What does it say about the culture of historically black colleges and universities when a film billed as the seminal history of the sector treats the sector itself as a footnote in a lazy, myopic view of the Civil Rights Movement?
That is the struggle we have with Stanley Nelson’s “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” In months leading up to its national release on PBS last night, there was great expectation for the documentary illustrating the path of black educational sovereignty in the midst of oppression, segregation and the nation’s morphing views of the usefulness of race in America.
Those of use who live and breathe HBCU culture and policy expected “Tell Them We Are Rising” to be a cinematic Sunday morning grace to the Saturday night fever generated by Marvel’s ‘Black Panther.’
It was none of those things. It was the kind of storytelling we’ve grown to expect from outsiders who want to tell a story about black culture, but whom rely heavily on the ‘Google search’ versions of history to mask a neglect of research and exploration for real insight.
The chapters of “Tell Them We Are Rising” are organized to walk the viewer through post-abolition America and the growing need for the industrial training of freed men and women, to the modern day struggle and appeal of black colleges.
But in between there is a violent collision of moments, voices and incidents from select HBCU campuses, from which the viewer is supposed to draw a conclusion about HBCU culture at large. The first was a strange treatment of the timeless Booker T. Washington – W.E.B. DuBois ‘feud,’ in which Nelson attempts through ‘expert’ accounts and DuBois’ remarks to reconstruct Washington as an advocate for ‘neo-slavery’ by way of agricultural training and social deference to whites throughout the south.
Most HBCU students and graduates can recall from freshman seminars that the public debate between Washington and DuBois was actually a private alliance, which through rhetoric, finance and social brokering helped to secure more educational opportunities for African Americans nationwide, along with legal defense, social organizing and industrial development. And those students and alumni who weren’t turned off that Nelson seemingly didn’t bother to do a basic JSTOR search of this history to find even a master’s thesis on the subject, certainly found more reason in the stories which followed.
The car wreck that is ‘Tell Them We Are Rising’ began to turn into a massive cultural pileup about 25 minutes in, when the storytelling shifts to exploiting the history of student angst on HBCU campuses following World War I. In the section ‘The New Negro,’ we find stories of Fisk University students protesting white administration for restrictive social and academic policy on campus. They boycott class, are threatened and beaten up by police, and seven minutes later dignity is returned to the students when the president resigns.
Had Nelson done a basic search on YouTube, he may have discovered the instrumental role black colleges played in domestic wartime agriculture, science, engineering and military science in World War II, something the US Government at the time found valuable enough to highlight in its domestic propaganda campaigns.
The documentary works towards some redemption in its “Golden Age” chapter. Here we find positive affirmations of faculty members emphasizing a nurturing learning environment, black students finding love on HBCU campuses, and a brief view of the rise of black college athletics.
Six minutes of flash cuts of smiling, dancing black students against a ragtime musical backdrop, gives way to gray tones to usher in the Civil Rights Movement, and the story of Howard University’s School of Law and its role in leading litigation throughout the country on behalf of blacks disenfranchised by policy and social norms.
For as much as the viewer is given through introductions to legal legends like Charles Hamilton Houston, the delegations of Howard professors traveling through the south to document inequitable conditions for black Americans, and details on how ‘Separate But Equal’ would create generational struggle for black students, the documentary soon shifts back to its comfort zone of angry black students at HBCUs, and doesn’t let up.
The “Freedom” chapter begins 51 minutes into the documentary, and provides light looks at the students involved in the Greensboro lunch-counter sit-ins. Their movement grew to more than 1,000 students, prompting one alumnus to comment “If you weren’t out there demonstrating, something had to be wrong with your school.” The documentary scored with details on how HBCU students synchronized their protests to overwhelm public safety response, and to force economic losses exceeding $10 million on stores which insisted on discrimination.
But these points were overwhelmed with the emphasis on students singing as they were being beaten and hauled into paddy wagons – a theme Nelson must view as powerful narrative but in actuality advanced the myth of the ‘Supernegro,’ the narrative that our greatest trait as a people is to endure physical and psychological punishment in the name of freedom, but to smile and concede it anyway.
That angst bleeds into the 1960s, where students at Howard University student takeover of the school’s administration building takes center stage. Nelson depicts ‘Black Power vs. Tradition’ through student soundbytes calling for the previous generation to move out of the way. More police come onto campus, more black students get beaten up, more black students get angry.
The rage comes to a heartbreaking pinnacle at Southern University, where an hour into the documentary and with the theme from ‘Shaft’ as our soundtrack, we see students simultaneously fighting administration and the governor for equitable resources on campus. It is the same narrative that most HBCUs, especially Southern, continue today but which is never fleshed out in ‘Tell Them We Are Rising,’ a tragedy only exceeded by Nelson’s graphic presentation of police coming onto campus in Nov. 1972 to quell protests, and eventually murdering Southern students Denver Smith and Leonard Brown.
Their blood is washed off of sidewalks, the paths of tears from their classmates reliving the painful memory seemingly etched into their faces, and all we are left with is the question “how is this more historically representative of HBCU protest violence on campus than the Orangeburg Massacre, or the Jackson State University killings?
A ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice’ interlude carries our confusion into the final 15 minutes of the documentary, titled ‘Today.’ Flash cuts of marching bands and Greek stepping are laced with mothers hugging daughters moving into their first year of college at an HBCU. The daughters beginning their journeys at Spelman College and Florida A&M University are excited to be around black people and to live black lives freely, as both of them came from apparently predominantly white neighborhoods and schools.
“In high school I was the token black/either ratchet black girl or exceptional. I’m tired of those boxes,” said one. “I want to be somewhere I can be free to be myself, be black, have curly hair, be smart, be whatever I want to be,” said the other. The narrative that HBCUs are places to be black and free, rather than places to be expertly trained in industry and social awareness, again escapes Nelson, who transitions from there to the growing number of HBCUs closing.
Brief mentions of enrollment challenges are rolled over by images and sounds of Morris Brown College’s virtually abandoned campus, with shots of its football stadium once filled with screaming fans filling the screen.
A FAMU drum major attempts to save the section; “if you come here, you’ll find something you won’t find anywhere else…There’s three things I want – support, education, love and I’ve found that here.”
HBCU commencement scenes flash across the screen, and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ fades the documentary out as the screen fills with the names of famous HBCU alumni. But it’s not alright; too much was left out, too much left unexplored, and too much explained by people from all sorts of centers and campuses not located at HBCUs.
Too much information exists about HBCU history to have produced a quasi-Civil Rights documentary, interviewed some seasoned HBCU graduates and called it an HBCU documentary. HBCUs have generated too much wealth, too much intellectual capital, too much political representation at local and national levels, and too much innovation in academics, industry, sports, music and culture for all of it to be absent from this project.
Too much rides on the daily depiction of our schools to lawmakers, potential students and donors for our own people to get our story wrong.
And perhaps that is the greatest tragedy of “Tell Them We Are Rising,” Nelson was fully willing to get virtually everything wrong about the project, banking on the fact that black and white people would embrace it because one of us did it, our schools were involved and because nothing else like it exists.
And too many black folks will do just that – accept a false retelling of our own history in the name of a sliver of that history being exposed to the masses. And instead of rising, we’ll push ourselves deeper into a pit of non-awareness and further away from the truth – that with these schools we became great and without them our potential for greater freedom in this country will perish.