Black Schools Kill Smart Niggers?

Black Schools Kill Smart Niggers?


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



I’ve experienced plantation life on many a university campus since that initial tenure

 track position, though places like Duke University, for example, are quite skilled in obscuring that reality. Nevertheless my experience at Xavier raised critical questions

for me about the value of historically black colleges and universities



“Black Schools Kill Smart Niggers?”Reconciling the Romance for Black Institutions in the Post-Soul Era

By Mark Anthony Neal


When I accepted my first tenure track position at Xavier University of Louisiana in the summer of 1996, I was filled with the romance that only nine-years of undergraduate and graduate training at largely white public institutions in Western New York State could produce. Yes, I was happy to leave behind the regional phenomenon known as “lake effect” snow for the warmth and hotness of the “Big Easy,” but more to the point, as the only historically Black and Catholic university in the nation, Xavier offered me my first engagement with a Historically Black College and University (HBCU).

As an African-American male from the South Bronx, my first years 12 years of schooling were spent at an all-black Seventh Day Adventist school and a large specialized high school in Brooklyn, NY that defined the concept of urban cosmopolitanism. Yet my experiences in higher education were quite different, spending nearly a decade in classrooms in which I functioned, to borrow a term that Greg Tate once used to describe the career of Jean Michel Basqiuat, as a “flyboy in the buttermilk.”

I was devout in my desire not to reproduce that experience, now that I was on the other-side of the desk, so to speak. Armed with a dissertation with enough post-modern jargon to choke the ghost of Baudrillard and still filled with the swagger of the late 1980s renaissance of black cultural nationalism, I “turned south” in hopes of finding my professional purpose. Having never experienced the presence of a black man as a teacher, on any level of formal schooling, I was also endowed with the idea that I needed to be at an HBCU to be on the front lines of saving the next generation of black “boys to men.” It was a heady romance indeed, but also a short lived one.   I was only at Xavier for six weeks when a lunchtime encounter with a very prominent black public intellectual led to the conversation that provides the title for my essay. “Black schools kill smart niggers” was the warning—still remembering the sense of clarity that I sought at the moment I heard the warning—and even before I could utter a word about my commitment to black students, said black public intellectual remarked, “there are black students everywhere that you can teach.”

The conversation stayed in the back of my head until months later when my identity politics, in the form of my scholarly interests in black gender and sexual politics, my support of a black woman colleague who was being professionally hazed by the head of my department and as well as my distinct commitment to use “black vernacular” in the classroom made me a target of both my immediate supervisor and the Dean of Faculty.

I can remember thinking to myself, as I left Xavier’s campus for the last time after only a year, accepting a position back in New York State, that for the first time in my life I had a firm grasp on the functions of a plantation. To be sure, I’ve experienced plantation life on many a university campus since that initial tenure track position, though places like Duke University, for example, are quite skilled in obscuring that reality. Nevertheless my experience at Xavier raised critical questions for me about the value of historically black colleges and universities, if not historically black institutions in general, particularly in the so-called “Post-Soul” era in which the totems of blackness flow so efficiently through mainstream culture, often to the effect of obliterating their distinctly black sources.   I came of age in the academy at a time, the early 1990s, that was in part defined by the emergence of a contemporary cadre of so-called Black Public Intellectuals; scholars in the humanities and social sciences, many of whom shared an interests in British Cultural Studies and the work of Stuart Hall in particular. To be sure they were not the first black public intellectuals, and more than a few detractors are quick to argue that they are not the most significant, but given the unprecedented access that these scholars had to mainstream media, this was a generation of scholars, arguably, more visible than any previous generation of black academics.

For black graduate students, working on contemporary race themes, these figures were simply rock stars—and it was not lost on any of us that they were all affiliated, with rare exception, with well financed elite private institutions. Yet just a generation earlier, many of the scholars who helped establish the first meaningful presence of black intellectuals at predominately White institutions, had significant ties to HBCUs. The presence of prominent black academics and scholars at largely historically white institutions simply confirmed the general “brain drain” that black communities had witnessed since the early 1970s. Whereas a generation earlier the best and the brightest in Black America were exemplars of the rich traditions found at HBCUs, this was not always the case as the 20th century came to a close.   In fact, since the apex of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the early 1970s, there has been little in mainstream culture that affirmed the value of HBCUs—the Tom Joyner Morning Show and Spike Lee notwithstanding; More to the point HBCUs have been under siege. By the early 1990s, HBCUs were clearly devalued in the minds of some as were the careers of those who toiled on their campuses. The sexy view that the television series A Different World held of HBCUs was out-of-sync with institutions who literally had to defend their presence and purpose in the so-called post-Civil Rights era; A Different World spoke more to an historic investment that many African-Americans held out for black institutions.

