This weekend, at Temple University’s Homecoming festivities, several people were pictured wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “HBCU-ish Temple University.”
The red T-shirts with white and black lettering appeared to be a playful spoof of the logo for the ABC hit series Black-ish, which traces the fish-out-of-water misadventures of a black family living in a white, suburban environment.
As a Temple graduate, I get the comparison. Temple’s racial mix has a sort of fish-out-of-water element of its own. As a Predominately White Institution (PWI) located smack dab in the middle of a rapidly gentrifying black community, my alma mater has just enough black students to make things interesting.
But it’s not a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). Not by a long shot. Perhaps that’s why the t-shirt—sold on a website which is not affiliated with Temple University—received such backlash when pictures of an unidentified young black woman wearing the t-shirt popped up on social media.
“GTFOHWTBS,” Cheyney University graduate Michael Coard wrote on his Facebook page, using a profanity-laced acronym based on the phrase, “get out of here.”
On Twitter, the responses were just as dramatic.
A user posting under the handle @emmanueljamir wrote, “Even though Temple in the ghetto y’all ain’t no HBCU.”
Twitter user @daijaflys wrote, “Black-ish is about black people. Not white people who are kind of black. Either way there’s no ish when it comes to an institution being a PWI vs HBCU. Either it is or it isn’t … Temple is not an HBCU or ish."
To be fair, Temple, had nothing to do with the design or sale of these shirts. But social media has never been about fairness. It has always been about emotion. And like it or not, the emotion that black folks most often associate with large institutions located on the cusp of our communities is dread.
We watch the expansion of such institutions, knowing that we won’t reap the economic benefit of their growth. We observe the migration of students and housing and resources not meant for the black community, and our animosity grows. We feel our communities changing as the institution’s growth becomes a driver for gentrification, and we are saddened. And as we are hired by these institutions in low-wage security positions that place us firmly between the wealth of other people and the poverty of our own, we can’t shake the feeling that we’ve been had.
So while I love Temple University for all it has done for me and other graduates who come from the streets surrounding the school, I understand the anger of those who haven’t reaped similar benefits that students are attaching the meaningful HBCU label to a school with a complicated legacy on race. Perhaps more importantly, I understand why some black folks believe Temple must do more to repair the rift between the school and the black community the school wants to help gentrify.
Yes, Temple University was born as a place where working-class students could earn a college degree through night classes and hard work. But that origin story, as gritty and inspiring as it may be, is about choice. The story of HBCUs is about necessity.
Born out of the pain of slavery and Jim Crow, Historically Black Colleges and Universities sprang up in the face of an American culture that was violently opposed to the education of African Americans. These schools survived on shoestring budgets in the shadows of larger Predominately White Institutions that traditionally refused to admit black students.
The existence of the HBCU was never a choice. It was a means of survival for people who were forced to keep inventing institutions of their own.
Perhaps Temple University could adopt survival techniques of historically black colleges that thrived in the midst of hostility, like pressing on in spite of opposition from the surrounding community and finding unlikely allies in a place where they might not have been wanted. Temple could apply these lessons when partnering with more community organizations they haven’t looked for in the past like schools, businesses and neighbors who would benefit from their resources and expertise.