In Stanley Nelson’s “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities” students are the agents of change, but time and again framed by White Power structure as deviant, out of control. The first is the view of protest on campus held by the white President of Fisk, who, after stripping all clubs, activities, sports, and instituting movements by bells, had invited to speak at commencement in 1924 the leading intellectual of the day, W.E.B. Dubois, whose daughter was graduating. Students have returned to their beds by ten o’clock curfew after a banging pots protest crying out Du Bois, a kind of rally cry after his speech on campus that they must stand up against such oppressive discipline. They are taken from their beds to jail. Making national news, other Black colleges similarly take up protest.
Late in the film, describing a 1972 boycott at Southern University in Louisiana, when four students are arrested and the students visit the Black school president, he assures them, he will go to the jail, welcoming them to stay there until he gets back. The University was controlled by the State though it had a Black President and Black Administration. The national guard arrived on reports that students held the President hostage. Their confrontation two students were shot. The former Governor insisted in the film that had the students not taken such drastic occupation tactics no violence would have occurred, blaming the victims. For his part, the protest leader reflects on the moment it occurred to them they had been betrayed.
Promoting the idea that Blacks’ deserving place on the society ladder was the bottom rung, this the well-spring of funding to the influential rock-star fame of Booker T. Washington. He built Fisk University’s reputation and endowment, its first Black President, from maintaining a neo-slavery standard of education as the industrial workers and domestic laborers of society. He asserted to wild applause, in speeches to white audiences, that Blacks would continue to be the helping hands, the caretakers of their young and elderly, and as he assured the white people this, he took on a greater and greater fame for here saying this revelation of the future’s menial labor force was a Black leader protecting white hands on the means of production.
I thought back to his exceptionalism, his elevation as a rare gem, when the film catches up with the present. A freshman explains her choice to enroll in an HBCU saying she was tired of being pegged. Because she was in an environment as one of the few Black students in school she felt pressure that others constantly were sizing her up into one of two types, the bad-girl or the exceptional. At Spelman she could be Black, yes, and explore her personality, free to be seen as she expressed herself.
The vaulted exception to the rule? Images and white power imaginaries perpetuate a ‘rule’ of Black inferiority. Likewise, the invisibility of HBCU’s to myself, as a concept, as a concerted effort of a people willfully achieving liberation, as a network and force for changing education on the flawed basis of “the separate but equal” clause. As many have said about Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” invisible to whom?