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It’s my senior year of high school and, for some time now, my parents have been on my back about planning a future past age 17. I’ve been hearing the college speech all my life, so much so that I can’t imagine doing anything else besides spending another four years regurgitating facts. There’s only one problem: My scholastic career has been a tasteless joke. After three years of high school, I’ve got a 1.8 GPA. After my junior year, I was politely asked to leave the magnet high school I was attending.
At my new school, I’m doing a little better, if only because I went from trigonometry to applied mathbut who’s to say what’ll happen next semester? In most college recruiters’ eyes, I’m still a knucklehead. My parents are so flustered that they’ve begun treating me with daily doses of their mantra: “When 18 rolls around, you will be looking at the front door.” I’ve got limited options. No college in its right mind would take a kid with a 1.8 GPA. I’m not down for the Army. I’m too lazy to work a menial job. Community college is looking pretty good.
Good, that is, until an invitation to a swanky recruitment dinner at Howard University appears in my folks’ mailbox. It turns out that when I took the PSAT a few months back I managed a decent enough score for Howard to waste a stamp on me. My folks have a major soft spot for Howard. My pops sold books on the campus in the ’70s. After he went back to school for his college diploma, he worked about 10 years at Howard’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.
And the family ties are even stronger than that. I’ve got a brother finishing his degree there and two sisters who’ve already graduated. My parents think that the prospect of moving a hardheaded son from the ranks of scholastic ineptitude into the black educational meccaand consequently out of their houseis worth the short trip from my hometown of Baltimore to the District.
As for me, I still have fading dreams of Howard in the back of my head. Once upon a time, I thought Howard was the place for me. I’ve been raised in a quasi-Afrocentric homemy father was a Black Pantherand I learned to read by thumbing through picture books that emphasized the glories of ancient Africa. By the time I reached high school, I was an elementary radical. At 17, I now sport Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey T-shirts and bang Bob Marley and Public Enemy out of my stereo. My favorite books are Bobby Seale’s Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton, Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door, and George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye. I’ve even made a swiftly aborted attempt at Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.
When not goofing off, I challenge my history teachers at every turn, launching into extended diatribes against America’s culture of violence. I’ve seen Howard students on the evening news seizing the administration building to protest the appointment of Lee Atwater to the school’s board of trustees. My older brother has switched from a semi-thug to a dreadlocked black nationalist at Howard. I figure that I might find some folks who share my militant aspirations there.
A few weeks later, we arrive at Howard’s Blackburn University Center for the dinner. The initial prognosis isn’t good. The joint is filled with the type of teacher’s pets who have sickened me throughout my high school careerstudent body presidents and prize-winning members of the debate team. I’m not even close to fitting in, and with the program sporting an ensemble of unremarkable speakers, I quickly decide Howard will see no parts of me next year.
Then the last speaker is introduced. His name is Franklyn G. Jenifer, and he’s the big-shot president of Howard. He’s a tall, dark-skinned dude with a franchise on Baptist-style preaching. I’ve been expecting another boring recitation from another resident expert on the black bourgeoisie. Instead, I get a 20th-century slave narrative about a man who grew up poor and was a wretched student. He notes that when he first applied to Howard as an undergraduate he was rejected. Only after he sat out for a year did the university take him. I’ve had a comfortable, two-parent upbringing, so I can’t identify with Jenifer’s economic struggles; I can, however, feel his scholastic ones.
He then goes on to explain the greatness of Howard, reading off a litany of its most distinguished faculty and graduates. It’s as if he’s reading straight from a Black History Month study guide. Ralph Bunche, Charles Drew, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston all did time at Howard, he says. The list of modern-day black leadership is just as impressive: David Dinkins, who’s just become mayor of New York; L. Douglas Wilder, the first black governor since Reconstruction; and the District’s own recently installed Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly.
