Howard University Professor: What I Learned Teaching at an HBCU

A commencement ceremony at Howard University. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
A commencement ceremony at Howard University. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

by Nyasha Junior

I have attended predominantly white schools from preschool through my doctoral program. I’m used to carving out a black space in a white world. As an undergrad at Georgetown University, I sat at “the black table,” the one cafeteria table where many black students congregated for a fun, raucous dinner and discussion of the day’s news. The black table was not forced upon us — it was a refuge. The girls who wore Ralph Lauren, athletes and poli-sci presidential hopefuls sat at their respective tables, but they didn’t stand out as we did.

As a black student at predominantly white institutions, or PWIs, I focused on my studies without worrying about whether other students assumed that I was a “token minority” or invited me to their study groups. As my hardworking Southern parents reminded me constantly, I was in school to “get my lesson” and not to make friends. Nothing less than my best effort was acceptable to me, to my family and to the many people in my community who didn’t have the same opportunities that I had.

Later, as an academic at a PWI, I put my years of practice as the only black person in the room into being the first black woman to hold my position. I relied on my “make them feel comfortable” bag of tricks — smiling more so as not to be called an “angry black woman,” being extra friendly to be considered a “team player,” keeping my Warren Moon-composure in the face of many microaggressions from students and colleagues.

And then I took a teaching position at Howard University.

The relevance of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, is an ongoing debate. Some HBCU student bodies are no longer majority black. While on average HBCUs accept more low-income and first-generation students and cope with racial disparities in state and federal funding, they have similar retention and graduation rates when compared with PWIs with similar institutional characteristics and student demographics. The debate often reduces both PWIs and HBCUs to broad generalizations. Before coming to Howard, I myself tended to lump HBCUs together, even though they constitute a diverse group of institutions that students attend for a variety of reasons. Morehouse is a small men’s college of 2,100; Howard is a private research university of 10,000 with undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Just as Georgia State is not usually grouped with Agnes Scott, HBCUs are not all peer institutions. And while HBCUs may not face the same types of racial issues that occur at PWIs, they aren’t immune to sexism, classism, colorism, xenophobia, homophobia and other matters that plague our society at large.

But as a black scholar, teaching black students, I have found that Howard helped me connect to my lineage as a black academic and helped me understand that even very bright students of color struggle with notions of inferiority in the classroom.

Teaching at Howard was my first majority black experience outside of church. Nearly all of my faculty colleagues were black. The staff was black. My boss was black. His boss was black. And his boss’s boss was black. Having been a racial minority for my entire life, this experience of widespread blackness was new to me. As a black woman scholar, for once, I wasn’t on the margins seeking to move to the center but rather a part of the group. I no longer thought of myself as an individual scholar engaged in academic bouldering without a harness or equipment. I was part of an institution dedicated to people who looked like me.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post

Nyasha Junior is an Assistant Professor at Howard University School of Divinity and the author of “An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation.” ​

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