10 Thoughts on Tell Them We Are Rising, the Documentary About the Story of HBCUs
(written by: Panama Jackson, who is the Senior Editor of Very Smart Brothas.)
As an alumnus of Morehouse College and a staunch advocate for HBCUs, I was very excited to finally see the Stanley Nelson film Tell Them We Are Rising, a documentary about HBCUs. Overall, I thought it was cool, with some very interesting stories and facts, but I believe it suffered from a time crunch. Ultimately, and most important, I’m glad it exists. Here are some thoughts:
1. I love HBCUs with my whole heart. When I’m near HBCUs, I go to their bookstores to buy T-shirts and sweatshirts. I have a collection of HBCU tees. And I know many more people like myself, especially graduates, whose love for our black colleges runs Mississippi River deep. We plan on sending our kids there and we go to homecomings and we love the blackness. HBCUs were Wakanda before Wakanda was a thing.
For that reason, there’s almost zero chance I wouldn’t watch a documentary about the history of HBCUs. We need as much information as possible in the public sphere about the importance of HBCUs—something that the documentary touches on heavily—and their role in various moments in history, especially the civil rights movement. For those reasons, if you haven’t checked it out, I recommend it.
2. With that being said, the biggest limitation of the documentary is that there are over 100 HBCUs with lots of stories, and there were 82 minutes to cover the conception of the schools through present day. Lots of things got left out. Several prominent HBCUs got very little mention, if any, and the achievements of most were left off the table. I feel like this could have been an episode of Eyes on the Prize—the 14-part series on the civil rights movement—about the role of black schools in black history and rise of the black middle class.
3. While I wanted more about the history of the schools, the documentary focused more on the roles they played in the history of America. From that vantage point, the documentary was successful in discussing the environment in which HBCUs were born and thrived, and some of the challenges facing them currently.
4. The documentary spent a lot of time on why Booker T. Washington was effectively a sellout. I realize that his grooming at Hampton and then ascendance at Tuskegee University created his mindset of our starting at the bottom and working our way up in society (which I don’t agree with), but the commentators made no bones about calling that man damaging to the black community. I was surprised to see the documentary go that route.
For perspective, as stated in the documentary, Hampton Institute and eventually Tuskegee were founded as trade schools for blacks to maintain the white perception of black inferiority. Washington’s story in the black community is a complex one. His successes are documented with praise, but his stance of making white America comfortable in knowing that black students were going to learn to be their helpers and low-level workers was met with some pretty stark resistance in many quarters of the black community and welcomed by the white community.
5. W.E.B. Du Bois was lauded as a polar opposite to Washington, as one who sought to create a community of educated black folks who would be in positions of authority and help create a viable black community. Most of us who went to HBCUs spent semesters discussing their philosophical differences and impact, often without much appreciation for Washington’s line of thinking. I wonder how they talk about Booker T. at Tuskegee. I mean, Tuskegee University is a highly respected institution today, especially for engineering. History is interesting.
6. I really enjoyed the archival footage of the schools. A lot a lot.
7. I had never heard about the students being shot at Southern A&M University in Baton Rouge, La., in 1972. I had no idea about that student uprising. Or about Fisk University’s student uprising to get their ultraconservative white president, Fayette McKenzie, outta there in 1925. It was interesting to see student protests and strikes toward school administrations and not just against white supremacy, because HBCUs are not without their issues.
8. I thought the doc ending on the story of Morris Brown College (it’s one of the final three vignettes) was interesting considering how Morris Brown—for all of its important history as the only school in the Atlanta University Center (Morehouse College, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University and Interdenominational Theological Center) that was founded by black folks—is largely shuttered. At its height, when I was in school, roughly 2,500 students attended Morris Brown, and now there are about 50.
The film also focused on Florida A&M University and a student in the band, which was another interesting choice, considering the fire the school was under because of the hazing death of Robert Champion in 2011, which resulted in criminal charges and the suspension of the band for a few years. The band, the Marching 100, has since been reinstated; it’s just interesting that the final two stories the doc focused on were Morris Brown and FAMU’s band, two fairly dark spots in recent HBCU history.
9. There’s talk about HBCUs struggling a bit and the reasons for it. This is a long-standing discussion in the black community. There are over 100 HBCUs; it’s nearly impossible for all of them to thrive. Even the top-tier schools (you can argue among yourselves about which schools fall into that ranking) have significant struggles.
At the same time, applications for many HBCUs have seen record highs in the midst of the extremely racialized climate of the nation. Schools like Spelman are receiving record numbers of applicants, which speaks to the fact that there’s still a need. Documentaries like this are helpful reminders of this country’s history and why our schools matter to our community.
10. SpelHouse fo’ lyfe. I just wanted to share that. I loved how much they featured Howard University and the reshaping of its law school (and, of course, the ascent of Thurgood Marshall). That happened because of Mordecai Johnson, Howard’s first black president. He was a Morehouse Man. Dear Howard and African America: You’re welcome.