HBCU Humanities Remains a Powerful Element of Development for Black Communities

Alabama State University College of Visual and Performing Arts

Food for thought before the robots take over.

The arts isn’t for everyone, but they should always be available for people to change their minds about them. Every child deserves the right to be forced to sit through a play, a musical, a classical concert or a dance theater presentation, to earn the opportunity to hate it and to vow never to return again in their adulthood.

Because out of the ten children who attend one of these shows, one of those kids is going to love it. The emotions conjured by sound and sight can move people, not just children, to think of themselves as so much bigger than their circumstances and so much smaller than they knew in the grand design of creation.

Those are the moments that make the arts and humanities an essential part of the human experience. It’s not enough to enjoy comedy or drama on television with commercialized, stereotypical presentations of living and human purpose. Even with mainstream television offering more quality black content than ever, there’s only so much depth or so much complexity a character or cast can deliver in 30 or 60-minute blocks of time once a week, or even during a series binge.

So this availability of humanities, exposure to the artistic analyses of the human condition, are essential for black youth and black communities. They offer the critical counter-narrative to coverage of black poverty and its offshoots; violence, and crime. Often in black cities and towns, you’ll only find these important depictions at HBCUs, where students and faculty produce the visual and performing arts that add nuance to our understanding of our lives in appropriate contexts.

The HBCU series of lectures, concerts, plays, exhibits and expositions are the few places where you can see black humanity with the all-important cultural context and introspection. And it is done without the filter of seeing our lives simply through spectra of struggle or being outnumbered and oppressed. We can see ourselves, for better and for worse, for who we really are.

This was the idea behind Livingstone College’s recent play honoring the 10th anniversary of President Jimmy Jenkins. When you read coverage about the production in the Salisbury Post, you see that it was more than just a play, but an educational tool for the campus community and all of its residents.

HBCU play celebrates Dr. Jenkins' 10-year anniversary – Salisbury Post

“My play didn’t deal with racism, water hoses, dogs, etc.,” (Livingstone Theater Professor Michael) Connor said. “My play dealt with why black people need to get an education. I wanted it to be educational, and after it was over, people actually told me they learned things from it that they didn’t know. For example, one of the custodians at Livingstone told me he didn’t know what the colors red, black and green stood for until he saw the play. And many students and even one of our professors told me they didn’t know that Livingstone College is the only North Carolina HBCU that was founded and operated by African-Americans.”

HBCU academic offerings are built on the same principle, delivering the standards in both white and black American contexts. So when you learn English and literature, you learn both Chaucer and Baldwin; Shakespeare and Hughes. When you are taught history at a black college, domestic affairs to you represents the perspective of both the United States along with those the African Diaspora; the narratives, cultures, and politics of both Judeo-Christian manifest destiny and Afro-Carribean resistance.

And in all respects, these invaluable lessons are affordable and presented by people who look, think and feel as you do. The increasing enterprise of Lin-Manuel Miranda and his rightfully earned place as America’s playwright are in the tradition of the HBCU role in the Chitlin’ Circuit, which along with black metropolitan enclaves played midwife to African American art, culture and lifestyle becoming what we today know simply as American pop culture.

Much like athletics, you don’t have to make significant financial decisions to have a memorable night out on the town or for an elementary or middle school class to see a high-caliber fine arts production. It doesn’t cost hundreds of dollars to be moved or to be inspired by fine arts. And you don’t have to travel hundreds of miles to see your traditions and culture represented appropriately in the arts.

When we think about why HBCUs must stay open, these are the elements that are often forgotten, the aspects of human flourishing and inspiration that, for black folks, will not be found in many other places should HBCU campuses disappear. Sadly, some of them will have to go, and when they do, these assets for children and communities will be sorely missed.

And when they go, so will future generations of storytellers and artists, who hopefully will fin
d other institutions from which to learn and earn degrees, will not find the same inspiration or tradition which have carried these campuses for so long, and can continue to carry them if we realize their power and necessity.