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By Marlyn Thomas

Near the halfway mark of Black History Month, my undergraduate institution, Fort Valley State University, held its annual Scholarship Luncheon, an event whose fundraising efforts go towards student scholarships to support the next generation as they pursue the first leg of their dreams. But that event was overshadowed in the press by the remarks of Dr. Butts, a professor who exhibited little empathy or cultural awareness during a business class. The professor, a long standing educator in the department of business, asked a student to remove his hoodie and quipped thereafter, according to @janeithedoll, the student account that posted the incident on social media, that he was not “going for skittles and sweet tea,” a clear reference to the image of slain teenager Trayvon Martin. The Twitterverse went ballistic but when it was revealed the professor is a Black woman, some fell silent, and the revelation that the incident happened on the campus of a historically Black college, an HBCU, left many puzzled. Everyone should be disappointed and outraged, but I can say I was not puzzled because I learned long ago that anti-Black sentiments can exist at Black institutions. 

Just last year, a Black professor at Paine College, Dr. Hutcherson, penned an article in the local newspaper with the premise that Black people ourselves are responsible for the killings of Black men by white police officers. He believes that these vigilantes are simply tired of Black people playing victim and wanting to be segregated. Because of First Amendment Rights and academic freedom, he is allowed to have his opinions and interpretations of current events. But the obvious line of thinking is how and what does/did he teach Black students about themselves, their history, and this country if his mindset is that the victims of racism are to blame when racist acts are inflicted upon them? With such ideas running amuck amongst Black faculty, perhaps it is time we turn our gaze and a critical eye to our community with special attention given to our thinking about ourselves and what is taught in yes, our educational institutions. 

The coupling of respectability politics and anti-Blackness found a home in the bosom of some departments at HBCUs and has cost us students and much needed programs. I watched the dismantling of the African World Studies Institute at Fort Valley years ago due mainly to the founders being categorized as a radical, unsavory bunch of intellectuals talking about Africa. We lost a treasure trove of people with rich experiences; the classes they wrote and the activities they sponsored left with them. Black Studies and African American Studies should be flourishing as disciplines at HBCUs, but are often missing except in Student Activities and this has to change. To add, the complex history of many HBCUs are steeped in class politics and concepts of ideal beauty (often reflective of European standards) as well as epochs littered with brown paper bag tests and elitist concepts of belonging based on white standards of excellence. 

Unfortunately, proximity to the politics of whiteness can affect tenure and promotion, project assignment, funding of research, and professional support such as financial contribution to conference attendance; inability or refusal to conform can put a career at stake so some professors fall in line by keeping their heads down when a line is drawn in the sand concerning acceptable forms of Blackness and unacceptable forms. If we claim to be about diversity, we too have to understand it is not just skin color that has to find acceptance but various modes of Blackness that celebrate the local as well as the global. We have to make space for a Tanehisi Coates, an Alice Walker, a Chimamanda Adichie, a James Baldwin, not just at the larger institutions, but at the smaller ones as well. If we want everyone else to see us as diverse, we have to first value that diversity, instead of baptizing it in conformity that robs it of its beauty. 

Earlier in February I attended a virtual lecture that focused on the acceptance of marginalized people when they actualize whiteness. When I brought up the topic of respectability politics and proximity to whiteness at HBCUs, no one wanted to touch the subject. Instead, the question was rerouted into comments about how HBCUs need funding (which they do), and when the topic was picked up again it was applied to Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs), sans HBCU consideration and I was told good luck on my endeavors (the speaker assuming I was trying to gain promotion). The only way that we can improve is to take an honest inventory of where we have fallen short and apply practical solutions, not lip service via hailing our historic and glorious past. One area that we have overlooked in our never ending search for funding and attempts to prove to the outside world that we are viable is allowing anti-Black sentiments and very narrow views about what it means to be Black in America to run amuck. 

The pandemics of 2020 brought about a cultural reckoning in the United States in the areas of medicine, community liaison work, healthcare, racist policies, the policing of Black and Brown communities, and other intersectional parts of all of our lives. As PWIs scramble to create or expand offices of Diversity and Inclusion, a cultural reckoning must also come to the campuses of HBCUs that address anti-Black sentiments, student safety and wellbeing, as well as cultural diversity and sensitivity training for all educators and administrators. Since the cultural impact of Black Lives Matter and its righteous light shining on police brutality against Black people, we have seen an increase in enrollment and interest in HBCUs and the culture. If we are to preserve the legacy of Black schools that center the success of Black and all students who find themselves othered, we have to be clear about what is acceptable in our institutions and what is not; otherwise, we bastardize our mission to encourage and develop those who have been or would otherwise be left behind in a racist educational system. Black students are not coming to campus (a supposed safe space) with the expectation of encountering the same racist language they encounter on the outside. Further, the pitifulness of respectability politics that allows any one of us to believe that education will save us is sad indeed. What the incident at Fort Valley has shown us is what 90s hip hop preached to us and I paraphrase: we need to check ourselves (and each other) before we wreck ourselves. 

Marlyn Thomas is an instructor and writer who focuses on the Black experience in the humanities. She currently teaches at East Georgia State College.

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