Every young Black person of a certain age can relate. A warm embrace may greet you if you ask, “When did you realize that Hillman University was a fictional school from the show ‘A Different World’?” For those that don’t know, the show that debuted in 1987 but peaked in the ‘90s focused on young Black students at the fictitious Hillman, an HBCU filled with unique personalities and characters. In all honesty, it was the first time I saw a show and characters on screen becoming people I wanted to be (and the fact that my middle name is Duane, just like the main character, did wonders for my self-esteem growing up).
After having a drink with a friend Sean Livingston, known primarily in Columbia as DJ Liv, we talked about him getting ready to go to homecoming for his alma mater, Tennessee State University. He began to talk about the homecoming experience. Hearing him speak about his background, I knew I was missing out on a personal Black experience. He became gleeful about returning to his HBCU, and I felt a sense of Black nostalgia that I fully couldn’t embrace by not going to an HBCU. In short: I was kind of jealous.
“Homecoming at an HBCU is more than just a game, it’s like a family reunion. You get an opportunity to reconnect with people that literally were like family,” Livingston said. “It’s an experience like anything else that I can think of.”
Deontré McCray, who describes himself as an innovator, self-proclaimed sous chef, and inspiration enthusiast, is an alumnus of Claflin University. When asked about what he thinks he gets from an HBCU that you wouldn’t get from a predominantly white institution (PWI), he focuses on the kinship of the university. When asked about homecoming, he also called it akin to a family reunion.
“One thing I received from my HBCU that I may not have received from a PWI is community. One may argue that you can create a community anywhere you go, but I feel like a lot of communities you create at a PWI are tolerated but not celebrated.”
I began to reach out to people I knew who went to HBCUs to hear about these experiences that, despite being Black, I’m an outsider to. I talked to Deidra Morrison Wells, Ph.D., a wife mother, self-proclaimed computer nerd, and creative. I asked her if ‘A Different World’ inspired her as well.
“Absolutely! I decided that I wanted to attend Spelman College after doing a middle school report on a college. I told my mom I wanted to do my report on Hillman, and she let me know that wasn’t a real school,” Wells said. “I was attracted to the idea of being surrounded by other Black people, as I never had the experience in K-12. I wanted community and a place to feel understood.”
Those sentiments seem to be a recurring theme. On a visit to the University of Chicago in 2015, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates agreed. “Historically Black schools give African-American students a chance to sit back and assess themselves and confront the tradition in a semi-private space.”
What does this mean in the bigger picture? When Deion Sanders, one of the greatest NFL cornerbacks, aimed for a college coaching job, he ended up at Jackson State University. A place not likely to get high-end recruits suddenly got a number 1 recruit in Travis Hunter. The move shocked the college football world but is now becoming a trend (and you will have to note that our SC State Bulldogs gave Jackson State a nice whoopin’ last year).
I think of the HBCUs in Columbia, Allen University and Benedict College. I think of the only picture I have of my grandmother as a young woman in the early 1940s dressed in her Sunday best for school pictures at Benedict. I never talked to her much about her experience, and now that she’s gone, I wish I had. I think about these great havens for Black creative minds and culture and know I missed out on something special.
When texting Sanford Greene, two-time Eisner winner, illustrator, and Benedict resident artist, teacher and alum, I asked, “’What did the HBCU experience do for you?’” He sent back three words: “It saved me.”