Then Jenifer tells the story of a man who took a trip to an island in the Caribbean: Somehow, the man’s luggage and wallet got lost on the flight. When he landed on the island, he had nothing but the clothes on his back and his Howard class ring. He wandered into a hotel begging for help. The bellhops were about to escort him out the door when a manager happened to notice the ring. The manager took the guy to the head honcho at the hotel, who immediately put the man up in a phat suite, lent him some money, and helped him recover his luggage. “The owner was a Howard grad,” says Jenifera single fact that explains it all.
The audience is completely enthralled. For most, the story simply says that a degree from Howard gives you an eternal passport into the land of buppiedom with all its resources. For a black-bourgeoisie-hater like myself, Jenifer’s tale is an affirmation of the universal black brotherhood that Howard creates. The truth, I will later learn, is somewhere in between.
Jenifer adds the kicker when he promises to waive the application fee of every student in the room. When he finishes his speech, he gets a standing ovation. Contrary to my naysaying nature, even I have to give it up for the man. He’s rekindled the fading embers in the back of my brain. I decide to apply to Howardif only because the application will be free.
After my visit to Howard, I have the best year of my high school career. I don’t get accepted until after I graduate; nevertheless, getting into Howard is my crowning achievement. I’m getting set to walk the same halls that Lucille Clifton and Ossie Davis once walked as undergraduates. I’m entering the same College of Arts and Sciences where Carter G. Woodson once served as dean. I’m going to the place where kings are made.
It’s been a little over six years since Jenifer mesmerized me with his recruitment speech, and for the past few years I’ve been cultivating a stressful relationship with Howard. Most of my beefs with the school are standard ones for any student at any schoolI’m driven to distraction by late student-loan checks, lengthy registration lines, and anal-retentive professors. I was supposed to graduate two years ago, but my tenure at Howard has been a spotty one. I left school for a year-and-a-half, and since then I’ve had to balance classes and a job. Even when I was a full-time student, I never made a particularly great one.
But my grades belie the hands-on education I’ve received at Howard. I’ve been exposed to new ways of thinking, met a host of interesting people, and even found a career for myself. My marriage with Howard has definitely yielded some rewards; it’s just that they’re not the ones Jenifer promised.
I came to Howard while it was in the midst of changemost of it for the worse. In my first three years, I saw three presidents come and go while Howard was besieged by everyone from the Anti-Defamation League to Capitol Hill. Beneath all the historical rhetoric and grand tales of Howard’s legacy, the school seemed in the midst of a swan song.
Then, in 1995, Howard alumnus H. Patrick Swygert was hired as the new president of the university. In three years, Swygert managed to pull the school out of the financial doldrums and almost single-handedly restore it to the ranks of respectability. Howard went from a school in danger of liquidation to a university competing for some of the top students in the country.
It was assumed that once Swygert put the wheels back on, the school would run the way it did in its heyday. That hasn’t happened. The budget is balanced, the campus looks clean, and, academically, Howard has one of its best crops of students in recent memory. But the air of magic that the school once hadthe aura of producing graduates who would literally change the complexion of the worldis gone. Current Howard students are strangers to the political activism that once made the university mythical in the eyes of black high school kids. And the school no longer has a monopoly on black America’s most distinguished faculty.
Swygert successfully warded off Howard’s demise, but no new myths are being added to Howard’s much treasured mystique, and a few important old ones are fading fast. Swygert has proved that, financially, a historically black institution can still float decades after integration. It’s still an open question, though, whetherculturally, intellectually, and politicallyhe or anyone else can figure out how to make it soar.
To understand Howard’s allure, all you have to do is take a quick tour through the Howard University Museum. The joint is nothing grand, just a medium-sized room housed inside Howard’s library. But it holds a stunning array of pictures that drive home the message that Howard is not just another historically black school: Former university presidents stride across the yard with African heads of state, W.E.B. Du Bois addresses an audience in Howard’s Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, and Malcolm X prepares to debate civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.
