Howard University and the Dream Sequence

Howard University. Photo: HBCU Buzz.
Howard University. Photo: HBCU Buzz.

The idea of “the Dream Sequence” was introduced to me by Howard alum and former professor Acklyn Lynch, a figure unquestionably consequential to many of the global Black nationalist political formations of the last forty-five years. For Lynch, the Dream Sequence’s meaning is embedded in the idea that all African peoples can be free, that their freedom is understood and determined by them and by their sense of “the good,” and that it does not require them to compromise the idea of who they are. Thinking with Lynch as an undergraduate student helped shape our work as Howard students and inspired us to imagine ourselves as co-workers in this project to resettle the terms of how we understood our humanity.

What has made the era of modernity so destructive are the ways in which it has erased notions of freedom that existed at the foundation of thought traditions opposed to the compulsory liberalism believed to structure normative freedoms—as well as radical ones. As Lisa Lowe has argued, this not only occludes that liberation has been imagined in other ways, but it demonstrates how liberal freedoms actually worked to extend unfreedom. What Lynch’s ideas had us grasp for were the ways in which generations of Africans whose lives (although, though not their conceptions of life) were shaped by the modern world possessed ways of seeing beyond it in order to structure life anew. It was in making genealogical connections to the maroons, to those ancestors who, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues, committed “unthinkable” acts that could craft political struggles today. Our Dream Sequence became what it was to maroons, to those enslaved Africans who chose flight, and to their descendants who made cultural reclamation and political struggle their lives.

In its recent 150th Charter Day Celebration, Howard University as a collective community found itself once again in a moment of deep reflection on its purpose. Charter Day has traditionally been a site of various forms of political rupture, so it was not surprising to see this pattern repeat on the sesquicentennial amid the tensions surrounding the relationship of the university to a U.S. federal government now led by Donald J. Trump.

Mark Mason speaks at Howard's 150th Charter Day celebration. Photo: Howard University.
Mark Mason speaks at Howard’s 150th Charter Day celebration. Photo: Howard University.

On my final Charter Day as undergraduate, I penned a Hilltop editorial, “Howard and the Negro,” which was an attempt to make sense of what seemed to us, as students, the fundamentally anti-Black positions our administration had been taking. Like the 2017 protestors, we were upset because for us Howard had already become the bastion of the Dream Sequence. It was our Mecca. Yet the other dream, represented by the “Negro” (we had not yet read the literature of “race uplift”), has never been absent. In fact one could argue it was the founding ethos of the institution. The Black (as opposed to Negro) space we had convened was part of the irony of what we would come to know, following Kwame Ture, of Howard being “everything Black and its opposite.”

At Howard these legacies congealed in ways that showed that the Black Radical Tradition was not simply a response to enslavement, but rather a living tradition of struggle that called into question the very purpose of institutions of Black education insofar as they issued from the political logics that underpinned the liberal order. My Hilltop editorial read such differing conceptions of the meaning of Black education through the lens of Cedric Robinson’s “alternative political cultures.” In his Black Movements in America, Robinson proclaimed that one culture represented the tendency to define its needs through the dominant American ethos, and the other, although at times supportive of this formulation, represented the tendency to create autonomous spaces that existed to affirm communitarian and democratic values that opposed enslavement and its afterlives and that affirmed that there could be something beyond the present order. While institutions like Howard convened a space for the training of Black elites, the latent “freedom dreams” within this same “community of meaning” found space for articulation. The fact that this vision had to struggle for that articulation revealed a hard truth: The university was never founded to produce this divergence between a Black self-determining intellectual space and the production of representative “teachers and preachers” for Black communities—the latter was simply assumed.

The Dream Sequence as it relates to Howard was a creative embrace of an imagination that Howard could be Black—that is, representative of the full range of African humanity and reoriented to take it as the point of departure for how we might be educated. Lynch’s leadership of the November 1968 “Toward a Black University Conference,” where thousands of Black folk from around the country met to ask the question of what this might mean, produced a space and an idea that remained deeply influential. The response of Howard’s Board of Trustees was instructive: misreading the students’ demand as one of exclusion, they argued simply that the institution was committed to what South Africans would call a “non-racialism” already at the core of American democracy. Importantly, they framed the “dream” as a long struggle to “enter the mainstream.”

