A presentation to the HBCU Executive Media Training Institute, presented by the HBCU Digest on July 13 — 14, 2017.
When you have the kind of Facebook friends I do, everyday is an education. Their posts include the most-pressing includes of our time: education, politics, sports, the new super strain of gonorrhea, and the Kardashian family’s antics — the latter two completely unrelated.
But, every once in a while, Facebook offers me a completely new perspective on a subject matter for which I’d already had a pretty strong resolve: in this case, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
It all happened on Canada Day. Yeah, I know. It sounds pretty strange that I’d have a revelation about historically black colleges and universities on the national day of Canada. The day marks the unification of the Province of Canada, with Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick colonies, to form the Dominion of Canada, a self-governing colony of the British Empire.
Essentially July 1, is Canada’s Fourth of July.
The realization startled me; not because Canada had its own “Independence Day” but because this year marked the 150th observance of that day.
Wayment. If Canada was just now celebrating its sesquicentennial, that meant Fisk University, my alma mater, is older than Canada; and that in fact, several more of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities are older than a nation with a GDP of more than $1.5 trillion US (in 2016).
Cheyney U., Lincoln U., Wilberforce U., Harris-Stowe U., LeMoyne-Owen College, Shaw U., Fisk, and Howard U. too, are all, you guessed it: older than Canada.
I don’t know about you, but even as a historian, this realization had me hyped.
Just to think: Black folks had a vision for their futures, for brighter futures, despite the enveloping darkness of their circumstances — realities which included not mere inequality, but slavery and its list of unfreedoms.
From slavery to emancipation, amid war and peace, despite in indignities of Jim Crow and state-sanctioned segregation, in the face of white supremacy and its violence, and despite the literal threat of death, black colleges are still here. We are still standing. And we are still strong.
In short, you can’t tell me black folks ain’t magic.
Still, as HBCUs struggle to find their way on the ever-changing educational landscape of the the twenty-first century, I wondered what lessons might we learn from Canada, a nation which has survived, and continues to thrive right under the nose of the United States.
Some might say identifying possible parallels between Canada and HBCUs is a stretch given the very different nature of our missions as well as Canada’s power and privilege when compared to HBCUs.
But when you compare apples to apples, and oranges to oranges, you might be surprised to learn just how far Canada has come to be hailed “tomorrow’s superpower.”
Unlike most of the world’s superpowers, Canada’s superpowers will more likely emerge from its economic and cultural leadership, rather than to nuclear armament.
After all, for the last hundred or so years, Canada has stood in the shadow of US hegemony. Its climate can be fittingly described as frigid and its population of 36 million — although largely attributable to its open immigration policies — only represents about 0.5% of the world’s total population.
One might say Canada is to the world, what HBCUs are to American higher education — small but mighty, despite being imperfect (Canada’s indigenous people, for example, are still fighting colonization and its devastating effects).
What then, might we learn about carving out future success for HBCUs from Canada, an albeit unlikely teacher?
So what’s Canada good at? What is Canada known for?
“Say the word ‘Canada’ and immediately, you’ll be hit with visual references — the maple leaf, the beaver, the totem poles of our indigenous communities The red and white colours of the flag. These icons are worked into advertising as a way to connect with consumers who proudly identify as Canadian” writes Erin Pepler for the IconicGroup.
I know, those things are easily scoffed at. Typically, folk would look for something with more depth to connect to stakeholders and strangers alike to their brand identity.
But Canadians have not risen from New World virtual obscurity in the shadow of the “leader of the free world” by doing what is expected of them.
Pepler asserts, “Canadians are known for embracing stereotypes about their culture. You think we love hockey, maple syrup, camping and poutines? Yeah, we do…As a country, we’re proud of who we are, and wear our flag proudly.”
And speaking of flags, Jordan Rane for CNN.com argues: “No national symbol is as ubiquitous as Canada’s maple leaf. From Newfoundland to Victoria, it’s everywhere you look — a proud, unrelenting reminder of where you are. Not the United States. Not Australia. Not Nigeria. Canada.”
Most famously, generations of flag-bearing Canadian backpackers are famous for sewing maple leaf patches onto their bags, extolling the proud Canadian-ness of its wears to nearly epic levels far beyond the country’s shores.
This commitment to sharing the good news of Canada is not just a statement Canadian pride; it’s also the result of a well defined brand and marketing campaign.
Written into the names of banks, airlines, major retail stores, and clothing manufacturers, the Canadian brand is immersive, recognizable, and respected.
Here is a great lesson.
HBCUs both individually and corporately must tout the HBCU brand. We shouldn’t shy away from the things that make us, us.
The greatest homecomings on earth? That’s us. The lit-est yards, quads and courtyards on spring days? That’s us. The oldest and coldest (and hottest) black Greek-lettered fraternity and sorority culture? That’s us. The baddest marching bands in all of the land? That’s us. Fish Fridays and Fried Chicken Wednesdays, that is us.
These qualities do not represent every part of us. But they are, nevertheless, important parts of who we are.
They represent the style that is our blackness — and it is our blackness is our magic.
American playwright and director of theater and film George C. Wolfe was right when he said, “God created black people and black people created style.”
Our style is not to be shirked. Our traditions should not be slighted. Whatever degree to which historically white campuses have become bastions of diversity, they have done so on the shoulders of traditions and culture, acculturated from people and communities of color.
This does not mean that we can rest on these retentions alone. Beyond the maple leaf, and hockey, and Canadian bacon, are Canada’s fundamental strengths.
Noah Smith of BloombergView.com has identified three huge, fundamental strengths that will almost certainly be telling in the long run of Canada’s pursuit of world superpowerdom: “natural resources, good government, and an almost unbelievably tolerant and open culture.”
These strengths have allowed Canada to emerge as a world-leader on issues of global importance including clean air and healthcare — matters surprisingly more important than bacon, which is high praise coming from a bacon-lover.
The same can, and should be true for HBCUs. In the age of Black Lives Matter, we should be leaders on matters on race, anti-racism, intersectionality, and LGBTQI inclusion. Tackling these issues may require a great deal of courage. Being courageous may result in push-back, if not downright opposition, and hostility. And no matter what causes we champion, doing so at the very least, require a re-ordering of our resources both human and financial.
But just because something is difficult, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.
And are things we can and should be doing better, right, now. Some HBCUs still need to do the work of standardizing their individual school brands. Many more need to tout their HBCU brand beyond that singular line on their about us pages that reads: “is historically black.” And all HBCUs should be holding aloft our our culture and traditions. Finally, and, most obviously, we should be leading the conversation on conversations about us.
Until we are truly unapologetically, proud of institutions and of ourselves, there isn’t much hope that anyone else will be.
Most of the HBCU alumni I know, DO, wear it proudly! Especially in the southern states of the U.S.