One picture, more than any other, communicates Howard’s historical importance. The snapshot shows a collection of six of the most distinguished intellectuals in black American history standing in front of Howard’s gates in 1950. They are James M. Nabrit Jr., professor of law; Charles Drew, who created the country’s first blood-plasma bank; Sterling Brown, internationally renowned poet; E. Franklin Frazier, author of the compelling study of black America’s upper crust The Black Bourgeoisie; Rayford W. Logan, author of the most complete history of Howard; and Alain Locke, primary articulator of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s a virtual dream team, hand-picked from black intellectual history. The fact that all six were based on Howard’s campus at the same time underscores the fact that Howard, at least once, was the mecca of black American leadership.
Developing a radical cadre of black leaders wasn’t exactly the role Howard’s founders imagined. Conceived by the First Congregational Society after the Civil War emancipated slaves, Howard was initially supposed to be “The Howard Theological Institute for the Education of Teachers and Preachers.” In his book Howard University: The First Hundred Years, 1867-1967, historian Logan wrote that the founders of Howard probably “doubted the wisdom of establishing a liberal arts college or university for Negroes.” But after several rounds of debate, the school’s scope was broadened. In May 1867, the school opened under the name Howard University.
From its beginning, the university set itself apart from other black schools with its fairly comprehensive model of education. In contrast to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, where students were principally taught trade skills, Howard offered a broad range of educational opportunities as well as basic skills. By the ’20s, Howard was developing a group of increasingly distinguished professors. The university’s professoriate included Locke and pioneering civil rights lawyer Charles H. Houston.
While most historically black schools maintained some level of interaction with the world outside their gates, Howard, by the ’30s, had begun developing a reputation for intense political activism. While groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) quietly backed away from the politically charged case of the “Scottsboro boys,” who were falsely accused of rape in Alabama, students at Howard staged demonstrations and organized a defense committee. In 1937, when Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia, George Washington University’s president banned any mass assembly. But at Howard, the dean gave students permission to leave class; of the 2,000 students on campus, between 300 and 400 showed up to protest.
In 1926, Howard’s first black president took office. And it was under Mordecai W. Johnson that the Howard mystique came into full bloom, with the school both flourishing intellectually andas struggles against segregation heated upserving as a hotbed of political activity. At one point, in 1935, Congressman Arthur W. Mitchell, author of a bill to investigate radical activities at black campuses, came to Howard threatening the school’s federal appropriation. After Mitchell finished his speech, Johnson took the stage and told the crowd that if having a congressional appropriation meant curbing academic freedom, Howard students and faculty would be better served by going “back to the cornfield.” It’s from such moments that legends are spun. During Johnson’s reign, every aspect of the campus, from the students up through the administration, was energized. When he left office, in 1960, John F. Kennedy called Johnson one of the greatest educators the nation had seen this century.
Howard’s importance in black intellectual life continued after Johnson, as did student activism. But the ’60s were not a good time for traditions and mystique anywhere. Long directed at injustices beyond its gates, Howard’s political activism during those turbulent years turned inward, against the university, as well. From 1967 to 1969, Howard’s campus was rocked by protests as students demanded greater involvement in university policy-making and an Afro-American studies curriculum. The upheavals helped create Howard’s Afro-American Studies Department and won student seats on the board of trustees. But the protests also spelled the end of Howard’s old guard. The same folks who had taught Thurgood Marshall and other civil rights leaders now seemed out of touch with a new generation of students who had been born as Jim Crow lay dying and had cut their teeth on the Black Power movement.
Walking across Howard’s campus in the early ’70s, you’d never have guessed it was a place whose mythic status as the black intellectual mecca was in danger. The president sported an Afro. Black Arts movement theoreticians such as Haki Madhubuti were regulars on campus. Joyce Ladnerlater a member of the D.C. financial control boardhad made a national reputation as a Howard sociologist. Ronald W. Walters had turned down an offer from Harvard to come to Howard, proceeding to become one of the nation’s premier scholars of black politics. “People talk about Howard’s impact during the Harlem Renaissance, but I don’t even have to go back that far,” says E. Ethelbert Miller, who heads Howard’s African-American Resource Center. “If we look at the ’70s and the Black Arts movement, Howard is key.”
