Life Behind the Veil at Howard University

E on DC

Sometimes I sit behind my desk at Howard waiting for Harriet Tubman to return. Would she risk her life one more time for me?  In an old PBS documentary, “Color Us Black” the novelist Claude Brown (author of Manchild in the Promised Land) challenged the values and existence of what was once the Capstone of Negro Education. Brown said if Howard didn’t turn around (whatever that meant), the place should be burnt to the ground and cotton planted for its economic value. I often thought Brown was crazy funny in that irreverent way Chris Rock can be at times. Lately however, Howard University has been in the news and much of the news has been negative. This is sad because the institution means so much to people all around the world. Howard is the place someone nicknamed the Mecca, and maybe now is the time for the call to prayer.

I arrived on the campus of Howard in 1968. It was after King’s death and right before the “Towards A Black University Conference” was held. Students and radical faculty members debated the purpose and direction of Howard. I felt blackness “calling” around my sophomore year and decided to change my major to African American Studies. How else could I shed my “Negro” ways and become a black person? I started writing poetry and soon found myself having one on one conversations with Sterling A. Brown, Leon Damas, Stephen Henderson, Haki Madhubuti, John Oliver Killens, Owen Dodson, and C.L.R. James.

What makes Howard University unique and special can be as moving and as mysterious as the inside of John Coltrane’s horn. Long before a Yardfest, a student could hear some beautiful music coming from the classrooms in Douglass Hall. How many times did I enter the School of Social Work auditorium and listen to Walter Rodney or Amiri Baraka?

Much of my “real” education took place at these special events. Howard became home. After graduating in 1972, I decided not to become a refugee. I stayed at Howard and worked closely with people who had a vision. At the center of that vision was Howard University not just on a hill, but in the center of the universe. Some of us were Pan Africanist in dress, but our minds were reaching, seeking, dancing and attempting to discover something more.

Now, at this period in my life that DuBois called “dusk of dawn,” I wonder where my beloved institution is going.  Are we preparing students for the 21st century?  What equipment do we need for living?

What do we now hold sacred?   Like Rip Van Winkle, has Howard been asleep the last few years?  And, as Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us back in 1959, it’s wasn’t just that Rip slept for twenty years, it was the fact that he had slept through a revolution.

As Howard awakes from its sleep and a nightmare of fiscal problems, it must join the global community of first-rate educational institutions. The new world is no longer simply black and white.  The problems of our century are gumbo complex. A university like Howard is needed now more than ever.  We must become Margaret Walker believers and Sterling Brown strong men. At the center of Howard’s re-emergence must be a major commitment to such units as the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center and the African and African American Studies Departments. These units represent the heart of blackness. It’s what will give Howard University its glow (or brand) encouraging people from all around the world to come and visit and learn. Each day I sit at my desk corresponding with numerous scholars and artists. They often ask me, how are things at Howard?  I laugh and tell them Tubman just left my office. She said, “Ethelbert, you are either a fool or free.”

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