She looks and sounds like royalty to us, not just because she is a brilliant mathematician and belongs to us as sister, role model and matriarch, but because more years are behind her than are before her. We give Katherine Johnson reverence, as colleges all over the country have done from Johns Hopkins University to her alma mater West Virginia State University, to commemorate her brilliance that for too long was not part of the conversation on the metaphysics of ‘Black Girl Magic.’
Johnson shared some of that magic as Hampton University’s commencement speaker this past weekend, her recorded remarks played for the graduating class while she looked on from the dais.
Johnson deserved better, far and long ago. But we can make it right for her by acknowledging today’s HBCU-bred men and women who are on the cusp of world-class excellence, so that we no longer have to worry about any of our graduates changing the course of human history, but receiving just due decades after their physical capacity to enjoy the celebration of their brilliance.
This isn’t to blame West Virginia State or any other HBCU for not keeping tabs on distinguished graduates, but it is a heartfelt nudge to our schools to remember that greatness doesn’t just happen; it emerges over years with the fledgling moments typically revealing themselves in childhood and young adulthood. When a professor notices an ease in aptitude or performance from a student, or when an administrator notices a particular spark from a young faculty member, that is the cue for the good among us to work harder in pushing the great among us forward.
It is not enough to say “this student is brilliant, and deserves the time for me to connect them to a competitive internship or a job.” It is the least we can do to keep in contact with these brilliant minds, to be available for continuing mentorship and support, and advice when solicited.
Etching their names into school history is just the beginning. They are the architects of their fate, but all of us should do a better job as the scribes of the same. We should go out of our way to make sure that schools are not only aware of the evolving greatness of students and graduates, but are publishing it as a matter of record and preservation.
History can be the foundation upon which legends are built or the pit within which greatness toils in obscurity. And too often, HBCU history dwells in darkness, because schools failed to properly secure archived information in a crumbling library, or because a former staff member took important photos and documents with them upon their retirement or exit from a campus.
There is no reason for Morgan State to be unaware of what someone like Nic Edwards is doing; a prodigious business student from Baltimore City who with his unlimited choice in colleges, opted to tether his name and career to that of Baltimore’s flagship black college. Today, he’s an analyst with a global investment firm, and is a willing advocate for the HBCU experience and its value in shaping tranformative careers and people.
Priscilla Barbour once was a student government president working to secure polling stations on the campus of Prairie View A&M University. She worked to reverse a generations-long disparity in voting access and equity, and won. Today, she works as a Congressional fellow, on a trajectory of civil service and political influence.
These are graduates who should be in alumni magazines, on billboards, and in contact with presidents as frequently as possible. Because one day they’ll be rich and powerful. They’ll know rich and powerful people. And if they remember their campuses, they’ll do all they can to make their schools rich and powerful.
But if you leave them as hidden figures, greatness unworthy of light and accolades, you diminish their college experience and fade their memories as ambassadors and advocates. You lose their interest and their commitment beyond homecoming, or possibly advocating for other young people to go and to receive the same experience they once had.
It doesn’t cost much to lift up the best among us. Black folks invented guerilla marketing, and yet, do not use it to promote the value of our own HBCU brands and value.
Katherine Johnson came of age as a math genius in the 1960s, so it makes sense that we did not hear about her life and legacy for more than 50 years. There is no reason for that to be the same story for any other HBCU Genius in 2017 and beyond.
We should give our best and brightest the best of our world while they can still enjoy it, and while they can still change it in support of HBCUs.