But the new conditions that Howard alums had fought to bring to fruition were now, ironically, conspiring against the university. During the days before integration, black professors had been almost completely shut out of white educational institutions. While black schools resented segregation, the situation certainly gave them a monopoly on cutting-edge black academics. No one exploited that monopoly like Howard. “Other than Atlanta University and Fisk,” says Manning Marable, an expert on black intellectual history at Columbia University, “there simply was no competition. That only changed with desegregation.”
With the triumph of the civil rights movement, white schools began not only to admit black students and hire black professors, but to actively pursue them. And Russell Adams, head of Howard’s Afro-American Studies Department, says he saw some schools go so far as to pay people to bring in black students. As majority-white schools opened up their doors, Howard’s ability to draw black America’s best and brightest took a beating.
Whatever upsurge of black intellectualism Howard experienced in the ’70s was beginning to evaporate by the ’80s. Adams blames not integration, but a top-down approach from Howard’s administration. “What happened was that in the early ’80s, we became top-heavy,” says Adams. “The administration became the in thing at Howard, and it became a thing of ‘get a job at Howard and make some good money.’…It had the effect of downgrading academic quality.”
That same attitude also ran the university right into the red. Efforts to get back into the black led to still more turbulence as misguided efforts to regain altitude were labeled sellouts by many on the campus. James Cheek, the president who arrived in 1969 wearing an Afro and slapping fives, is today best remembered for leaving Howard after drafting an orchestrator of racist political ads to the board of trustees: In 1989, a massive student uprising ensued when students learned that Lee Atwater, who had masterminded George Bush’s infamous Willie Horton campaign the year before, had been named a trustee. Cheek figured Atwater would bring a whole new slate of donors to the school. Students disagreed, taking over Howard’s administration building and occupying it until the invitation was rescinded.
Howard’s next president, Jenifer, came in with similarly great expectations in 1990. But Jenifer’s tenure was marked by five difficult years of financial problems and bad publicity that combined to force him to resign in 1994. Debt mounted, and former Nation of Islam national spokesperson Khallid Abdul Muhammad’s diatribes against Jews at Howard in 1994 earned the university a stinging, and profoundly oversimplified, rebuke from Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen.
It was a downward spiral of declining finances and declining standards. Ladner, who served as interim president after Jenifer, fired 400 of the university’s employees, many of whom decided to sue. There were reports that the university had overpaid departing administration heads by nearly $2 million. Officials now estimated that the vaunted “capstone” of black education was as much as $25 million dollars in debt. On Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives’ Budget Committee made a nonbinding recommendation that Howard’s $200 million federal appropriation be eliminated. Even Wall Street seemed to have it in for the university: Standard & Poor’s Corp. lowered Howard’s bond rating from “stable” to “negative.” People were saying that the world’s greatest black educational institution might not live to see the 21st century.
In 1995, the school got its current president. H. Patrick Swygert, a Howard graduate, brought an impressive résumé, featuring administrative tours at the State University of New York at Albany and Temple University. According to Adams, Swygert is the first “professional president” the university has had in decades. Swygert took immediate steps to rescue Howard from the jaws of imminent danger. He lobbied then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and then-Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole in order to stave off the effort to eliminate Howard’s budget appropriation. Swygert then proposed a plan to restructure the university and chop away much of its financial fat.
Today, there’s no doubt that Swygert has the Howard machine up and running again. But the key question is, Does any of that matter? In its heyday, Howard produced men and women who did not simply lead America but questioned American ideals at their very core. These days, Howard is no longer charged with the role of critiquing. Then again, raising questions about America is something that black people everywhereon and off Howard’s campusseem much less serious about at the end of the 20th century.
