Why Beyoncé Placed HBCU’s at the Center of American Life

(Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Coachella)

When Beyoncé strolled onto Coachella’s desert stage like a drum major on the night of April 16, no one was prepared for the spectacle that was to come. There was, of course, the sheer magnitude of it: She wore a cape and crown of painstaking detail, bedazzled by Olivier Rousteing of Balmain, referencing the ageless black regality of Nefertiti and Michael Jackson. Dozens of monochromatically clad dancers joined Bey, along with a drumline with sousaphone and trombone players. It was an ocean of sound and color against the backdrop of bleachers. “‘Let’s do a homecoming,” she reportedly told her choreographers in early rehearsals.

Perhaps we should’ve been ready. Beyoncé, known for rigorous stagecraft, always promises a spectacle. She’s a pop star who sings soul, although she hasn’t ever tried to be earthy or minimalist like Erykah Badu or Jill Scott, two artists whose work I can tell she pays attention to. I’m sure Beyoncé could pull off a full-length, stripped down, acoustic album if she wanted, but she’s always seemed willfully extra. Her sound is emotive, melismatic, acrobatic, and her visuals are similarly bombastic — a lot of hair, plenty of ass and sweat, and more than a few wardrobe changes.

Yet some of my favorite moments of her career are when she’s focused on fundamentals. Keeping the beat on her lap while performing “Halo” at a children’s hospital, ad-libbing on Frank Ocean’s “Pink and White,” harmonizing on the relaxed, minor-note groove of Destiny’s Child deep cuts like “Get on the Bus,” and “Confessions”. You notice her ear for complex harmonies, the strength of her lower register, the sense of rhythm that makes the delivery of her hooks sticky, and the staccato of her cadences — along with everything else she’s capable of, she’s also more than competent as a rapper.

What I loved most about Bey at Coachella was how her performance drew out elements that have been important in her art for the past 20 years and took them to their logical conclusion — or rather, to their true beginning. She’s long had a brassiness in her voice and she’s always mined black, Southern ways of being for her work. When her sister’s meditative album A Seat at the Table climbed the charts alongside Lemonade in 2016, both of which explicitly pulsed with a brazen black consciousness, Solange told the public not to be surprised. “I’m really proud of my sister and I’m really proud of her record and her work and I’ve always been,” she said to Fader. “As far as I’m concerned, she’s always been an activist from the beginning of her career and she’s always been very, very black.”

If you’re black and from the South, it feels like the culture of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) is in the ether. They are spaces you can’t ignore and wouldn’t want to. Beyoncé was born in Houston and her father graduated from Fisk University. When she was a child in the 1980s and 90s, Spike Lee joints came out almost every other year, and Lee never let us forget that he’d gone to Morehouse, the way Morehouse men are wont to do. The culture of HBCU’s and black Greek life was everywhere: Lee’s 1988 film School Daze and the 1987 TV series A Different World shared similar themes and a few principal cast members, including Jasmine Guy, who was head of the Gamma Ray sorority in the former and iconic B.A.P. Whitley Gilbert in the latter.

That Beyoncé chooses to highlight the specific culture of HBCUs and black Greek life shouldn’t really surprise us, either, and if it does, it feels to me as if we haven’t really been paying attention. A host of black artists have seen black college culture as ripe for the imaginary. At JSTOR Daily, Lavelle Porter reminds us that it was taken up by novelists Ralph Ellison and Nella Larsen at the beginning of the century, and later, by the creators of films and shows like Drumline, Stomp the Yard, and The Quad. To that list,we could add Janelle Monáe, who depicted HBCU life in her 2013 music video “Electric Lady,” as well as Kanye West, whose mother got degrees from Virginia Union and Atlanta University and was the head of the English department at Chicago State for six years.

Growing up, my older sister ran a small business selling Afrocentric gifts and black Greek paraphernalia at Classic ballgames and other events throughout the South. This was the early 90s, when Kenté cloth and Malcolm X fitted caps and medallions were everywhere. One of the T-shirts in our inventory read “The Blacker the College, the Sweeter the Knowledge,” a riff on an old saying about blackness and fecund soulfulness. At a well-attended event at Memphis’ Cook Convention Center, a customer looked me in the eyes and said she knew the future was secure since I’d been such an eloquent and competent salesperson for a fifth grader.

My sophomore year of high school, I visited a few Southern and East coast colleges, both HBCUs and PWIs, on a tour bus with a church group. Spelman felt like home in a way that I didn’t know a place of learning could. Missy Elliot videos played in a student center, women who looked and sounded like people I loved carried full backpacks, answered our questions. When we got to Howard, we were giddy. It was a Friday afternoon in the late spring, and we spent a long time out on the green, buzzing Yard.

Part of the reason I didn’t go to an HBCU was that I was so familiar with them. Now, I wonder what I could have been had I let myself bask in that kind of affirmation for a little bit longer. Nonetheless, I was pretty sure that who I was — a nerdy, bespectacled daughter of a poor-to-working class single mother, wouldn’t easily fit in at one those campuses.

My experiences with wealthier black families in Memphis — and watching Bill Cosby’s shows — made it clear that I needed to aspire to a pristine, black middle-class ideal. I think Cosby’s crimes have given us an opportunity to think about the limits of some of our sacred black spaces, how the pressure to be respectable can force you to abandon or question or edit yourself if you’re poor, or queer, or anything else. By associating herself with HBCUs, Beyoncé challenges those mores with her self-avowed feminist, queer-loving and blatantly sexual art. She helps expand the possibilities of what it looks like to be a black thinking person.

That she chose to share this at Coachella, with its largely wealthy, white audience, wasn’t exactly a disruption. I truly believe that her performance placed HBCUs and black Greek culture at the center of American life, and that’s where they belong. Today, there are 102 HBCUs, a mix of private and public institutions. Most have some relationship with federal or state funding, and none have endowments like those of the oldest, private universities in the northeast, many of which are uncovering their ties to slavery.  The share of black college students enrolled in HBCUs has declined in recent years, but the schools do more than their share of the work — enrolling about 9 percent of the nation’s black undergraduates and graduating about 15 percent of them.

They are also American institutions that have an important relationship with our nation’s long march towards democracy. According to W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1935 essay Black Reconstruction:

The first great mass movement for public education at the expense of the state, in the South, came from Negroes. Many leaders before the war had advocated general education, but few had been listened to. Schools for indigents and paupers were supported, here and there, and more or less spasmodically. Some states had elaborate plans, but they were not carried out. Public education for all at public expense, was, in the South, a Negro idea.

Before this mass movement, the South’s leadership did not believe in the “educability of the poor,” and much of the white laboring class in the region saw no need for it, mired as they were in the plantation system’s feudalism. State by state, Reconstruction governments set up tax-based schools that would be open to all. There was resistance to nearly all of this — to the idea of blacks becoming educated, to whites teaching blacks, to the black and white students sharing facilities. As a compromise, secondary schools and colleges were opened specifically to train black teachers. Fisk University opened in 1866, and Howard University was founded in 1867, partly funded by the Freedman’s Bureau. Du Bois said these institutions “became the centers of a training in leadership and ideals for the whole Negro race, and the only fine and natural field of contact between white and black culture.”

A few studies have shown that throughout the world, compulsory education increases voter participation, and increases in education predict social engagement in the sort of groups and organizations that do critical grassroots work. The push for education on the part of emancipated blacks, then, can be considered a driving force in the ever-widening democratization of American life.

Beyoncé’s Coachella sets were a correction to the erasure and historical amnesia that make us feel like she could possibly disrupt something that her forebears had such a heavy hand in creating.

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