When to Celebrate, and When to Sell HBCU Excellence

Grambling State University’s Shakyla Hill messed around and got a quadruple-double last week, earning accolades from Louisiana to Bristol, CT.

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QUADRUPLE-DOUBLE for Grambling State’s Shakyla Hill! It’s the first quadruple-double in women’s D-1 in almost 25 years.

Her stat line was historic, and a big boost for Grambling and HBCU advocates nationwide who love to celebrate when our schools can capture fleeting moments of uncommon excellence.

But there’s a price that comes along with the embrace of the impossible, improbable and unbelievable; even though we know HBCUs by their construct are the living embodiments of the statistical unlikely, we have to avoid creating the perception that magic is what our campuses do every day.

A quadruple-double is rare at every level of basketball, so anyone who does it is going to earn a keen level of recognition. But black colleges should take the moments like Hill’s amazing night on the hardwood to emphasize that they too specialize in doing common things with uncommon consistency.

We see this frequently in sports – Norfolk State over Missouri, Hampton over Iowa State, Coppin State over South Carolina, Southern over Georgia Tech. But those magical moments aren’t even the best parts of what HBCUs bring to the athletic realm.

University of Maryland Eastern Shore winning three NCAA women’s bowling national championships in four years is sustained excellence.


Kiana Johnson leading Virginia Union University to the NCAA women’s basketball quarterfinals, earning NCAA Player of the Year honors, and emerging as one of the best players in international women’s basketball is sustained excellence.

Ex-Virginia Union star Kiana Johnson now lighting it up in Finland

Former Virginia Union star Kiana Johnson crisscrossed the nation displaying her basketball talents in college. Now the 5-foot-6, sharp-shooting, slick-passing guard has jetted across the globe to show what made her 2016 NCAA Division II Player of the Year. Although she was the CIAA Player of the Year, Johnson didn’t get picked in the WNBA draft.

It is sad to consider that the only reason this team and this athlete don’t get the same love for consistency as Tarik Cohen receives is our gender biases, but the point is that all three are examples of world-class performance, enacted over and over again.

And there are many ways in which HBCUs, in sports, academics and social outreach, give the world consistent excellence without screaming crowds or highlights. Southern University researchers helped to prove a generations-old theory of physics last year.

What makes them excellent is not the amazing discovery, but that their school is competitive enough to be in a federally-funded network of college-based astrophysics laboratories.

That’s the HBCU magic.

Our job as advocates is to make sure that as many people as we can touch in our inner circles are aware of the common excellence our schools deliver. Yes, we should hype up anomalies when we can get them, but they should only be the conversation starter on what makes HBCUs great, and not framed as what we always do, every day, without fail.

Avoiding HBCU hero worship is not just an effort to sell the real HBCU narrative, but it helps us to avoid the instances when fleeting genius can backfire. Remember Ralph Jones Jr, the prodigy who turned down scholarship offers from Ivy League schools to attend Florida A&M?

He attended. But he didn’t finish there.

What Happened After a 16-year-old Chose FAMU Over Harvard

There has been a swarm of media reports celebrating young African-American teenagers who have been killing it in college admissions. There are the DC-area triplets deciding between Columbia and University of Pennsylvania, the North Carolina young man who got into seven Ivy League schools and the New York teen who got accepted into all eight prestigious universities.

Clearly, there are other whiz kids who choose HBCUs and who graduate and go onto to stellar careers and lives. But they don’t earn the spotlight which Jones did a few years ago, because their brand wasn’t built on a moment of fleeting excellence like choosing a black college over an Ivy League school.

HBCU excellence in all forms should be celebrated, but we have to be much more careful in the moments we choose to sell. Because if we hitch the HBCU narrative to people and achievements which have never happened before and could very well never happen again, the culture and all it has to offer through hard work over generations can be lost in a white-hot moment in time.

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