Healthy students at a healthy university, Howard students are taking advantage of the right won by their eldersto be just as ahistorical and socially irresponsible as any white student at any predominantly white university in the country. But it’s still a little sad to think that for most Howard students nowadays, the struggle isn’t about welfare reform or the insane war on drugs, but big issueslike how to not piss off your English professor.
It is an unusually cool night on the campus of Howard University. November’s been pretty gentle so far, but tonight a chilling wind is blowing across the Yard, the campus’s central location. In expectation of the coming season, Christmas lights adorn most of the trees. I’m here with a small group of faculty and administrators who’ve decided to brave the weather to praise a former Howard alumnus. Kwame Ture, one of the major leaders of the Black Power movement in the ’60s, is dead.
During the ’60s,Ture, then called Stokely Carmichael, was a student at Howard. After leaving, he rose to become chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). With his militant rhetoric, Ture helped usher out old-line civil rights groups like the NAACP and the National Urban League and make SNCC into a militant organization belying its nonviolent moniker.
The Howard University Student Association (HUSA) has decided to hold a candlelight vigil to honor Ture. Everyone’s assembled in a circle, holding candles, and in the middle sits a Conga drum with a few Adinkra symbols and an ankh carved on the side. Student leaders are running through the usual rhetoric about Ture’s greatness and the influence he’s had on their lives. A few faculty who knew Ture in their younger days give speeches about their impressions of him when he was a student. There’s even talk of forming a study group in Ture’s name. It’s a nice event and the right thing to do, given that Ture was one of Howard’s own.
Unfortunately, the majority of Howard students either don’t know who Ture was or couldn’t care less that he’s dead. The entire crowd, including faculty, staff, and community members, doesn’t number more than 50 people. It’s a pitiful showing, given that there are about 10,000
students on Howard’s entire campus. On the
eastern side of the Yard, a platoon of freshman
students are laughingly making their way up to the cafeteria in the Blackburn University Center. To the west, a few students trickle out of a late class in Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall and on to their respective dorms. Besides the group of freshmen busying themselves with horseplay, everybody is doing his best to get out of the cold.
A few students wander past, apparently wondering why the hell everyone’s holding candles. While HUSA President Neville Welch makes a presentation, a light-skinned dude with a puzzled look on his face steps to me and asks, “What’s this?” I whisper that it’s a candlelight vigil for Kwame Ture. Still looking puzzled, he scans the crowd, listens for a few moments to Welch’s speech, and then turns and proceeds on his way. Only minutes later, another kid walks past with his girlfriend. He taps me on the shoulder and asks what’s going on. I tell him Kwame Ture is dead. This guy’s a little better than the last genius: He at least knows who Ture was, but apparently didn’t follow his career past 1970. “He got shot?!” he asks.
“He had cancer,” I respond.
“Oh,” the dude replies. He looks around at the assembled group and almost looks as if he’s going to ask for a candle. Then his girlfriend whispers something in his ear. The dude surveys the crowd one last time, then takes his girlfriend by the arm and makes his way back toward Douglass Hall.
It’s not that Howard folks have a hard time turning out for a rally. Nearly two years ago, when Tupac Shakur was murdered, hundreds of students and community members turned out for a vigil to mourn his death. But even that vigil didn’t go as plannedthe ceremony ended with a small melee between some students and some locals who’d wandered on campus to pay their respects.
It’s a sad statement for a university that once set a standard for student activism. During the ’60s, Howard sent students to the South to join civil rights protests and sit-ins. Students boycotted a drugstore at 14th and P Streets NW because it discriminated against black people.
Nor is it that activism is totally deadthree years ago, HUSA organized a group of Howard students to register voters for the upcoming elections. But Howard activism is now the property of a shrinking group of students whose influence over their student brethren is steadily declining.
