In Their Words: HBCUs, Howard and Human Transformation

As Howard's commencement orator on June 6, 1930, W.E.B. Du Bois tasked us with producing “unselfish thinkers and planners of a group of people in whose hands lies the economic and social destiny of the darker peoples of the world, and by that token of the world itself.” Three years later, at his alma mater Fisk University’s commencement, he said that our schools must use culturally grounded scholarship to transform American and global Black communities in order to restructure the radically oppressive economic and political arrangements of the societies of the modern world.

Several generations later, Howard and its sister Black schools continue to wrestle with Du Bois’ call and challenge. The hedge of segregation has been removed, distancing an increasingly ambivalent Black elite from physical and economic proximity to the larger mass of Black America. Some elites still send their children to HBCUs, for cultural grounding and out of unyielding group commitments. Once there, they reintegrate with those lower in the socioeconomic strata, though no less gifted, who seek improved life chances for their families and communities. HBCUs present America and the world with irreplaceable centers where post-integration Black thinkers and planners for African and human advancement are trained at critical mass.

This mix of obligation, aspiration and racial and socio-economic profile has no precedent in the American university outside of the HBCU valence. It reaches its most concentrated mix at Howard, where nationally and internationally recognized faculty and students commune in arguably the country’s most audacious blend of lowest to highest global economic variance. Howard and other HBCUs have succeeded in weaving group service across class, geographical-, racial-and cultural strands into a Kente-patterned tapestry of searches for truth through individual and group development. We are less distinguishable from our sister HBCUs in that regard than in our scale, scope and concentration. In those major differences, however, lie our central challenges and opportunities.

Altering the group trajectory of a collage of people bound together by radical imaginaries, structural oppression and collective trauma is unimaginable for predominately White institutions in a settler-colony turned experimental multinational state never designed to attempt such a thing. Even now, many would counsel Howard to abandon the attempt. However, now in its 150th year as a university of training mostly Africans to fill a staggering range of undergraduate, graduate, professional and post-graduate needs, dreams and obligations, Howard manages an absurd set of expectations. Self-infl icted wounding born of enslavement’s legacy of learned self-contempt intermittently spurs too many of us to periodic despair, corrosive distraction and unacceptably anemic fi nancial support. Still, buoyed by trust in common purpose, we manage to rise.

Our service will not be found in data sets projecting algorithms for future labor markets or market trends, but in what Christian Madsbjerg calls “sensemaking,” or the cultivation of deep, complex, nuanced and transformative ways of thinking about the world. The service produced by what that alchemy engenders extends from a community of lives, in Du Bois’ words, “lit by some larger vision.” We have worked and we work, as our ancient Egyptian ancestors would have phrased it, in Ma’at (truth) and Shemes (service), to advance our common humanity. We may never meet Du Bois’ challenge. But tomorrow is another day, in service to a people and a world, to try.

Gregory E. Carr, Ph.D., J.D., is associate professor of Africana studies and chair of the Howard University Department of Afro-American Studies.

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