From paying homage to the historic marching bands and dancers at the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to demonstrating the resiliency, beauty and sacrifice embedded in the Black experience, Beyoncé’s newly released documentary Homecoming is a testament to the vivacity of Black culture that is celebrated at HBCUs.
Following Homecoming’s release – nearly a year after Beyoncé became the first Black women to headline the predominantly White Coachella festival – social media was abuzz with individuals recalling their HBCU experience, sharing their Black pride and reacting in total awe to the megastar’s bold and intentional two-hour performance. To scholars and leaders across higher education, Homecoming is a reminder of the relevance and significance of HBCUs in preparing their students to thrive in the real world all while embracing their cultural heritage.
“For Black audiences, particularly for Black youth, it’s a reminder of the legacy of these institutions and that particularly in this moment – this kind of Trump’s America – that these are still vibrant institutions that still have a mission to educate Black folks,” said Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the Department of African & African American Studies and the founding director of the Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship at Duke University. “It’s a great celebration of HBCUs, particularly from someone who didn’t have the opportunity to go to an HBCU.”
In a time when HBCUs have not historically been celebrated at this level, Neal added that the way Beyoncé celebrated them and Black culture throughout her Coachella performance and documentary was important, given she did not have to use her platform to elevate them.
Throughout the documentary, Beyoncé infuses the words and work of Black leaders, thinkers and poets into the narrative that depicts her months-long journey preparing for her April 2018 Coachella performance. She features video clips and wears the paraphernalia of several HBCUs as well.
Beyoncé recalled that had her life trajectory panned out differently, she would have chosen to attend an HBCU. Growing up in Houston, she notes that she was heavily influenced by HBCU life, including Battle of the Bands events at Prairie View A&M University, or figures like the “Dancing Dolls” at Southern University, who were featured in the film.
“Beyoncé didn’t have to shoutout HBCUs the way that she did,” Neal said, adding that the way she also remade Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Before I Let Go,” is also a shoutout to “this larger legacy of Black music” that came before her. “White folks for the most part, particularly young White folks, have no idea who these artists are.”
To Ashley Gray, a third-year doctoral student at Howard University and program manager at the American Council on Education, Homecoming left her “in awe” and it signified that “it’s time,” she said.
“Beyoncé’s performance reminds us that it’s time, and the time is always now for us to be proud of what it means to be Black in the context of America and for us to take some ownership in this space,” Gray said. “What she did was remind of us who we are, remind us of what we’re capable of and she did it in a way where our culture was infused throughout.”
Gray said she hopes the film will inspire an upsurge in enrollment at HBCUs, as well as an increase in the number of sponsors and donors who donate to the institutions.
“We do a lot more with less than other institutional types, so what I’m hoping is that if we see an increase in enrollment, we also see an increase in the donors who are also inspired by Beyoncé’s work, but also Shawn Carter’s HBCU tour that he just launched this week, which starts at Howard,” Gray added. “I hope it’s a both/and – that we see people wanting to send their children there, people wanting to pursue graduate degrees at HBCUs and also people wanting to give and other philanthropic efforts as well.”
The resurgence of interest in attending HBCUs is similar to the late 80s, specifically after the success of shows like A Different World, Neal said, adding, “Just the massive appeal of Beyoncé is also an appeal to young Black folks looking at HBCUs as an option.”
That Beyoncé was the first Black women Coachella headliner also stood out to Gray, who noted that the artist’s performance and documentary also reminds us that many Black people, and Black women in particular, are still becoming the first in many leadership roles even in 2019, she said. Gray’s work at Howard explores the pipeline to the presidency for Black women in higher education.
After viewing Homecoming, Michelle Obama praised the film as “both a celebration and a call to action.”
“And I love that you’re using this film to inspire the next generation of history makers and record breakers who’ll run the world in the years ahead,” Obama said.
Dr. Mark W. Phillips, department head and professor in the department of Music and Theatre at Prairie View, agreed. He shared that his niece called him to notify him that Beyoncé mentioned his school in the documentary.
Phillips said the film will have a “major impact” because of the fan base Beyoncé has cultivated. He hopes that students will take away from the film that if they work as hard as Beyoncé and strive for something, they, too, can achieve their goals.
“If you don’t put the time and energy into it, then you won’t develop it. That’s the way all of your traits get better, by being serious about what you’re doing,” Phillips said. “[Beyoncé] has been very serious about what she’s doing.”
Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.