“I think the consciousness is there, and the students are aware,” says undergraduate trustee Jonathan Hutto. “The problem is that we’re surface-level.” Hutto argues that deeper problems are missed by students who are just happy to get their financial-aid-award letters on time. “You come on campus and it does look better,” says Hutto. “If you’re just a surface person, you wouldn’t have any issues, because that’s all surface-level students want.”
Indeed, the progressive spirit that spurred hundreds of students in the ’30s to protest Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia is gone. Forget troubles across an ocean: Student leaders have trouble even motivating around the basic needs of their campus. During the entire fall semester of 1998, the General Assembly, the students’ ruling legislative body, never once reached a quorum. This despite the fact that, academically, Howard is attracting some of the best students it’s seen in more than a decade.
At the beginning of the ’97-’98 school year, the university took great pride in noting that it had attracted more National Merit scholars than any school in the country. This year, Howard even had one of its students named a Rhodes scholar. “We’re definitely getting more academically elite students,” says Editor in Chief Steve Gray of the Hilltop, Howard’s student newspaper. “But in terms of getting students who are academically elite and [politically] conscious, we’re just not getting it.”
For a peek at the new Howard mystique, all you have to do is troop downtown to the Ritz on any Thursday. Every week, party promoters plaster the campus with posters for Thursday nights at the club. The result is always snaking lines of Howard students waiting to shake their rear ends. Inside, the club looks like a catalog for Up Against the Wall. The honeys sport cat suits and tight black skirts while the dudes rock Tommy Hilfiger shirts and tan Timberland boots. Even the music is evocative of a new philosophy that’s taken hold of black America”Can’t a young man get money anymore/Can’t my car look better than yours?” It’s like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Echoes of the Jazz Age” painted black.
The euphoria of the moment belies the blatant facts of life in much of the rest of black Americacrack has wreaked havoc on the black community, and conservatives are steadily dismantling affirmative action. Just as students in the ’30s mobilized around the Scottsboro boys, they could take to the streets today in favor of fairness for Mumia Abu Jamal. Even on Howard’s very campus, issues are arising that in a different time would have mandated a student response: Howard’s administration is currently mulling over a set of core university bylaws, which student leaders say might strip students of the right to faculty review. But the new generation’s answer to the problems of the black community is simple: Study hard and party harder.
Oddly enough, about the only place Howard student leaders have established a measure of credibility is in the surrounding community. Despite the university’s historically rancorous relationship with its neighborhood, students have recently been siding with the community. A year ago, when the university attempted to seize control of streets in the school’s vicinity, Howard’s General Assembly and HUSA opposed the plan. In the past few years, Howard students have served on the area’s advisory neighborhood commission, and the chairman of ANC 1B is a Howard graduate.
Perhaps as a result, the administration has progressively become more conciliatory about community concerns. For years, Howard mismanaged decaying, vacant properties south of the campus in the LeDroit Park area, earning the nation’s most prestigious black school a nasty reputation as slumlord. But in November 1998, Howard joined with the Federal National Mortgage Association to fix up the properties. Howard will eventually offer about 55 newly constructed or renovated houses for sale to Howard employees. “They’ve done a lot to improve under Swygert,” says Tony Norman of the Community Committee on Howard University Affairs. But there’s still a lot less consciousness-raising about the neighborhood than there is student partying in the neighborhood.
Howard’s graduate trustee, Randy Short, lays the blame for the general absence of student activism squarely at the feet of the administration, citing Howard’s inability to channel an appropriate amount of financial aid. “I would consider [student activism] at an all-time low,” says Short, “and one key reason is because of financial aid. Students don’t get grants and have to work….I know students that care but really can’t afford to care.” But Howard, historically, has a reputation for not putting out large amounts of scholarship funds. Last year, the Hilltop reported that Howard graduates were the most indebted college graduates in the nation.
