There is a hallowed phrase, « knowledge is power » — but what does power really mean? Power is a means of protection and a means of attack. A weapon always reveals its utility in a balance of power. Deprived of physical freedom, the African slaves who became the Afro-Americans were continuous victims of their lack of power in a system that was set up to destroy them and constantly deny their humanity. Stuck laboring in the fields for the most part, it was not only their physical freedom that was deprived, but they were also deprived of access to intellectual opportunities which negatively  impacted their collective power. With the official end of slavery, new possibilities finally opened up for Afro-Americans. Aware of the necessity to gain power to defend themselves in a system that was designed with the sole ambition to keep them at the bottom of society, education appeared to be one of the main tools to pave the way for their future successes. Although the official form of slavery purported to end with the Civil War, racism and the structures of exclusion codified in civil society did not  disappear. The Afro-Americans had to create their own educational institutions, including colleges, if they wanted to reach the highest levels of knowledge. Their colleges came to be known as HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). A significant number of HBCUs were founded all around the United States to meet the needs of this community and many of these institutions still exist today. I interviewed a graduate of an HBCU to find answers to some of the questions that piqued my curiosity  about HBCUs.

1) What is the main difference between a HBCU college and a College classified as traditional?

The main difference between historically black colleges and universities and traditional colleges and universities, is that the traditional institutions for most of their history  excluded African Americans and others of color from attending in the first place. The exclusionary practices found in higher education were simply a continuation of the societal prejudice that plagued the U.S. public education system and every other sector of civic life. In response to this discrimination, HBCUs were established to give the newly freed African Americans a sort of universal opportunity to obtain an excellent education and to pursue careers in academic and professional fields that were traditionally reserved for whites. Of course, there were always historical exceptions of free African Americans, wealthy African Americans and plain lucky African Americans who were able to attend traditional colleges and universities (such as Richard Theodore Greener, the first African American to attend Harvard University), but these individuals were the rare exception.

2) Was it obvious for you that you should attend a black college?

I grew up in northern California, where there are no HBCUs but I was exposed to HBCUs as a child. For example, often heard about different HBCUs like Morehouse, Spelman and Howard. I also was fortunate enough to watch the Battle of the Bands a few times as a child, which is an impressive performance competition between the bands from various HBCUs that tour the U.S. each  year. To anyone reading this article, if you have not seen a live performance by an HBCU band, I highly recommend it! It is an experience to watch, whether at a Homecoming football game or at an event like the Battle of the Bands.

hbcu band
Talladega Marching Band

But as a Californian, I would say it was not obvious that I should attend a black college. I think that African Americans who grow up closer to an HBCU campus are more likely to grow up with the expectation that they might attend. I remember watching the very popular Cosby Show spinoff, A Different World, growing up, which was a show Bill Cosby created to make more Americans aware of the world of HBCUs and higher education in general. On A Different World, the show depicts a fictional HBCU campus that is attended by one of Bill Cosby’s fictional children. I would say that show, which was very well written, smart and funny, planted a seed in me that a black college was a place that could be for me. But it still felt really far away.

3) Is the education provided by HBCUs  as good as that of traditional colleges? Is the tuition are the same?

Since there is such a large plethora of universities and colleges throughout the U.S., it is hard to compare any two, especially if one is an apple and the other is an orange. I would say yes, the various school options offer a similar quality of education. The areas where there are variation, however, are what each prospective student must focus on. In other words, prospective students need to be self-aware and understand what type of college experience they are looking for so they can choose the college that best fits their needs.

Similarly, the tuition also varies. Higher education is generally very expensive in the U.S., unless one attends a community college or lives in one of the more affordable states. Some HBCUs are private, some are public. Some receive substantial government funding which helps to subsidize the cost for the students. Others receive more philanthropic donations and as a result can offer competitive scholarships to scholars, athletes and musicians to attend their school. But overall the cost of an HBCU is comparable to attending a traditional college.

4) Which HBCU did you attend? Why did you choose this one?

My dream college growing up was actually Georgetown University. But I applied to a variety of schools, including HBCUs. I was not accepted to Georgetown and I am so grateful, because that allowed me to attend my next choice school which was Howard University, the preeminent HBCU in Washington DC. I was so thankful to be accepted to Howard University because of its history, traditions and location. I knew I wanted to study political science and eventually become an attorney, so Howard, with its rich legacy of producing renowned alumni in politics and law turned out to be a great fit for me.

My older sister also had a huge influence on my decision to attend Howard. She attended the University of Southern California and loved her experience there for the most part, but after she graduated and started making her way in the real world — she noticed that all of the movers and shakers in her peer group in Los Angeles were proud alumni of HBCUs.

