If you ain’t angry, you ain’t with it.
Ronald Mason isn’t a stranger to taking strong public positions when it comes to saving black folks. The distinguished three-time HBCU president who laid a foundation for Jackson State University’s evolution as a high-research public flagship institution, and virtually saved Southern University from financial ruin and legislative assault, finds himself at the University of the District of Columbia — freed of the southern-fried politics and internal conflicts that too often put blinders on broad visions for HBCU sustainability in public contexts.
A community college, a law school, and a four-year institution comprise the District’s flagship land-grant institution; a dream come true (relatively) in terms of academic service delivery options, public funding, accessibility and compatibility with the community and industrial needs of the nation’s capital.
From all angles, Mason has struck historically black gold. And then he goes and does something silly like break down race in America.
The Firebird Files
It’s branded as a place for ‘thoughts, ideas and community conversation.’ And a glance through most of the entries on the blog dating back to last December reads like the typical presidential communication vehicle, with entries on university events, initiatives and calls for feedback on campus budget issues.
But then you get a jewel like this one; an entry published a few months after UDC student Jason Goolsby was handcuffed and detained outside of a bank in Northwest DC for standing outside and instinctively running when he saw police approaching him.
Being Black in America is a perilous proposition. It is dangerous when you are walking and unsafe when you are driving. It is dangerous when you talk, and even more risky when you don’t speak at all. It is dangerous when the police drive up, and just as chancy in front of a jury. If you are Black, you are more likely to be stopped, more likely to be arrested, and more likely to go to jail. When you are Black, you are more likely to serve time in jail, even if you are innocent.
And last week, Mason dropped the next chapter: part one of a four-part series on the stinging reality of the Black American experience.
The American order of things is that America is a white country and black people who are not servants or slaves don’t belong in it. The mere notion that black people want to be treated the same as white people is, in and of itself, a threat to the order of things; i.e., a threat of insurrection. The officers of the law and the black community have a tense relationship because the role of the former is to maintain law and order. Add to that the stresses on both sides of being unemployed, or overworked and underpaid, the competition for jobs, the fear of miscegenation, and the criminalization of being black. The sum of it all is that when a policeman pulls the trigger on a black man, it is a conditioned response.
Mason shouldn’t draw the ire of his board of trustees, the city council, or UDC stakeholders, because what he’s saying is true. And the fact that he’s saying it, keeps him as an outspoken voice on a growing culture of militancy among African Americans in search of identity and autonomy in our own country.
Tuskegee University alumna Marilyn Mosby raising her voice at press conferences is militant. Paul Quinn College leadership and students demanding equity in civic planning is militant. Prairie View A&M University students rallying for a polling place, Shaw University terminating a campus-wide wage reduction initiative, Virginia State University students praying daily at their campus gates for four years, Howard University giving tuition rebates — that’s militancy.
And not in the Black Panther Party sense normally attached to angry black folks, and definitely not the kind of militancy that calls for disruption of white space, or self-sacrifice in the name of reforming white privilege. It is the kind of militant activity that aggressively pursues an objective of freedom and respect; a course of action that needs no blessing from good white folks, or convincing of cautious black folks — it just gets done and makes good things happen for black people, with little concern for who gets on board now or later.
It is the kind of militancy with the intention of doing more than making a statement of opposition; it is making as equal and forceful a response as our collective will and resources will allow.
Its this kind of activity over the last five years that has begun to break down the fence of respectability politics around HBCU leadership, and to chip away at board conservatism against aggressive tactics which may upset outside racists and racial opportunists, but over time, will continue to yield positive results for HBCU campus communities.
For years, black folks who sought appointment to, or retention in presidential seats played the game well; talking around issues of clear racial divide and strife to send signals to other black people that they were on our side, but at the same time, keenly aware that white governors and legislators would not tolerate too much venturing beyond the black box.
And for a while, we got along okay without HBCU presidents doing more than expressing public remorse, sorrow, regret, anguish, and frustration with the nation’s growing divides among poor and wealthy, among educated and incarcerated, among minorities and whites.
Among the free and the subjugated.
But then brothers and sisters kept getting shot by police. On camera. And social media forced us to remember and to speak their names. And then black students on white campuses decided that those killings demanded response to the injustices taking place in their own lives, which led more students back home — just as many of us thought it would four years ago, just on different terms.
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It all leads up to a third of the nation’s HBCU presidents signing a letter of support for a national summit on gun violence, telling the nation that there has been enough pain, enough disparity, and enough executive silence.
And with that letter, these presidents embrace a new standard for black college leadership which will require regular and passionate advocacy on key issues impacting black people and black communities.
The new black excellence isn’t just expertise in professional assimilation, but the assertion of independence in whatever space we occupy, but preferably, space we own. We are free of the shame of resources, facilities, skin tone, not being the same as those outside of our communities. There is no such thing as shame, no such thing as inferior, no such thing as second-class; only the scope of our destiny measured against the scale of our dreams.
Mason has long been bold enough to believe that. And thankfully, other HBCU presidents are finding the moment right to find their place in the movement.