HBCU: The 'N' Word of Higher Education

Some black folks use the term ‘nigger’ in jest. Some use it as a description of those closest to them or sharing similar ideals and experiences. Some throw out the word in serious tones to describe black folks falling short of expectations or potential.
Whether you are pro or anti-nigger, there’s a universal, grimly acknowledged truth about its ugly past, questionable present, and future necessity. Those of sense and sensibility would never publicly own up to leaning on the term in our private moments of endearment, frustration and humor.
So you ought to find it surprising when so many of our leading black scholars and campus executives use the term ‘HBCU’ as a politically correct, socially frightening way to say ‘nigger’ in public discussions about black people and higher education.
While the world outside of our village continues to question the value, merit and necessity of HBCUs, many HBCU presidents and chancellors are not-so-quietly contemplating the slickest way to stop referring to their institutions as HBCUs. Their question, how can we show the world that we’ve freed ourselves of the four letters – the tapestry of stereotypes and limitations tightly interwoven with generations of pride and accomplishment?
Much like ‘nigger’ has its place in black comedy and hip-hop culture, the term ‘HBCU’ has its place in our own family circles, mostly when it comes to getting that Title III money, applying for federal grants aimed at promoting diversity, promoting a Battle of the Bands or a football classic, or touting the number of qualified African-Americans trained at black colleges nationwide.
But more presidents than you would expect are suggesting that the term HBCU is one that elicits feelings of fear in white folks, failure in black folks, and ambivalence in everybody else. In their travels and wisdom, they grow in understanding that folks with long money don’t want to hear about HBCU pride or legacy, but the ability of a black college to provide research, jobs and profile building for the state and nation.
And they’re learning that the long money comes in a little easier when HBCU is not part of the appeal for support and philanthropy.
HBCUs, much like the term ‘nigger,’ were birthed out of the wicked mix of guilt and hate in post-abolition America. Like ‘nigger,’ these institutions grew into something less than hateful, but in some respects, a badge of endurance and pride in the face of adversity. They evolved to become a mocking salute to Jim Crow and segregationist policies designed to hasten the extinction of black Americans without the criminal appearance of such.
But like ‘nigger,’ the luster of mocking hate and disdain has faded with assimilation. In the press towards a ‘post-racial’ society, conversation grows louder among HBCU leadership about being ‘more than an HBCU.’ For this small group, its not good enough to be an HBCU with expanded missions, programming and facilities; there is an intense need to escape the historical descriptor.
We should hope for our leaders to be eloquent enough to argue that black leaders and faculty guiding and teaching black students does not make it inferior or less qualified for support, but more honorable in its mission of access and opportunity for all. We ought to pray for our leaders to be bold enough in their heritage and convictions to shout to the world that institutions serving black people are as relevant as those institutions serving military cadets or Catholic and Jewish students.
HBCUs are, at once, a plague on the collective white guilt and systemic racism of American higher education culture; from state boards to federal agencies and foundations. Strangely, some HBCU leaders are rushing to provide the antidote in exchange for better funding opportunities and personal legacy building. Their cure is to distance their institutions from the ‘HBCU’ label and to pray that folks forget the last 150 years.
‘HBCU’ is not a shameful label with controversy behind its usage. It is a label that gives the world historical respect and perspective on our institutions, while living in the innovative tradition of throwing open wide the doors of higher education to all, regardless of race. HBCUs are the institutions which continue to be the best choice for first-generation college students and high-achievers alike. They continue to produce remarkable success stories in spite of sparse resources and a lack of connectivity between the nation and their campuses.
And they will continue to do just that, because they are proud institutions of black brilliance. Even if a few of them have confused niggers at their helm.