Yet in years past, students challenged the policies of the administration and the country despite their personal circumstances. In rich times and poor, Howard has always been a place where students have come to do more than just get a simple education: to discover something about their identity as young black Americans. Miller says that when he came to Howard in 1968 it served as his baptism into black consciousness. “The campus was in the mood of black radicalism,” says Miller. “I was into Bob Dylan…and then I came here, and it was like, ‘Say it loud: “I’m black and I’m proud.”‘”
In the minds of college-bound black high school students, a mythical image still existsbut not one based on political activism. Now Howard’s reputation is based on live parties, beautiful women, and the best-dressed student population in the country. Students and recent alumni refer to Howard as “America’s biggest fashion show.” The assertion is not an overstatement; dressing habits of the rank-and-file Howard student aside, fashion shows are one the university’s most frequent student events. “It’s to the point where it’s like, ‘Let me get my car my sophomore year, my apartment my junior year, and land a job when I graduate,’” says Gray.
Howard still manages to show up on the radar screen of black America culture. If you lived in Andrew Young’s Atlanta or David Dinkins’ New York, your mayor was a Howard grad. If you have a black dentist, more than likely he’s a Howard grad. If you’re a bookworm, then many of the folks you’re readingLucille Clifton, Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrisonhave done time at Howard. If you’re the school pretty boy, you’ve already heard that Howard has the largest and most stunning array of black women on the planet. Even if you’re nothing but a 24-hour MTV-watching airhead, you’ve heard everyone from your older cousin to Biggie Smalls brag about Howard’s homecoming. Howard is still a mecca. But a mecca of what?
Ironically, the apathy that has seized Howard, and indeed seized black America, is nothing but the final fulfillment of the integrationist dream. Young black kids are constantly told that their parents struggled so that they wouldn’t have to. We’re reminded that the generation before us fought so that we wouldn’t have to spend our lives pointing out the country’s deficiencies. Instead, once the wall of segregation tumbled down, not only did we not have to point out America’s defects, we could freely share in them. So just as a student at American University has the right not to care about George Washington, Howard students have the right not to care about Kwame Ture. In such a climate, the political significance of Howard is hard to ascertain.
Howard professors correctly point out that the university still offers several perks that white schools can’t give black students, mainly a predominantly black environment. Many of its students have grown up in either integrated or lily-white environments. Howard gives those students the chance to live and learn among people who look like them and share many of their concerns.
Others also argue that Howard offers students a practical way of approaching academics that white schools can’t give. Several of Howard’s departments are involved in research that brings them into direct contact with the black community’s problems. Psychology Professor Jules Harrell points out that in his department, graduate students and professors are researching the cultural problems that black children encounter in school. That functional approach may be Howard’s greatest asset. “Most of us would pack up tomorrow if we thought we were aping GW and just making chocolate Americans,” says Harrell. “At Howard, the political has merged with the academic….We’re telling students that academics must do more than make you money.”
Somebody might want to notify the student body. Most folks seem happy that things seem to be running on schedule again. Everyone is impressed with the changes that Swygert has made since taking over. Service is better, students now have easier access to computers, and morale on the campus is high. The machine has been fixed and oiled. The old rusty cogs have been replaced by sparkling new ones. But the mystique of the institution as a place where earth-shakers are born seems to be in serious jeopardy, if only because the black community isn’t looking to shake the world, at Howard or anyplace else. CP
Howard’s artistic tradition includes luminaries such as Donald Byrd, Ossie Davis, and Amiri Baraka. But chief among those making a splash on the screen is Debbie Allen, who attended Howard in the late ’60s. Allen is best known for her starring role in the movie and TV series Fame and later for co-starring with LL Cool J on In the House. As of late, Allen has attempted to move off-screen and into production and directing. Allen created some controversy when she tapped Steven Spielberg to direct Amistad: Critics attacked her for working with a white director to bring the story of one of the few successful slave-ship rebellions to the screen. Allen seems undeterred and is reportedly at work directing a film chronicling black explorer Matthew Henson’s trek to the North Pole.
