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Not Just One Dark Body: Scaling the Intercultural Mountain in the HBCU Classroom

It is no secret that classrooms at historically Black colleges and universities are becoming increasingly culturally diverse, both with regard to faculty and students. More and more, international students and faculty contribute in a singularly significant way to this heterogeneous mélange. Whether they hail from the African continent, the Caribbean, South or Latin America, or other global ports, university students and faculty of color are more representative than ever of the diversity within the African Diaspora.
In my department alone at Virginia State University, the faculty is/has been comprised of citizens of Guadalupe, Panama, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Ecuador. We even had Fulbright Scholars from Kenya and Egypt. Not to mention German, and other European-descended faculty members. Besides that, during my three-year tenure, I have worked with students from (or descended from) Jamaica, Ghana, Honduras, Nigeria, Trinidad, Dominican Republic, Virgin Islands, Bahamas, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, and Haiti, among others. Add to that mix American Indians and Caucasians. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon to the HBCU, but the numbers are steadily increasing with the passage of time.
Certainly, this turn of events is not unique to the HBCU. For beyond the manifest benefits of the mobility that is afforded to students who study abroad, economic and otherwise, there are numerous gains that are less obvious to the laic observer. Indeed, recent studies indicate that those who study abroad, while undoubtedly confronted with the stress of culture shock in the short term, are ultimately endowed with life skills that enable them to more readily handle the trials and tribulations confronted in today’s complex world.
By extension, a survey of the literature reveals that — because of increased cultural sensitivity and skills acquired in working with “the other” — American students matriculating at colleges or universities with appreciable numbers of international students are likely more capable of competing in the global marketplace. The same is presumably true of all students; however, in this instance it is the African American case under consideration.
Still, it is undeniable that this “diversity” and “multiculturalism” is a radical departure from the established norms of the American (and global) academy. Most assuredly, in recent years, colleges and universities around the world are grappling with this sea-change in the collective educational landscape. It is for this reason that academic departments, and positions devoted to diversity, inclusion, equal opportunity, multiculturalism, intercultural studies, area studies, equity (or whatever name individual universities choose to assign them) are burgeoning around the country, as well as the greater western world, and beyond.
Ironically, these areas are routinely overlooked in the boardrooms and cabinets of HBCUs. Along these lines, I recently submitted a personally requested proposal for a conference presentation on this very topic to a major national organization of HBCU professionals, and the silence was deafening. Similarly, I broached the topic with a high-ranking HBCU official who told me, in short order, that this is just not done at the HBCU, that this is the purview of majority institutions.
Indeed, because most of the faces in HBCU classrooms are of a darker hue, we typically ignore the need for multicultural affairs and intercultural conflict resolution in our midst. The time has come, I believe, to address this void in HBCU administration and student affairs, and hopefully come to the realization that we can no longer afford to view our student population as just “one dark body,” if I may borrow and extend W. E. B. Du Bois’ classic metaphor presented in The Souls of Black Folk.
Hopefully, moreover, the notion of a Black monolith will soon be forever abandoned, and a spark will be ignited, propelling HBCU’s to begin to actively and formally acknowledge the internecine tensions — often simmering beneath the surface — amongst the various groups of African descendants matriculating and teaching in our hallowed halls. That is not to say, I must hastily add, that all the branches of the Diaspora are not tributaries of the metaphorical river that is African culture; however, we must actively work on strengthening the ties that bind us — lest the African continent should instead become a distributary, from which the diverse branches of the said river flow away from the source, never to return.
To this end, elements of the cultural mosaic, focusing on the “visible” and “invisible” components of culture must be systematically explored. From language, gender, and national origin, to family, educational values and religion/spirituality, the rich diversity of the African Diaspora must be examined, not only within the context of the academy, but within real-world current events such as Darfur, or even the upcoming presidential election.
Lastly, the role of culture on teaching and learning styles should also be a focal point, and the profound impact of cultural competence of both faculty and students must be acknowledged and studied — and restudied. Last but certainly not least, we all benefit from cultural exchange and, thus, it is to be treasured, encouraged and nurtured at the HBCU in a programmatic way, comparable to “minority” or multicultural affairs operations at majority institutions. And this cultural panoply must be critically examined. In so doing, both our kinship and our diversity must be studiously regarded. So, yes, we are one. One dark body. But, when you scratch the surface, we are so much more.

Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a diversity consultant and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.

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