HBCUs continue to exist in such a contradiction: what does it mean to educate the formerly enslaved in a country and world that continue to deny what enslavement and exclusion have meant and continue to mean to its conception of “the good”? Unable to address this contradiction in useful ways, certain factions of the HBCU world have merely accepted the logic that our universities must simply prepare our students to compete in a game rigged by a racial capitalism the larger Western academy has always endorsed. It is as if we must accept contradiction, work within it, because our lot is foreclosed.

Yet it was W.E.B. Du Bois, insisting as he often did, that for Howard in particular and all HBCUs, this order of arrangements was unacceptable. The question was not one of the acquisition of wealth and status, but of ideals: “this growth must be led; it must be guided by Ideals. We have lost something, brothers, wandering in strange lands. We have lost our ideals. We have come to a generation which seeks advance without ideals—discovery without stars. It cannot be done.” For Du Bois, those ideals were poverty (as the antithesis of wealth), work, knowledge, and sacrifice.

As tension of what Howard has represented and can represent persists, differing conceptions of Black liberation reproduce themselves as the solution, and there are often very few points of convergence between them. In the wake of the most recent explosion of discourse amid Donald J. Trump’s presidential maneuverings, a certain narrative has emerged that suggests that such engagement runs counter to the mission of HBCUs. This is a characterization that while well intentioned, mistakes the actual history of HBCUs with the Dream Sequence for HBCUs carried forth by Lynch, Du Bois, and others.

Yet it is this Dream Sequence that must continue to guide how we engage what it means to educate ourselves. It is undeniably necessary to maintain Black spaces, but in doing so we necessarily grapple with the alternative political cultures that have defined Blackness. It must also be acknowledged that Howard’s legacy of engagement with Black liberation struggles came to exist despite and at times against the very logic of its founding. While institutions deal with such legacies in ways that remove those tensions, one need only imagine Howard scholars and radicals like Doxey Wilkerson and likely others such as W. Alphaeus Hunton having to teach classes while being surveilled by the FBI while the official legacies posit figures like Eric Williams, Merze Tate, E. Franklin Frazier, or Alain Locke as pioneers—constructions that reveal the complex ways Black spaces have been constituted.1 In some ways, these scholars’ work was not a binary opposition. That is, the official legacy often works to undermine how Howard scholars, students, and alumni have understood their work as the destruction of the systems that produce the general antagonisms at the heart of the modern world—the same antagonism that Western universities otherwise uphold.

Many Howard students, alumni, and faculty encountered the Dream Sequence at Howard University. It was where we produced and convened the space to imagine a human future that situated Africans as central actors in the drama of what could and must be. For April Silver, former leader of the Black Nia F.O.R.C.E and former Howard University Student Association President, the question of the future of the institution and other HBCUs revolved around our ability to see them as sacred spaces. Instead of ceaselessly sparring over the meaning of the Obama legacy to HBCUs and the question of funding, questions that we know historically are not new, we might think about what kinds of self-determining intellectual spaces we might build. Much like the project set out for the University of South Africa by new chancellor Thabo Mbeki, a sacred calling for Black colleges requires that we craft solutions to human problems from cultural logics that rely on our humanity and its ability to set the terms of engagement. That requires that we become—and in some cases, remain—our own authorities. This is also the Dream Sequence; it has never been enacted, only imagined.

  1. See the work of Jonathan Scott Holloway, Robert Vitalis, and Zachery Williams for unique takes on the “Howard school.”

Josh Myers

Josh Myers is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies in the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University. His research interests include Africana intellectual histories and traditions, Africana philosophy, critical university studies, and disciplinarity. His current book project is a history of the Howard University student protest of 1989. Follow him on Twitter @ddehewty.

Comments on “Howard University and the Dream Sequence

  • Once again you have provided a remarkable contribution. I have read the Holloway and Williams books on Howard, and will pursue the work of Vitalis. I was a professor of History at Howard in the 1970’s, and I agree with the observations of Josh Myers.

    Best —

    Al-Tony Gilmore

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