained a deep hostility to the group progress of Black people.


How best, then, to promote the deep critical literacy and content mastery necessary to meet intellectual curiosity, spur academic growth and blend the aspiration of individuals with the needs of groups of oppressed people?  Here, memory must meet vision, in service of a perpetually unsatisfied desire to know and to act to transform one’s self and the world.  HBCUs produce steady streams of students and scholars who do this work.  The time is long overdue to recognize and to leverage these critical masses, without apology or defense. We will be better for it. The world will be better for it. The alternative is to subsist, perhaps, but not to grow, under the indifferent gaze of imaginary masters as others prepare for the new world a’coming.


In September 2013, shortly after the issuance of President Obama's proclamation, the internationally-reknowned Howard University Film Professor and filmmaker Haile Gerima related a conversation he had with a fellow Black director to over 1,000 members of the College of Arts and Sciences Class of 2017. He was asked how he produced his internationally-acclaimed 1993 film “Sankofa,”  a film with no contrived “point of entry” (industry-speak for a “sympathetic white character” that would make an otherwise unappealing Black narrative attractive to White audiences). The director told Gerima, “they would never let me make something like that.  Gerima replied, “to say ‘they would never let me’ is to have masters.  I have no masters.  I let myself.”


This is a statement of character.  It is a statement born of critical literacy and content mastery.  It is a statement of a free human being, unwilling to hide questions on the complexity of life behind the expectations of others. Successful intellectual work is not measured by its indistinguishable or accessorizing characteristics.  It is measured by its capacity to communicate, improvise and leverage the collective experiences and imaginations of people as a tool for enhancing each participant and the groups whose lives they hope to improve.  Deep literacy requires long, sustained practice.  A search for illuminating frameworks and devices (the search for theory). Debate, discussion and defense of ideas. 


Over the next few weeks, as part of an attempt to engage and renew my personal commitment to advance the work and vision of Carter Woodson for how we use the month of February, I hope to consider literacy in the context of specific intellectual practice, drawing from exemplary, Black institutional learning situations to illustrate specific techniques for pursuing work.