Black History and Identity at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

    Some would say the current political posture in the United States returns Black people to a lesser space. However, Black higher education, specifically that offered at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), is experiencing a resurgence. That is, in part, a result of affirmative action in the college admissions process being overturned recently by the Supreme Court, meaning that Black students have less of a chance sitting at the same table as their white counterparts.

    As a result, some Black parents and families have recognized anew the benefits of the cultural and educational experiences of attending HBCUs. As someone who has had the privilege of matriculating at an HBCU, I’m appreciative of how they stress the value of understanding African American (Black) history, raise awareness of the struggles, setbacks, and advancements we as a Black society face, and create space where members of the Black community willingly collaborate to advance their education and careers.

    At Hampton University, which is rooted in recognition and celebration of our culture, tradition and heritage, I am often reminded of my origins and proudly embrace where I am, whose I am and who I am.

    Where am I? At an institution that Booker T. Washington had to help clean to gain admission to; where Mary Peake taught slaves how to read and write; where the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation was delivered; and where we harmonize over our motto: “The standard of excellence, an education for life.”

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    Whose am I? I am the seed of my ancestors. The reproduction of a fierce, passionate and thoughtful community. I belong to a never-ending heritage. I belong to an unstoppable legacy.

    Who am I? I am a melanated woman confident in my skin. I am the changemaker in my community. I am the one that will educate today’s youth. I am the future of history. I am what systemic racism says I shall not be: I am Black history.

    I was originally posed those three questions when I was enrolled in Honors University 101. Throughout the course, we spent our class time visiting various historical landmarks on campus. As we learned about the background of each place, our professor often asked us, “How does being in the same space your ancestors once were make you feel?”

    The question piqued me. Many times, I would leave the class intent on conducting further research on the figures that we dis- cussed. My HBCU had become my platform for enhancing and strengthening my connection with the roots of Black history.

    That enrichment has not only been stimulated by faculty. I have also been enriched by conversations with fellow students like Ayan Harris and Gabriel Crawford, who have challenged me to think critically about the significance of Black history.

    By way of illustration, here is part of a recent conversation we shared:

    What does Black history mean to you? 

    AH: Being and living in your truth. No matter what, acknowledge and pay homage to those who came before us. We should allow the lessons of our ancestors to continue to guide us and give us hope and strength.

    GC: Preserving Black culture, Black identities and Black experiences . . . Black history is keeping the records and the truth of Black history alive.

    Who inspires you?

    AH: Malcolm X. Despite being incarcerated, he grew closer to God and was able to recognize how he fell into the trap of white supremacy. He was then able to come out of that and become an amazing minister. He would connect with the people of the community. That is admirable to me.

    GC: My great-grandmother, Mazie Coleman. After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, she asked people to escort her to the polls because she felt uncomfortable going alone. It’s good to understand what she went through for me to understand why I can live a little more comfortably.

    How do you find yourself making Black history?

    AH: Paying attention to the arts… I ask myself how I can use my art, my film and my photography to reflect on the current times as a Black woman. I study artists like Nina Simone, Basquiat and Gordon Parks and examine how their work was almost linear to their time.

    GC: Being at Hampton University, and getting an education is probably the first step… It’s me gaining the knowledge to share with others. In terms of my career, learning Black history is helping me shape my stories as a future Black fiction writer.

    Gabriel’s mention of Hampton being his avenue to making Black history is a reminder of how important my decision to commit to an HBCU has been. Inside of my classroom, throughout the campus and from discussions with my classmates, I notice how I’ve especially become more aware of the advancements we’ve made as a people.

    More importantly, I’ve learned to cherish and genuinely appreciate the Black culture and history that continues to live on. For me, HBCUs are more than a place to educate yourself for your future plans; they are also a space that allows me to keep Black history in the mix of my education.

    Mia Booth is a third-year English major, journalism minor at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia. With aspirations to become a novelist, she plans to obtain her MFA in creative writing and to establish a foundation that supports underserved students with educational resources.

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