Thank you to the the library team at Fisk University, especially Dr. Brandon Owens and Dr. Magana Kabugi; their kindness, support, and research informed this article.
“Schools are established for the purpose of training people to think,” an early edition of the Fisk Herald explained. Reviewing earlier editions (published 1895-1902) of Fisk University’s Herald reveals how thinking has evolved–and how young Black intellectuals still prioritize many of the same issues. The publications at HBCUs are barometers of student attitudes; they’re often problem-posing and community-minded, even as strategies for affecting change grow more decentralized.
Our neighbors at Tennessee State University have an online creative arts journal, Sketches, that includes original artwork, poetry, and fiction. Their open-access journal has been downloaded several times and appears widely read. At Spelman College, Aunt Chloe (formerly FOCUS), continues a legacy that includes work from writers such as Alice Walker and Stefanie Dunning. And many of us are wondering: what could Howard University, which helped nourish a Nobel laureate and our current vice president, and its literary journal, The Amistad, tell us about the intellectual pursuits of its alumni? What, specifically, can a publication at a historically Black institution of higher learning offer us? How can it help us broaden existing discussions? How can it generate new activism?
Both Black and non-Black students often say they enjoy their HBCU experiences. Blackness offers a critical perspective that often questions, challenges, or expands mainstream conversations. Fisk scholars point out how the University’s publications reflect its lengthy history, rooted in social justice. The Fisk Expositor was started in 1878 as the first Fisk publication. In 1883, it was renamed the Fisk Herald, which immediately gained attention in 1891 when it published a broadside against mob law. The April 1895 Herald rethinks the infamous W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington debate, suggesting nuance in the notorious battle between Du Bois and Washington: both men supported infrastructures that offered varied educational and political opportunities. A Dec. 1892 Herald editorial expressing appreciation for Islam and cross-cultural discussions, during a time of religious and national conformity. (In November of 1892, Du Bois pens a plea for greater political and educational involvement.). Throughout the 1890s and early 1900s, the Herald covers a range of discussions: we see articles about socialism, the importance of a rigorous academic curriculum, and numerous tributes to Black achievers. This isn’t to say publications at HBCUs are perfect; sometimes they reflect, rather than challenge, dominant discourse. For example, some early editions of the Herald express xenophobic and anti-immigration positions; an 1893 editorial argues that “immigration must be regulated” and rails against immigration (another, however, calls the “Chinese exclusion law…a national disgrace”). Overall the Herald editorials question the racist discourse of the time, the idea that Black people weren’t capable of obtaining a higher education, or of leading better lives.
HBCUs have been criticized for having their own form of elitism (e.g., colorism and classism). But most HBCUs were created shortly after slavery ended, when the majority of Black people were in deep poverty. The early HBCU publications show community-focused people who weren’t sitting around sipping tea. A well-placed editorial in the Herald questions the value of an education that doesn’t love and support the community: “Is it that we may be better prepared to accumulate large sums of money for our own selfish use?” Other Herald articles wonder how to eliminate poverty and what forms of education will help: “The best work they can get is railroading for the men…washing, cooking, ironing or nursing for the women and girls with very poor wages.” Of course, we may recognize this editorial as advancing outdated gender roles but it also expresses a genuine concern for eliminating poverty and creating better futures.
The Herald was a key place for students to express their voices and opinions where their thoughts could be seen by other students and by administration. Today issues that hold students’ attention perhaps shouldn’t surprise us–most educated people want to better understand race, the pandemic, and ways we can create lasting change–but our students reveal all the ways Gen Z hopes to heal past ruptures. In class discussions, Brooklynn, a Fisk first-year student, describes an interest in how “different people participate in culture” and talk about our “shared experiences”; Brooklynn’s work explores how Student Government Associations can serve as agents for change at HBCUs. Fellow Fiskite Mauryce wants to explore music therapy, how it can facilitate learning and deepen activism during a pandemic. Olivia writes about employment opportunities for people who were incarcerated. In addition to photographers, fact-checkers, the students requested positions as social justice editors, education editors, and mental health editors. Their advocacy for these positions suggests how important social justice and mental health are for Gen Z.
Recently, TV One and CNN journalist Roland Martin visited campus and discussed the need for more Black-owned platforms and publishers. Martin described how Black publishers allow for a different, uncompromising perspective. It’s an idea echoed by the editorial advisory board of The Jubilee, Fisk University’s revamped literary magazine. The editorial advisory board, which also includes journalists from NPR, the New York Times, and professors, distinguished alumni, and consultants from Historically Black Colleges, suggests ways we can keep college publications alive and vibrant at HBCUs. “We need to lead the media industry, not just serve the media industry,” says Peter A. McKay, founder of the media company, Indizr, an HBCU alum, and a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reporter. The argument from Martin, McKay, and others reveals how college publications reflect the intellectual energies of a campus–and why we should have an interest in preserving and developing publications at HBCUs.
Many HBCUs were built in the south during a time when, as John Hope Franklin reminds us, “there was opposition to racially integrated schools,” even though some states’ constitutions had not yet banned integration. The open and vocal hostility Black people faced for learning to read and write–and our defiant quest for higher education–makes HBCUs’ literary legacy potent. The college publications provide a rare opportunity to hear the voices of young Black intellectuals speaking in a public forum, but one moderated and influenced by other Black voices.