My sister was quite curious about this dynamic and spoke to many of her HBCU alumni friends who shared with her that their educational experience was invaluable to them. They claimed that the HBCUs helped to mold them into the well rounded and successful individuals who  excelled in their chosen fields.  My sister took note of this and persuaded my second older sister to attend Howard University for college and she enrolled in 1999. I followed my second older sister to Howard and enrolled two years later. My second older sister and I were truly molded in a positive way by this new environment, particularly with it being our first time living outside of California and our first experience being in a majority black environment.

5) What did you personally gain from attending a black college, now that you have some distance from this experience?

The experience enriched my life in so many ways, that I don’t know where to begin. I will tell you what comes to my mind immediately, but this is actually a topic I will meditate on for the rest of my life!

The first thing I gained from attending an HBCU was the freedom to be myself. By being in an environment where 95% of the faculty, staff, and students around me looked like me, a weight was lifted on my shoulder. I no longer had the pressure that comes naturally, when you find yourself being the only black person in the room, here in the U.S. By being able to finally not focus on my race or identity, I was able to find my identity outside of my race and the color of my skin. The best thing to me about Howard was the utter and unrivaled diversity. Some people assume that because an HBCU is black, that all the people are the same. Nothing could be farther from the truth! And I think the diversity that Howard offered in particular really prepared me well for life after college.

On Howard’s campus, I found myself suddenly surrounded by black, brown,mixed, and other people from all over the African diaspora. I met Trinidadians, Ghanaians, Gabonese, Ethiopians, Ukrainians,  Somalis, Spaniards and more for the first time. Even the experience of meeting students from all over the U.S. was enlightening, learning the differences between students from Atlanta and New Orleans; New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana;  New York versus New Jersey,  people from DC versus Maryland, people from Connecticut, Seattle, Arizona, rural Florida — you name it! It was very liberating and refreshing for me to learn firsthand that there are so many ways to be “black” and so much complexity and nuance to identity, besides race, color or appearance.

I met students from a variety of backgrounds as well. Some were fourth generation Howardites; while other students were the first in their family to graduate high school and attend college. I met people who grew up in public housing in New York, people from Nigeria who grew up with maids, wealthy African Americans who had two parents that were doctors and drove fancy cars, and religious people from the south who asked about my “home church” ( a concept I had not heard of before).

Due to the significant exposure I had to other cultures, I became more curious about the rest of the world. I studied abroad in Spain during college, which was a wonderful experience in part because I went there with a cohort of about seven other black students from Howard. It was an invaluable opportunity for me to live in another country for six months, attend classes only in Spanish, live with a host family and to truly become bilingual. In my profession as an attorney, I use Spanish everyday to communicate with clients.

The best part of attending Howard was having the majority of my teachers look like me. First of all it was really cool to just see other blacks who valued education and were passionate about it to the point that they had dedicated a part of their lives to teaching the next generation. I had never had that experience before of being able to relate so closely to my professors and it made me love learning even more. That says a lot because I was already a nerd! I had black and brown professors from Egypt and Ghana and from Philly and Omaha. I really bonded with my professors, went to their office hours all the time and sometimes had lunch with them.

One day it hit me while I was a Howard student that from preschool to the 12th grade, I had only had three black teachers (and one was a PE teacher, so not sure if that counts). Most of my teachers growing up were white. Many of those white teachers were lovely and had a positive impact in my life; yet some of them were openly racist and discouraged me from taking Advanced Placement classes and from attending college. I started to contemplate how those experiences had impacted me along the way, both consciously and subconsciously.

6) Did you have the impression that attending an HBCU locked you up in the black world? From abroad this is the impression that it gives.

Not at all! And the funny thing is that the people who have this impression are always the outsiders – meaning those who never attended an HBCU. The funny thing is that the biggest criticism of HBCUs is that (1) the education is inferior — which is false, (2) that it is too black and doesn’t prepare you for the real world, and (3) that you can’t succeed in mainstream (white) American if you graduate from an HBCU. All of these misconceptions are false.

I also do not feel like the other students felt trapped. There was so much solidarity amongst the students because most of the people you meet there are there because they want to be, and they love it just as much as you do. I feel like attending Howard opened up a new world to me, one that I would not have been exposed to had I not attended. So if anything, the experience enhanced my life and added so much to it. And again, once I got into the real world, having that Howard connection made such an impact on my interactions, whenever I met another Howardite or HBCU alum. People have heard so much about HBCUs and are excited to ask you about your experience, when they learn you attended one.

7) What does the fact that HBCUs still exist reveal, knowing that they were created because of segregation?

The existence of HBCUs reveals the determination of African Americans to improve their situation and to obtain a high quality education by any means necessary, to liberate ourselves through education. It’s easy for people to take HBCUs for granted and to declare them as obsolete institutions because they don’t know the history. I encourage people to actually read about the histories of these universities and the legacies they have contributed to the U.S. and to the world, before simply dismissing them out of ignorance.