But this devaluation of HBCUs was not simply the product of integration-era politics, post-race fantasies or the rupture of historical memory—some of this devaluation had everything to do with on-the-ground practices that occur in the context of diminishing resources, unaccountable leadership and the egregious exploitation of teaching faculty. For example, when the aforementioned Tom Joyner Morning Show waged a public campaign in support of then Harvard Professor Cornel West, whose scholarly credentials were being questioned by then Harvard President and current Obama economic advisor Lawrence Summer, their bully pulpit might have been better utilized shedding light on the conditions of a good many faculty at HBCUs.

At many of these institutions faculty teach 8-10 classes a year, on one-year renewable contracts, for discount salaries, with little time for research all in the name of “service” to the race. I still live with the guilt that my Xavier Dean placed on my head when I announced that I was leaving for a “white” public research institution—a guilt that suggested that I was letting down the race and that somehow I was less of a scholar because I was unwilling to accept the kinds of conditions that generations of black scholars at HBCUs not only survived, but thrived in.    The founding of Historically Black Colleges and Universities more than a century ago was predicated on the desire of white power brokers to create a buffer class—a cadre of professional blacks and skilled workers that would serve as gatekeepers for the black masses. It goes without saying that part of that project was to distance those gatekeepers from a shared and productive blackness with the black masses—an articulation of a blackness whose full complexity might prove useful for progressive social movement.

Yet, quite the opposite occurred as some HBCUs became hot beds for political activism and the development of progressive race politics. Yet one never gets past the founding expectations of these institutions, where the expectations were that HBCUs would serve the purpose of regulating, policing or even incarcerating blackness. This is a point that Houston Baker, Jr. makes in his devilishly facetious tome Turning South Again: Re-thinking Modernism/Re-Reading Booker T, where he brings into focus, Booker T. Washington’s decision to establish Tuskegee University on a plantation.

“Taking into account the abject, brutal, stultifying relationship of black-majority plantation arrangements of southern life,” Baker writes, “it seems a terrible augury against black modernism that Booker T. Washington chose an “abandoned” white plantation landscape as the site for his Tuskegee uplift project. More to the point Baker adds, “And Washington did not simply situate his black educational enterprise physically on a plantation. He also instituted and argued for an essentially black peasant southern plantation economics, manners, handicrafts, and habits of mind for the black majority.” (81)

While Washington and Tuskegee are simply one iteration of HBCU politics in the early 20th century, Baker’s comments highlight the kinds of tensions between the maintenance of historically specific performances of blackness and those performances of blackness resist the very kinds of regulation that institutions were encouraged to reproduce.   As we think of HBCUs as sites of regulation, it is not difficult, to also think of them as sites of surveillance—a space to monitor blackness. While HBCUs figure less in the eyes of a so-called white power structure in the 21st century, they are still critical to the reproduction of a “not too blackly public” to appropriate Baker’s phrase—that not only denies the full complexity of lives at HBCUs, but also the complexities of private and public blackness. The censure of Spike Lee during the making of his 1988 film School Daze and of the producers of BET’s college reality show College Hill are but two examples of a regulatory project that occurs in support of a sanitized view of black institutions, be they churches, HBCUs, sororities and fraternities or the sexual politics of Black America.

It is in this latter category that I have been able to collaborate with colleagues at HBCUs, notably the Women’s Research and Resource Center at Spelman College, currently under the leadership of Beverly Guy-Sheftall, on issues related to sexual violence, masculinity, and black popular culture. Currently, the Women’s Research and Resource Center is the only standing Women’s Studies unit at an HBCU. I was initially drawn to this collaborative work in the aftermath of rap star Nelly’s misogynistic video for the song “Tip Drill” which featured a male rapper swipe a credit card through a black woman’s buttocks. Students in Guy-Sheftall’s feminist theory class helped organize a protest against Nelly, who was scheduled to visit Spelman’s campus.

That a significant number of Spelman and Morehouse students participate formally and informally in the “strip club” culture that coalesces in the city of Atlanta, only heightens the roles that HBCUs play in producing new and counter narratives about black bodies and sexuality. Indeed the Spelman/Nelly controversy has ushered in a vigorous discussion about gender and sexuality among the hip-hop generation.   These conversations occur as the Hip-Hop Generation questions the “politics of respectability” that has defined so many black institutions and the conservative gender and sexual politics that are reproduced within the context of that “respectability.” For example three years ago when there were allegations of rape against men at Morehouse College by Spelman students, members of Spelman’s Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance issued a public statement criticizing the sense of “complacency” associated with sexual violence against the women at Spelman and black women in general and later organized a protest on Morehouse’s campus. The protest engendered its own criticism, particularly within Black institutions that still value patriarchy and the “stability” it supposedly produces, thus Black women (and a few men) are often admonished for publicly criticizing and holding Black men accountable for behavior that is clearly detrimental to those very institutions.

