By: Dr. Keneshia N. Grant (@keneshiagrant)
I came to Howard University as one of the many Black Americans who are in love with the idea of The Mecca, especially its student activism. The women of Howard University’s Alpha Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, decided that their first public act would be to protest racism and sexism by marching in a women’s suffrage parade where they were not welcomed. My affinity to their political spirit inspired me to join the sorority. As a student leader, I was often frustrated by the slow and circuitous nature of change in politics. I was even more enraged by older folks in the community who seemed to be just fine with what I thought were ancient and opaque systems. The first time I watched Eyes on the Prize, I was thrilled to see Stokley Carmichael’s courage and willingness to push the older folks in the establishment to be unabashedly Black as they made demands for civil rights after 1965. To my mind, Howard would be heaven for a former student government nerd. I looked forward to taking a permanent supporting role in the background, like the cool professors who helped young firebrands plan and strategize when I was in school.
In many ways, I found what I was looking for at Howard. When I arrived on the campus in August of 2014, #HU18’s “Hand’s Up, Don’t Shoot” photo was going viral. My students were emailing to tell me that they might miss a class or need an extension on their work because they were in Ferguson working. (They sent pictures to prove it *moon emoji to the finesse squad*) As the years have passed, I have been fortunate to teach, learn from, and be inspired by current Howard University students who are continuing the activist tradition. Young people who’s name ring bells in their hometowns and around the nation walk The Yard at Howard University. I am thinking about #HUPOLS011 students like Justin Edwards, of Lafayette, LA and Clifton Kinnie of Ferguson, MO. There are others, like Deja Bryant “the NAACP voter registration girl,” who become legends after they get to Howard because of their work on this Yard. This outward-facing student activism is the kind of work with which I was familiar before coming to Howard.
There is another, inward-facing, side to student activism at Howard University about which I was unaware before joining the faculty. Many HBCU students learn about the 1968 takeover of Howard University’s Administration building in the mandatory introduction to African American history classes that the protest birthed. Folks in the HBCU diaspora hear less about the protests that followed, the 1974 tuition protest and the 1989 Lee Atwater protest. These in ward-facing protests—really, demands for Howard to be its best self—continue in the student activism that we see today. From the outside looking in, it seems the model for getting things done at Howard is to rally outside Douglass, then march to the A building. Nowadays, protests also include formal invitations to the media to publicly shame the university.
After years of talking to students about their approach, there are parts of the inward-facing Howard student activism culture that I may never be able to understand. This is in large part because I come from a public, state school. During my time at FAMU, students lived in perpetual fear that the state would close or merge our school. I cannot imagine a scenario that would call for a public lashing of my beloved FAMU. Our clear understanding that we were far from invincible made us very careful about our inward-facing. In many ways, it also made us more shrewd and effective in our outward facing activism. As we take time to consider the next 50 years of student activism at Howard University, everyone should pause to reflect and seek common ground. The University administration must work harder than they already have to include students in decision-making in every part of the organization, especially in the high-ranking places where they have never been welcome. For example, there should be meaningful student participation on every major committee and in the faculty senate. The student trustees should be allowed complete access to that body, so that they can operate as peers with other members of the board. Do not take the genius of the students for granted.
At the same time, students should use the lessons of the past to strengthen them, while realizing that we operate in a different environment. Learn your rights as students, along the University’s rules, and use these to advocate for change first. Where there are no systems to facilitate your participation, organize yourselves to create these systems rather than working to dismantle the school from within. Do not take the existence and strength of your school for granted. When you must fight, do so in private on your yard, as not to make your beloved Howard University vulnerable to attacks from the outside.
Howard University does not belong to any of us, it belongs to the Black Diaspora. While she is in our care, let us find common ground and strive to balance the outward-facing and inward-facing activism, so that she is here for the generations yet unborn.