“The question for African Americans has always been: What is education’s purpose? Who controls it? And what is the relationship of education to the broader aspirations of our people?” — Professor Kimberle’ Crenshaw
My parents were the product of HBCUs. For generations, there was no other place my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, or any African American, could go to school. Before Black schools, African Americans faced the cruel reality of being shut out of an education in a country where it is a prerequisite for entering and competing in mainstream society. So, in fundamental ways, historically Black colleges and universities form the core of the African-American community. They are the engine that has driven the ascent from enslavement to the highest positions in business, government, education, science, technology and entertainment. The sacrifices made to create these institutions are significant, and are what compelled me to capture this essential chapter of American history in my latest documentary film, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, which will air nationally on the PBS series Independent Lens in early 2018.
I set out to tell a story of Americans who refused to be denied a higher education and — in their resistance — created a set of institutions that would influence and shape the landscape of the country for centuries to come. HBCUs are a uniquely American phenomenon, and they reflect America’s troubled relationship with the Black community, and African Americans’ inexhaustible will to overcome.
If education is a cornerstone of society, then HBCUs are the groundwork for advancing justice in America. Thoroughly examining the history of Black Colleges and Universities not only allowed me to highlight their importance within Black communities, but demonstrate how they were instrumental to the formation of protest movements that have reshaped American society. The ground was ripe on these campuses. There is a distinct reason, imbued by the institutional legacy of HBCUs, that the challenge to school segregation and the sit-in movement had to come out of Black schools. These were places where African-American students could, for once as the majority, talk about issues that affect the African-American community. That atmosphere is what I sought to capture in the film to give audiences a sense of the passion and leadership that is a hallmark of an HBCU education.
Since the founding of these institutions over 170 years ago, HBCUs have waged battles for respect and legitimacy in the public discourse, despite their achievements and influential graduates. What is missing from current debates about the future of HBCUs is a nuanced understanding of their history AND ongoing impact.
My hope is that the film reaffirms the indisputable relevance of HBCUs, and invites Americans to consider how different our country might look without the existence of these institutions.
Stanley Nelson is a multiple Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, MacArthur “genius” Fellow, National Humanities Medalist honoree, Founder @firelightmedia, Dir. @HBCUrising.
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