Members of the Morehouse College student senate, for example, introduced a bill condemning the protest, arguing that said protest “created a hostile environment” and “encouraged bad press and character defamation to Morehouse College and its student body.” The senate also castigated the FMLA for apparently not asking their permission for the protest. In the final section of the bill, the Morehouse College student senate requested “a public apology from the Advisor(s) to FMLA and student leadership of FMLA and all other organizers of the demonstration for its unruly nature.” In many ways the reaction of some Morehouse men, to the Spelman FMLA protest, has to do with the willingness of those women to challenge the social contract between them.    Again these are the singular politics of two institutions that have a complex and often difficult shared history, but highlight how HBCUs continue to be at the center of public debates about “blackness.” It is also important to realize that this project of policing and regulation is not simply generational in nature as witnessed by the recent commentary from student leaders at HBCU like Winston-Salem State and North Carolina Central about the practice of “sagging” and dressing down among HBCU students. This sensitivity towards sartorial choices, as if there aren’t faculty at historically white institutions who would love to ban the wearing of flip-flops to class, speaks to the extent that the very plantation culture that Baker tethered to Booker T. Washington’s project of uplift, is rife with the belief that what has to be regulated and policed is a deviance thought normative to some black bodies.

The sagging concerns among student leaders were later echoed by Morehouse College President Robert Franklin, Jr., who recently challenged the practice “cross-dressing” among a few Morehouse students. As many question the relevancy of black institutions like HBCUs in the in the so-called “post-race” era, black institutions might contribute to their own irrelevancy, if they continue to march out-of-step with the broad-based progressive politics that so many Hip-Hop generation Americans are desiring to achieve.  Source: NewBlackManl  Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African & African-American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of several books including the recent New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity and is currently completing Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities for New York University Press.

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Doc,   Let me first say that I have met Mark Anthony Neal a couple of times and always found him a likable and deeply intellectual man.  I have read most of his books, and I often suggest them as must reading to my students.  While I agree that teachers at HBCUs carry a larger teaching load that does affect our research productivity, (and I will admit that my next statement will show me as one who has never really enjoyed much of hip hop culture being more moved by a blues and funk aesthetic), when has hip hop culture produced “progressive politics” that could lead to the gaining of first-class citizenship in any way?  I’ve never seen the need to march “in-step” with hip hop culture because much of it is “much to do about nothing.” 

It seems that much of Neal’s issue with HBCUs is more about the inability of popular culture scholars, i.e., hip hop scholars, to gain respectful places and payment at HBCUs, which leads to his proclaiming HBCUs as plantations.  However, what Neal fails to address is the reason that popular studies as well as other very critical areas of thought and research are not supported at HBCUs is because HBCUs barely have enough funds to offer basic core classes for graduation. 

Furthermore, Neal fails to discuss the number of highly qualified teachers who are finding creative ways to implement or integrate their areas of specialization into the core curriculum classes.  We may not have a woman’s studies component at Jackson State University, but most of the English, art, history, political science, and social work professors make sure that their majors are introduced to the traditional and most recent research where woman’s studies intersects with their particular major.   I don’t disagree that most of the decisions made at HBCUs by African American leadership is often a direct result of the need to gain funding from a white and racist college board or board of regents.  Also, the alumni at HBCUs must do a better job of funding their own institutions, yet we must also accept that African people with the same degree and experience still earn twenty five to fifty cents less on the dollar than their white counterparts so with less pay HBCU graduates have less to contribute to their alma maters.  

However, it seems that Neal is glossing over or over simplifying the complex “thing,” which is the HBCU.  Neal connects the legacy of HBCUs to the founding of most HBCUs on plantations, using the overly worn and overly flattened straw man figure of Booker T. Washington to sensationalize his point.  To give Neal credit, it is a tired but effective analogy because most African Americans perceive Washington as a “Tom,” “sell-out,” or “gate-keeper,” thus Neal is able to link his readers’ negative feelings of Washington to HBCUs.  

(However, if Washington were here today, he could ask the same question that he asked a century ago:  You Negroes can vote, pontificate, and speak French, but what do you own?  Even though I am a creative writer with a liberal arts degree, I know that people who can make or fix something have a better chance feeding their family, especially if they own the company that does the makin’ and the fixin’.)  

What Neal’s discourse lacks is the fact that during the late 1800s very few black people had any land to donate for the establishing of a school of any level.  Accordingly, with the change in labor moving from agricultural to industrial, there were empty plantations (plots of land) that could now be used for something else.  Let’s be real.  Most people don’t donate their new clothes; they donate their used clothes.  Plantations were the used clothes that were being passed to the former slaves.  

