The Importance of Black Space Making in Higher Education

The idea of home fosters an undeniable sense of belonging and therefore longing because humans crave places in which to ground their identity. There is a certain comfortability within a home that allows an individual to share their true range of sensations from fear and confusion to desire and laughter. Throughout history, black people created various homes for respite and revival in order to counteract daily injustices and violence. Safe spaces such as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Africana Studies departments served as cultural armor against the dominant forms of oppression that birthed this nation. However, as these spaces adapt to incorporate outside voices and people, their original purpose in developing a new black identity and consciousness demands recognition and protection. 

The introduction of historically black colleges and universities arose during the 1890s along with the Freedman schools and overall more educational opportunities for black students. While the particular context of segregation and Jim Crow legislation necessitated their creation, there still remains a need for HBCUs. Firstly, historically black colleges and universities provide unique experiences for black students because of the almost complete immersion in one’s race, which is demographically uncommon in other US colleges. Ideally, the entire campus symbolizes a safe space for black students who come to know themselves in a positive environment that welcomes and explores questions about what it means to exist as black college students. HBCUs encourage black students to answer questions about blackness by challenging their racial and ethnic, as well as their public and potential identities. Contrarily, predominantly white institutions subject black students to a hyper-awareness of an outsider’s gaze that dehumanizes, intimidates, and hinders their performance. Answering questions surrounding identity formation in PWIs can be daunting due to the shortage of shared experiences and struggles with one’s cohort. 

To cast aside HBCUs, ignores their cultural and economic impact on African Americans during college and post-graduation. While they account for about 2.5% of the nation’s higher education institutions, HBCUs lead to 15% of African American’s baccalaureate degrees, many of which become advanced degrees in the legal, medical, and STEM fields. According to the 2015 Gallup-Purdue study, graduates of historically black colleges not only experience college differently than non-HBCU graduates, but they also have higher rates of well-being (purpose, social, financial, community, and physical) due to the amount of received support. Despite declining enrollment numbers, lack of funding, and lower-than-average graduation and retention rates in the colleges and universities, black HBCU graduates thrive in social and purpose well-being due to the supportive relationships from professors, mentors, and peers who cared about them as people. Their dignifying experiences validated their existence as human beings by valuing their education, ambitions, and goals.

Similarly, Africana Studies departments create spaces, especially classrooms, for black students to share their own stories and learn about themselves in ways that challenge Eurocentric perspectives. History generally holds a whitewashed view that black students might internalize, but Africana Studies critiques these dominant narratives and proves black humanity in a society that ignores it. To a large extent, Scholar W. E. B. Du Bois inaugurated the field, but Carter G. Woodson helped establish separate spaces for the study of black people and the dissemination of intellectual discourse around their lives. However, Woodson’s legacy questioned whether Africana Studies produced a new culture of knowledge or further segregated the academic community. 

Technically, black space making depends on physical segregation, but the segregation is temporary and unlike the practices that legalized separate academic spaces for black people in the first place. Within every integrated space, patterns of white supremacy inevitably persist. While the spaces support inclusion, the attempted removal or ignorance of them denies the existing realities of racism. Black students need places to heal and reclaim parts of their identities that society continually harms and silences. They need places where they can just exist as their authentic selves. They need places where they can be and do, demonstrating how blackness is not always public and resistant. As poet Lucille Clifton wrote, black people live, mourn, weep, try, love, and do. They do. Thus, black spaces are necessary as long as black students exist to provide places free from the constant stereotypes and judgments allowing black students to simply be. The notion of black space making affirms the humanity of black people by symbolizing what scholar Kevin Quashie calls quiet. Through a framework of quiet, predominantly black spaces build on theories of black interiority and challenge expectations of blackness as dramatic and loud, and instead as intimate. The hyper-awareness that dictates many black students and their actions outside of HBCUs fades within black institutions because students are no longer on display. Their everyday actions are viewed not just as resistant, but as creative, celebratory, enduring, sorrowful, and hopeful. 

As HBCUs and Africana Studies departments evolve and incorporate more people, it is important to remember their rich history in educating black people and creating special places that inspire students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Both cultivate stronger feelings of racial pride and uplift the broader community by critiquing long-standing images and representations of blacks within society and academia. Therefore, what happens to these black spaces as they become more racially diverse? What does it mean for others to participate in these spaces? This is not to say that black spaces should deny nonblack individuals; however, if one is to engage in, it is imperative that they recognize the rarity of the spaces in society and their birth from real-life struggles for black liberation.

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Black Space Making in Higher Education”

  1. Ivy,
    In this blog post, you made a strong claim for the increased support and presence of safe spaces for Black people, particularly in the academic field. I agreed with your claim that society needs to engage with ‘black spaces’ more carefully, especially as they grow and expand to include more individuals. You then brought this argument in conversation with Quashie’s text, The Sovereignty of Quiet, to further demonstrate that the presence of these spaces are essential to the emotional and mental existence of Black individuals. By way of this connection, you show that the existing narrative of blackness as publicness also permeates into the institution of education, and plays a great deal in shaping the experience of Black students at PWIs. I agreed with your statement that “within every integrated space, patterns of white supremacy inevitably persist.” So therefore, do you believe that with our society’s deeply ingrained view of race, integrated spaces can ever be remade or redefined to remove this bias/supremacy?

  2. You make a relevant claim about the need for increased ‘Safe Spaces’ for Black individuals in education. I found this to be a refreshing and intriguing read considering we had Tricia Rose discuss the ways in which systemic racism has adversely affected education for Black individuals in America. The way in which you tie in Quashie’s argument allows for a stronger reading of Black interiority and allows the reader to recognize how it vastly differs with the ways in which Black individuals are viewed by media and other sources. The examination of current ‘Safe Spaces’ for Black individuals in education, as noted by HBCUs and Departments of Africana Studies, gives a look into that Black interiority and furthers the argument about their effectiveness. You leave strong and serious questions (in the Conclusion) surrounding the direction of ‘Safe Spaces’ that require consideration and thorough reflection.

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