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What About HBCUs? Lessons From Ohio State

C. Rob Shorette IIC. Rob Shorette IIThe viral video explosion of The Ohio State University marching band executing Michael Jackson formations and moonwalking across the football field has garnered nearly 8 million views on YouTube in less than two weeks. The video and the media stories that accompanied it have generated a buzz across the country that few probably expected.

The comment sections of the articles are filled with amazement and admiration from people who describe it as stunning and creative, and claim to have “never seen anything like this.” Although I did find the performance to be entertaining and well executed, my initial reaction was much different from that of the observers who offered the aforementioned comments.

As I watched the video, I immediately thought to myself, “Historically Black colleges and universities have been doing that for years.” As a matter of fact, I can recall my friend from Florida A&M University’s Marching 100 showing me a YouTube video years ago of them forming the shape of a giant needle, emptying the contents out of the syringe, and spelling the word “Toxic” while performing Britney Spears’ song by that name (and that is only one example). Therefore, I’m quite certain that my reaction to The Ohio State marching band video was not uncommon, particularly for those of us within the HBCU community.

This could certainly raise the question of whether this is a commodification of Black culture or simply a form of flattery that predominantly White institutions (PWI) would imitate HBCUs. However, that is not that path I intend to take in this article. Rather, I would like to highlight two observations that I believe have implications for HBCUs.

First, of the articles I read in the national mainstream media, I saw one comment that acknowledged the exceptional performances of PWI bands and then provided an explanation of HBCU marching bands paving the way for performances such as Ohio State’s. It should be noted that even that comment was met with resistance by someone who claimed that the author’s belief that “every” marching band ripped off Black colleges was the very reason “why people can’t come together.”

The absence of HBCUs in the conversation indicates that the achievements and histories of HBCUs are still not penetrating non-Black communities or mainstream culture in productive and meaningful ways. I am not suggesting anyone in particular is at fault, simply pointing out that we still have some work to do in this area.

Second, Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, suggested in a recent speech that PWIs are now utilizing the same language HBCUs have traditionally used to set their campuses apart from larger PWIs, such as welcoming, family-oriented, nurturing, etc. As an HBCU alum and current HBCU administrator, I know that HBCUs have incomparable histories full of educational achievements and offer intellectual benefits that are difficult to come by at other institutions.

However, the misinformed or unaware may ask, “If HBCUs are known for offering welcoming campuses and electrifying band performances, and places like Ohio State can say that, too, then why go to an HBCU?” From my experience, this question is reflective of the general skepticism that exists among White Americans, in particular, about the quality of HBCUs and their contributions to society.

The attention and acclaim received by the Ohio State marching band, the absence of HBCUs from the national conversation thus far, and the response from the general public should remind us of the important work HBCUs must undertake in two critical areas: (1) better promoting the achievements and histories of our institutions in more creative ways that reach broader audiences and (2) clarifying the value proposition of attending an HBCU.

Attending to these two critical areas is non-negotiable for HBCUs. If the general public is not equipped with more and better information about HBCUs, it is much easier for HBCUs to be dismissed as irrelevant or unworthy of inclusion in a variety of contexts. If high school counselors are not knowledgeable of what HBCUs have to offer all students regardless of their race, it is unlikely that they will promote our institutions to diverse audiences. If members of the media have not been afforded opportunities to learn about HBCUs, it is unlikely that they will include HBCUs in national discussions. If policy makers lack the critical insight necessary to understand the significance of HBCUs in the U.S. higher education context, it is unlikely that they will advocate for our institutions when it matters most.

It is increasingly important that we create allies and advocates for HBCUs in communities that have seemingly had limited exposure to the truths about our institutions. Hopefully, with more allies and advocates as “insiders” in uninformed spaces, the inclusion of HBCUs will be added proactively into the initial discourse rather than being added on reactively as an afterthought.

C. Rob Shorette II is the presidential ombudsman for administrative affairs at Alcorn State University. You can follow him on twitter @C_RobShorette

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