Michelle Obama, the epitome of black excellence, said HBCUs - historically black colleges and universities - were once “foreign” to her as a kid growing up in Chicago.
In her new book, “Becoming,” Obama said it wasn’t until she attended a magnet high school for top students on the wealthier side of the city that her eyes were fully opened to race and class.
“A number of them had parents who were lawyers or doctors and seemed to know one another through an African-American social club called Jack and Jill. They’d been on ski vacations and trips that required passports. They talked about things that were foreign to me, like summer internships and historically black colleges,” Obama wrote.
One of my friends posted this on Facebook, which attracted a conversation that I’m sure had a lot of HBCU alums asking the same question.
“How in the world is that possible?”
Obama, then known as Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, grew up on the South Side (translation for those not in the know, the “black side” of town).
But guess what? It’s very possible.
HBCUs are experiencing, as National Geographic magazine called it, a renaissance right now as enrollments surge to the backdrop of black activism. Florida A&M has witnessed a surge in enrollment under the school’s new president Larry Robinson, who took over in 2017 and helped stabilize the school’s finances according to the Tallahassee Democrat.
But that wasn’t necessarily the case during Obama’s childhood. She grew up in a different time when African Americans started to leave black schools and colleges post-segregation.
This was a generation that wanted to deliver on America’s promise of inclusion often times at the expense of its successful roots at the likes of Tuskegee, Dillard and Fisk.
Flash forward a few decades to the “A Different World” generation and even with the increased exposure through a network television show, the HBCU story didn’t change much for some kids like me.
Like Obama, I didn’t grow up with parents or any close family members who attended college at an HBCU. My high school was racially mixed meaning counselors didn’t often push HBCUs as an option - and conversely those schools didn’t heavily recruit high schools like mine at the time. And I wasn’t introduced to the “black elite” world of HBCU alum and networking organizations like Jack and Jill or Links until I was an adult.
It might sound crazy to some, but my knowledge about black colleges at that time was largely limited to the big-name HBCU “Ivys” like Spelman, Morehouse and Howard.
In my mind, that was where some of the wealthy and connected black elites like the Denise Huxtables and Whitley Gilberts of the world attended. Hell, Keisha Knight-Pulliam who played Rudy Huxtable on the Cosby Show attended Spelman. How in the world would I be able to go to a school like that?
Call it the “Different World” effect.
Similar to Obama’s words, I too battled similar “am I good enough?” type questions in my 17-year-old mind.
Am I smart enough? Am I rich enough? Am I important enough?
I didn’t fit into the “Cosby Show” box with two loving parents with HBCU pedigrees taking me on college tours and teaching me about the importance of integrating black history into my higher education to develop a stronger, more complete foundation.
I had exactly one close friend in high school who went to a black college, which happened to be Spelman. She came from a middle-class, two-parent home that could afford the expensive tuition and out-of-state living costs.
My family wasn’t poor, but you could say we weren’t unfamiliar with the fried bologna sandwich for dinner life either.
Unlike Obama, I was a good enough student to earn partial scholarships but not exceptional enough to earn anyone’s full-ride.
I’m not ignorant to the long-standing tension about how HBCUs are viewed within and outside of the African American community. Many years ago when I was a college student at the University of Texas, I attended a student government forum between black students from UT and Huston-Tillotson University, an HBCU. I don’t remember everything that was said, but I remember the pain felt on both sides.
Huston-Tillotson students felt like they were looked down upon for going to a black school. Texas students felt like they were deemed “sell outs” because they went to a predominately white institution.
I remember walking away feeling like no one heard anyone which is a shame.
Any higher education is a good and worthy education. And I do believe it is a special experience to attend an HBCU, but one that largely comes from exposure and education.