By William A. Foster, IV
I know no national boundary where the Negro is concerned. The whole world is my province until Africa is free. – Marcus Garvey
Let me say this first – African America must define itself. Again, African American must define itself. It must not be defined by the federal government or those in ivory towers in lands far away. No, African America must define itself. That includes all institutions that have been created to serving our interest.
What is an HBCU? We know the acronym stands for Historically Black Colleges & Universities. We know that it was the federal government that defined an HBCU as an institution whose primary mission was to educate African Americans and established prior to 1964. This inflexible definition based on a founding year sounds a lot like what those in geostrategy would call containment. George F. Keenan, a career Foreign Service Officer, created the policy, strategy, and term of containment to deal with the Soviet Union after World War II. The strategy has been used in many different facets from the very macro level of countries to organizations on micro levels. It has been used by McDonald’s against Burger King and Wendy’s by a strategy of buying and controlling prime property locations when possible. By limiting what an HBCU can be, there seems to be a policy to contain African American institutional power. Unfortunately, HBCUs themselves are contributing to this containment themselves.
Chicago State, Charles Drew University, Martin College, Roxbury Community College, Medgar Ever College all serve predominantly African American populations, but are not considered HBCUs by the federal government and do not receive federal funding – more importantly there does not seem to be effort by traditional HBCUs themselves to include these institutions into the fabric. These schools are located in Illinois, California, Indiana, Massachusetts, and New York, respectively. All strategic geographic areas for African America. Instead, we allow for schools like Bluefield State College, West Virginia State University, and at least six other colleges who have federal HBCU designations, but have predominantly European American populations to receive federal funding under the guise of being HBCUs. They are historic certainly, but have long since not been under the control of African America. Even if we can not change the statute of the funding – debatable since that is what amendments are for – we can do a better job of expanding our geographic reach of what an HBCU is nationally by including the aforementioned schools rather than holding onto institutions we have long since lost control of.
Can HBCUs be more than colleges and universities though? I believe it can, if you believe that an HBCUs purpose in spirit is to serve the institutional development of African America. It can and should include predominantly African American cities and towns, neighborhoods, secondary schools, banks and credit unions, businesses (the reason for the creation of HBCU Chamber of Commerce), colleges and universities outside of the United States serving African Diaspora populations, and other institutions whose purpose are deemed to create an ecosystem of African America’s ability to circulate its social, economic, and political assets. By allowing the term HBCU to transcend colleges and universities it allows a flag of unity and interlocking to be established.
HBCUs are facing threats on a number of fronts. Some of these threats are internal like endowments, alumni giving, and some external like state and federal policies and outside influence looking to dilute and contain HBCUs as institutions of African American institutional power. The way to combat this is to expand not retrench. An HBCU manifest destiny I dare call it. The old saying a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, but what if the chain is not even interlocking? Outside of some loose conference interlocking, there seems to be very little interlocking of African American institutions with each other and HBCUs are no different. We could can help this by expanding the definition of HBCU and defining it ourselves. A definition based on inclusion of other institutions who are working towards the same goals and missions as HBCUs.