Since its inception, Howard has always maintained a heavy presence in the physical sciences. Even today, medicine and the hard sciences are responsible for most of the research grants the university receives. Charles Drew is the most recognizable name in Howard’s distinguished chronicle of science professors. A native of the District, Drew studied medicine at McGill University in Canada before returning as chief surgeon at Howard’s Freedmen’s Hospital. In the ’30s, he was given a fellowship to study blood transfusions. The grant wound up making possible one of the great medical innovations of the 20th century: the blood bank. Drew discovered that plasma, as opposed to whole blood, could be stored longer and was less likely to be contaminated. His innovation allowed for massive amounts of blood to be stored and reserved for later use. The United States used the innovation to great effect during World War II. But although Drew’s blood bank saved countless lives during the war, it didn’t save Drew. On April 1, 1950, while driving to a clinic in Tuskegee, Ala., he was killed in a car crash.
E. Franklin Frazier
Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier headed Howard’s sociology department from 1934 to 1959. Frazierwho received his undergraduate degree from Howardwas famous for his pitched battles with anthropologist Melville Herskovitz over whether any traces of African culture could still be found among African-Americans. While Herskovitz argued that African-Americans still exhibited African cultural traits, Frazier believed that slavery had been so devastating that it had destroyed all traces of African influence. Frazier is today best remembered for his seminal dissection of black wealth, The Black Bourgeoisie, in which he blasted America’s black elite, arguing that they were a pitiful class of socialites more obsessed with becoming white than with helping their underclass brethren. The analysis, though somewhat crude, is still loosely applicable today.
The Harlem Renaissance is often held up as the high point of literary achievement by black Americans. The driving force behind the movement, however, was neither a poet nor a novelistnor a Harlem resident. Harvard graduate Alain Locke, a Rhodes scholar, was a philosopher by trade yet is today best remembered for capturing the spirit of the literary movement with his anthology The New Negro. While many of the Harlem Renaissance’s literary stars faded when the movement died, Locke endured and continued publishing papers and books addressing “the Negro problem.” He joined Howard’s faculty in 1911, andwith the exception of brief stints as a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Californiahe remained at the university until his death in 1954.
During the ’60s, as the civil rights movement swept the country, student activism at Howard reached its zenith. Howard sent legions of students south to participate in sit-ins. When the movement shifted into its Black Power phase, everyone from Malcolm X to Eldridge Cleaver spoke at the school. Moreover, the man credited with popularizing the phrase “Black Power,” Kwame Ture, was a Howard graduate. A native of Trinidad, Ture carried on the tradition of West Indian activist-
intellectuals such as Eric Williams, Walter Rodney, and C.L.R. James. As Stokely Carmichael, Ture began his activist career with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The group originally embraced the nonviolent strategies of Martin Luther King Jr. But Ture soon steered SNCC toward more militant leanings, denouncing white participation in the movement. Ture’s path led him through a brief stint with the Black Panther Party and eventually to an expatriate life in West Africa, where he embraced socialism. Unlike most ’60s radicals, black and white, Ture never reined in his militant stance. When he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, Ture visited the United States for a final time, but, like W.E.B. Du Bois before him, he insisted on dying in Africa. Ture succumbed to his illness on Nov. 15, 1998.
Zora Neale Hurston
Perhaps no academic institution in America has been associated with as many great black writers as Howard University. The school’s literary pantheon runs the gamut from dialect poet Sterling Brown to Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. But perhaps the most innovative writer to come out of the school was novelist Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston came to Howard as an undergraduate in 1921 before going on to do graduate work at Columbia University with anthropologist Franz Boas. But Hurston is best known for her masterful novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937. Hurston is credited by literary scholars with reinventing the black novel, moving its focus away from reactions to white America’s racism and instead focusing on the black community itself. She was vilified in her day by other black writers for writing in black dialect and for not, in their view, taking a stand against racial hatred. Her critics failed to realize that displaying black culture in a positive light is one of the most effective rebuttals to racism that a writer can offer. Hurston died penniless in 1960but not before leaving a mammoth footprint in literary history.