Take Fisk University for example. What a bold statement to create a black university on a hilltop in Nashville, the state capitol of Tennessee only one year after the Civil War ended! The south was completely broke and destroyed. What kind of people had the vision, the audacity, and the wherewithal to rise from the ashes of slavery’s end and the end of the most deadly war in the U.S., to give birth to this sacred place that is Fisk University?  A campus that was graced by the presence of such important historical figures like James Weldon Johnson and WEB Du Bois. A campus whose students went on to play a huge role in the civil rights movement and other historical events…

The existence of HBCUs also reveals, to some extent, the U.S. government’s acknowledgement of its wrongs through institutional racism. The fact that the government subsidizes HBCUs is a form of reparations, even if it’s not called that. THe fact also proves that the need for these institutions is there, because why would the government invest in them if not?

The existence of HBCUs likewise demonstrates the need for diversity in higher education, in terms of academic areas, faculty, students and the philosophy of higher education in general. For example, HBCUs pioneered African American studies and African studies … then the traditional institutions followed that example albeit begrudgingly.  HBCUs were also amongst the first colleges in the U.S. to admit women, Native Americans and other students of color.

Finally, the fact that HBCUs still exist reveals that there is still segregation and racism in this country. So likewise, there is still a need for people of color to have their own safe spaces to learn and grow.

8) Alumni of HBCUs are educated and are supposed to at least middle class but will work in an environment where in general the majority of the population is white. How does it feel to suddenly be surrounded by white people when you are immersed for so long in the black world?

In my experience, my life has been in the white world and now that I am a professional in the middle class it probably always will be, unless I move to a majority black or brown country. For me, attending Howard was like a four year vacation away from the mainstream, a place where I could just peacefully be myself, focus on learning, and not have to answer questions about race, or my hair, or my skin tone. I don’t think any HBCU student expects life after college to be like the HBCU. Similarly, I don’t think most college students expect life after college to be the same as college. But perhaps for students who grew up in majority black areas, then attend HBCUs, entering the white world as a middle class professional could be more of a culture shock.

9) Coming from a black college, is that fact something that the employer will pay attention to in general?

Most of my employers did not really care about where I went to school, they looked more at my grades and past work experience. But for those employers who were familiar with Howard, they loved having the opportunity to discuss it with me and many seemed proud of themselves for being in the know!

10) Don’t you have the impression that the big trap in this country is the fact that the people see the world through race and not social class, knowing that this vision has been implemented by the white people who are in power?

I do. I have the impression that there are so many traps in the U.S., as in things that try to distract us from our humanity and what is really going on in this country. But race by far is the biggest trap — it is the biggest facade for sure.

11) For me, it was really strange for example to hear that there is a Latino vote or a black vote? I think a black poor person and a white poor person have a lot more in common. What is your opinion?

I agree. It is offensive to describe the votes of minorities that way, because although these groups do tend to vote in blocks; we forget that they only have two choices! If we had a better and more diverse political system, I think we would be able to see the different perspectives amongst the voters. The current system is not very democratic at all, and just requires us to pick the less of two evils. Also the media rarely refers to the “white vote” because whites are considered to be a group of people made up of individuals with different perspectives — unlike the portrayal of minorities.

12) One thing that really surprised me in this country is the fact that the different racial communities live side by side but don’t really know each other. Do you think that the subversive act would be to mix the populations as much as possible to destroy the racial divisions in this country?  

I think the real subversion is for Americans to reclaim their humanity and to let go of the guiding principles of individualism and capitalism. I think those values are what will change the thinking in this country, because race is just a distraction.

13) How do you visualize the evolution of race relations in this country?

Honestly, I do not know. I hope that we will wake up one day and see the falsity of race. But I think one of the best ways to do this is to research and tell the truth about the history of the people in this country, so we can understand that we have always lived side by side; whether we liked it or not. America is one big family that is in denial of the fact. I think that the popularity of DNA testing and of family ancestry research is going to help to paint the more realistic picture of our country’s past and present, which should help us going into our future.

14) Do you hope that your children will go to an HBCU? Why or why not?

I would not want to deny my children the dynamic experience of going to an HBCU if they wanted to. But my biggest concern actually, is that my children will have an affordable education. I do not want my children to be saddled with outrageously high predatory student loans like my experience after finishing my higher education. In other words, I would love for my children to have the HBCU experience but I don’t want them to have to pay a half million dollars for that education — no educational program is worth that amount!

15) Do you think that the new way to exclude black people and the poor in general from the educational system is the high amount of tuition that prevents them from going to high quality high schools first and then continuing onto good colleges?

Yes, I do. And if you look at our history, there have always been dynamics in play to discourage black and brown populations from receiving a good education. But again, I think the trap is not so much against those who do not get a higher education. I think the trap has been set for those who have been told over and over that they should get a higher education and they do it and end up under a mountain of debt. That is not a just or sustainable system. No student should have to start their life off in debt because they simply wanted to learn or better themselves. I am strongly against this concept and the way that higher education is run, like a for-profit business.