Tell Them We Are Continuing

By Free Radicalindex

HBCU alumni make up one of the most dangerous constituencies in the USA. This immensely proud group is informed, relatively well resourced, and has an extensive social media and traditional network base. Capturing the narrative of such a group is a big risk that if executed correctly could yield great rewards. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s Tell Them We Are Rising, attempts to do just that. The documentary, which attempts to provides the more than century long history of HBCUs, in many ways successfully demonstrates the valuable contributions these institutions made while also examining their shortcomings. Yet, Tell Them We Are Rising is far from perfect and has received its fair share of criticisms, many of which are legitimate.

I strongly encourage you to view Tell Them We Are Rising yourself and draw your own conclusions. Whether we choose to love it or hate the film, the fact remains that it should not be the last word on HBCUs. Not because it is so inadequate, but there is no one documentary that can capture the HBCU experience. Watching the documentary made this point clear to me, but also particular issues that subsequent offerings should include. They are as follows:

1)Greater Balance- Tell Them We Are Rising left me wanting more. Such can be expected when telling a 150 year history in 90 minutes. Greater breadth would allow for additional case studies than the Fisk student uprising to symbolize the New Negro Movement on HBCU campuses and the 1972 tragic Southern shooting to showcase Black Power.

Additional treatments would also allow filmmakers to better trace the evolution of HBCUs better. Otherwise some would not know that the Fisk uprising was one of several or how it led to the gradual presence of Black administrators at HBCUS, including Fisk’s own first Black President, Charles Johnson, in 1944. It might also give viewers a more nuanced discussion of Tuskegee  and its founding principal Booker T. Washington, who was described as promoting a kind of “neoslavery.” Such a discussion could yield how the institution went from the leading institution of the controversial “industrial” style of education to becoming the home of some of the leading thinkers ,innovators, and pioneers among not only HBCUs but the world over. Red tails anyone?

2) Speak About Diversity

Tell Them We Are Rising, like many other treatments of HBCUs portray the institutions as if they are some sort of separate, excusive entity. In some ways they are correct as the colleges are almost all predominantly Black. Yet within this sea of Blackness, you have people of African descent from literally all parts of the world. Any HBCU that has a Caribbean club, or any student that has eaten fufu or Jollof rice for the first time can surely attest to this fact. Leaving out such an important detail can lead one to believe that Blackness is monolithic, a notion that is quickly dispelled whenever entering Black spaces such as HBCUs.

2) Include More Women

When an institution such as HBCUs with such a disproportionate enrollment of women, this subject of inquiry is definitely deserving of a closer look. Topics to be addressed include but are not limited to the corps of women faculty members, the spectacular ascendance of Spelman, and the curious fact that an institution which is in desperate need of more women presidents still somehow remains an incubators for future women leaders.

4) Hold White Supremacy’s Feet to the Fire

When discussing HBCUs, and their development, it must be told that this dramatic experiment occurred despite continuous state divestment and financial neglect which carries on to this day. Often times, Tell Them We Are Rising portrayed HBCUs as if they operated in a universe of their own making. This portrayal fails to give credence to the way that federal and state policies have and still shape Black higher education.

5) Return to the Classroom

There were plenty of stories about the culture, extracurricular activities, etc. but not enough about the genius of the faculty, administrators, and students at HBCUs. Save for the brilliant legal strategy of Charles Hamilton Houston and Howard’s Law School, the film said very little about the other innovations that were made on HBCU campuses. Subsequent work must tackle the work, both mundane and miraculous, that produced the likes of W.E.B. Dubois (Fisk), Ida B. Wells-Barnett(Rust), Martin Luther King Jr. (Morehouse), Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State), Microsoft Board Chairman John Thompson (FAMU), etc.

May all future work on such an institution get it right or come as close as possible to doing so in the process. Because now (perhaps it has always been so), the stakes are too high.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *