I had some time to kill before I gave a talk last year at Harvard Books in Cambridge, Mass., so I decided to walk across the street to check out the world famous Hah-vahd Yahd.
Although I had never toured the campus, I was struck by a powerful case of déjà vu. At a certain angle, peering up at a massive brick building through heavy black iron gates, I could easily have been looking at Howard University’s Douglass Hall, where I spent some of the happiest years of my life as a political science major in the late 1990s. It hit me again when I looked at a university clock tower that was a dead ringer for the iconic clock on Founder’s library. Looking around everything looked the same as the D.C. campus, only bigger.
It was common for historically black schools to be modeled after New England liberal arts colleges, according to the architecture historian Amber Wiley. Those kinds of pretensions are built into the bricks. But today, those “black Ivy” aspirations are colliding against a post-civil rights reality. Howard is reportedly fighting for its financial life and university President Sidney Ribeau abruptly announced he was retiring this week after a tense meeting with the board of trustees. National rankings are down. Federal funding from Congress shrinks every year. And with 5,000 staff members for 10,000 students, even loyal alumni are questioning whether the university has strayed from its racial justice mission and become a jobs program.
Beyond elitist mimicry, what is Howard’s mission in 2013? Providing a compelling answer to this question will encourage the 84 percent of Howard alumni who reportedly do not give back to step up and help put it on a path to self-sufficiency.
Ever since Congress chartered Howard to educate newly emancipated slaves in 1867, the goal was to engineer a society with no need for a black Ivy League. But for generations, legal exclusion from the larger society forced it into that role. And from mass incarceration, to glaring health, wealth and education inequalities along racial lines, clearly there is still so much work to do.
But it is impossible to tackle these issues unless we have an honest conversation about the predatory relationship the “Talented Tenth” has historically had with our poor and working-class brethren. For all of the Howard Homecoming parties, where we bask in our beauty and accomplishments, what are alumni doing to leave the door open behind them? For all of the six-figure jobs in business, or even solid jobs as teachers produced by historically black colleges and universities, how much opportunity and wealth reach black communities?
I don’t expect black middle-class people to commit class suicide any more than any other American. But if your job or educational training are federally subsidized in the name of your less fortunate brethren, that’s the deal. Without this implicit bargain, what is the moral case for Howard?
Since graduating from Howard, I have had a tortured ambivalence about these segregated spaces. I like sitting at the black table just fine, but I wonder how effective it is to preach to the choir. I strongly believe that conversations and scholarship about race are even more needed among white people.
It is telling that this essay is being published on the last day of another experiment in inclusion, The Root DC, a page printed in The Washington Post’s Metro section for the past two years that is going away with the sale of the paper. (The Root, a black-interest Web magazine founded by The Post Co. in 2008, will continue online after the sale.) But would you be reading these words if not for the affirmative steps The Post Co. took in creating The Root to hear from more voices?
Indeed, it defeats the purpose if black institutions become shadow societies that replicate the inequities of the dominant culture. But if the school continues to do what it does best—expanding new angles of inquiry and vision, and connecting the African Diaspora in the global fight for racial justice and equality — then Congress has a moral authority to continue to support it. And those of us who have been beneficiaries of the Howard experience need to reengage and carry more of the financial burden.
President Ribeau has done a lot right. He quadrupled alumni giving. (Howard now has a $525 million endowment, higher than any other black school.) He also zeroed in on academic concentrations that can have the biggest impact. Although it may be where the corporate money is, I disagree that impact is mostly in the math, science and engineering fields.
I was recently reminded of the power of socially engaged scholarship during a talk at George Washington University given by Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer and author of the groundbreaking book on mass incarceration, “The New Jim Crow.” She gave a thrilling keynote speech. During audience questions, someone noted that the room was packed with likeminded individuals. She was . . . preaching to the choir. Without other people in the room, how can we expect to topple the mighty forces in the legal and political system that are discarding a generation of mostly black men?
Alexander didn’t miss a beat. “First of all, I think we need to start organizing the choir,” she said.
Indeed. Most of Howard’s choir has not even been born yet. Alumni are everywhere. Remind us what you are doing and why you are still there. Let’s all party at Homecoming this year, but afterward, put us to work.
Natalie Hopkinson is the author of “Go-Go Live: The Musical Life & Death of a Chocolate City. She’s Nattyrankins on Twitter. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.