I wonder if Neal has ever refused to purchase a home because it was once owned by a white racist.  Like most of us, he was probably just happy to get the “used” home at a discount rate.  I don’t mind objective discourse and critique, but Neal has created a straw man opponent rather than addressing in an intricate manner the real struggle of HBCUs to survive in the face poor funding and constant attacks and justifications for closure from racist whites and from African Americans who, themselves, do not respect African American institutions or who have taken one bad experience and have made the one experience the metaphor for the HBCU. 

Even the first black President has just cut funding to HBCUs.  Of course he probably doesn’t know anything about HBCUs so why would he be any more connected to them than white liberals?  The point that I am making is that for Neal to rightfully condemn or discuss HBCUs in a meaningful or helpful manner, he must be willing to do the work of addressing all of the special issues.  If he wants to quote Houston Baker, he should remember what Baker said in Critical Memory but mostly what he said in The Journey Back:  Issues in Black Literature and Criticism about black America being a tree growing from the roots of chaos, a very complicated and interwoven chaos.  

To understand HBCUs in the same way that one desires to understand black culture, one must be willing “to unravel a culture’s ‘multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit.’”  To understand a culture you must understand its conceptual units, which grow from its unique existence.  The same is true for the HBCU.  As a popular studies scholar, Neal is, essentially, a type of cultural anthropologist.  Yet, in his critique of the HBCU he is failing to meet his full responsibility of showing both the unique and universal aspects of a culture’s concept units.  He is providing the what but not the why or cause, leading his readers to conclude that HBCUs are innately inferior because their scholars are innately inferior.   When I was a MA English student at JSU, I wanted to write a thesis that was an analysis of the lyrics of Prince.  My committee rejected my topic, with one professor saying to me, “There is no way that we are going to submit that topic to the Mississippi College Board.”  Thus, I was forced to write my thesis on James Baldwin, which was not a big deal since I have always loved Baldwin’s work.  However, once I earned my degree, I self-published my work on Prince in 1996, and since then I have sold at least three copies a week over the past thirteen years, selling seven copies last week.  While I disagreed with my academic mentors as to what topic I should engage as an English scholar, it was the education that I received at JSU along with seeking other scholars and writers outside the campus that allowed me to publish a work that has been sold on four different continents.  Like I said, I don’t mind an objective critique of HBCUs—as long as it is objective and balanced.  C. Liegh McInnis proud graduate of Jackson State University and man-chile of Clarksdale, Mississippi, home of the Blues “If you ain’t never picked cotton, you can’t tell me sh**…”

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Brief Response to Mark Anthony Neal    It is a fact that such historically white institutions as Duke University and such historically black institutions as Tougaloo College, which occupies a portion of the old Boddie plantation, are part of the racialized social contract that warrants the democratic experiment in the post-colonial United States of America.  In the reification of black/white binaries, it is convenient to forget that historically Mormon, Catholic, Jewish, and Native American institutions of education are paragraphs in the contractual text.  All of them, including the College of William and Mary, Virginia, Harvard, and Princeton, belong to the American tradition of the plantation. They are sites of regulation and surveillance where downpressing and uplifting occur simultaneously.   All of them “enslave” students, faculty, and staff to something.  One expects post-soul individuals who volunteer to be gatekeepers to know that.   Reification and convenience are not necessarily grave offenses against humanity, but using them to murder the metaphor of romance for black institutions has affinity with what Roman Catholics account as venial sins:  they allow charity to subsist, even though they offend and wound it.   In his May 1, 2009 speech “Black Schools Kill Smart Nigger?”: Reconciling the Romance for Black Institutions in the Post-Soul Era, Professor Mark Anthony Neal effectively registers his personal anxieties about Xavier University of Louisiana in particular and black institutions in general.  Some of his astute and serious criticisms of contemporary HBCUs must be respected. And measures should be taken to minimize the need for such criticisms. Nevertheless, he fails to recall that some HBCUs were founded by African American freedpeople not by white power brokers and missionaries. He seems not to remember that during the Age of Segregation and beyond HBCUs performed obligations that most HWCUs did not assume belonged to their missions. His failure of memory or dis(re)membering puts the relevant achievements of HBCUs in abeyance.  His post-race generalizations are, to say the least, disappointing.   As an alumnus of and former faculty member at Tougaloo College and a current faculty member at Dillard University, I know a little about change and the irrelevant. I am aware that we will have wakes and funerals for many American institutions as the new world order declares them irrelevant for this planet. What I dislike about Professor Neal’s speech is his not listening to good advice from Booker T. Washington.  He did not first cast down his bucket where he is employed. That might have been a better way of embracing the legacy and audacious wisdom of  John Hope FranklinJerry W. Ward, Jr.

posted 30 May 2009

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

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Malcolm X

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update 24 May 2012




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