A Curriculum for Black Youth Activism

By Thai-Huy Nguyen

Shelter in a Time of Storm: How Black Colleges Fostered Generations of Leadership and Activism by Jelani M. Favors.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

What is the source of black youth activism? What nurtures it, and how has it evolved over time? In light of the recent waves of student activism for racial justice across colleges and universities, and across society more broadly, these questions have become foundational to understanding the contours of resistance to the structural inequality that so defines the American nation.

In Shelter in a Time of Storm, Jelani M. Favors offers a rich narrative that centers on the significant role historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have played in cultivating and shaping the black youth activism that triggered social change at key moments in American history. Black colleges do not have a large presence in the histories of American higher education. They are mentioned, but narratives about these institutions rarely illustrate the depth of their contributions and their significance to the advancement of black communities. Favors argues that these contributions can be captured in what he calls a “second curriculum” focusing on conversations, relationships, lessons, and events that awoke the race consciousness of students. It was through this consciousness that students were able to embody and act on their desire for justice. Favors’s account of the activism of these students reveals the larger importance of black colleges, of black spaces, to the civil rights that we enjoy today.

Favors draws on the histories of seven HBCUs to illustrate the role and influence of the second curriculum on student empowerment: the Institute for Colored Youth (now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania), Tougaloo College, Bennett College, Alabama State University, Jackson State University, Southern University, and North Carolina A&T State University. Their histories demonstrate how various forms of the second curriculum manifested and created the conditions under which black youth protested injustice and demanded change. Favors shows that activism takes many forms and that it reflects the institutional context and the era in which it takes place. He uses each institutional case study to trace the broader arc of black youth activism that spans across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and to demonstrate that black colleges offered shelter, a necessary requirement to be able to think and speak freely at a remove from the vigilance of white supremacy. It was in such sheltered spaces that black youth were able to deliberate and plan an agenda for change. Favors does not suggest that his examples are representative of all black colleges; they do, however, suggest that such colleges have played a greater role in nurturing student activism than past accounts have given them credit for. By revealing the evolving nature of black youth activism, Favors demonstrates the radical significance of these spaces in sustaining the fight against racial oppression.

The second curriculum, Favors argues, “defined the bond between teacher and student, inspiring youths to develop a ‘linked sense of fate’ with the race,” and it “was a pedagogy of hope grounded in idealism, race consciousness, and cultural nationalism.” The Institute for Colored Youth is the oldest of all black colleges. It was founded in the early nineteenth century, providing training in trade skills. Although these skills were crucial for students’ livelihoods, especially right after the end of the American civil war, the leaders and teachers of the institute believed that education—especially through the humanities—should be more closely tied to the social liberation of black communities. Tougaloo College advanced similar notions and offered formal spaces, such as a student newspaper, where students and faculty felt safe to debate competing priorities of respectability and freedom. Bennett College, an institution that began as coeducational and later enrolled only women, had a curriculum that privileged black history and intellectual contributions. Bennett students also started their own radio show; they took the fifteen minutes they were allotted to “establish a counternarrative that commended the contributions of African Americans to daily life in America.” Nurtured by their teachers, Alabama State University students rose against the authorities who sought to silence their voices. At Jackson State University, political engagement was the core of student life. Students crossed campus boundaries and built relationships with national organizations to create and promote a larger civil rights movement. Southern University saw faculty “instructing youths in the tools of liberation” and developed a reputation for training teachers. As a result, many students became civil servants in order to contribute to their communities and participate in the broader fight for social justice. At North Carolina A&T University, the Student Organization for Black Unity, linked to the broader black power movement, sought to bring greater awareness of a social system that was not just racialized but also unequal on the basis of gender and social class. Despite differences in context, the seven black colleges offered the essential conditions—space, a black-centric curriculum, and community—to nurture black youth’s resistance against racial oppression and courage to alter the system that fed it. Through each case study, Favors convincingly demonstrates the historic role black colleges had in cultivating the generation of leaders who fought for and shaped our civil rights.

As a scholar of higher education, I found several aspects of this book of particular value to the canon of work on black colleges. First, the duty of institutional leaders—particularly college presidents—to balance the needs of their community with the demands of white power structures (for example, federal, state, and local governments; philanthropists; and white missionaries) is notable. Despite their special mission, black colleges are part of the greater American system of higher education, a system that is sharply stratified. Favors’s history offers insight into how college presidents have navigated the challenges of institutional survival while simultaneously maintaining fidelity to their institutional mission, an approach still common among black college leaders.

Second, the chapter on Bennett College is a substantial contribution to our understanding of the experiences of black women at black colleges. Marybeth Gasman noted in her 2007 historiography of gender at black colleges that black women’s stories are often ignored or “swept under the rug.” Scholarship on historically black colleges tends to homogenize these institutions and the students who enroll in them. Favors presents a powerful narrative of black women at the forefront of social change while simultaneously pushing against the dominant norms of womanhood and respectability.

Third, Favors brings out the role of social class in shaping the charge for racial justice. Each black college has a unique history and culture. However, institutions such as Howard, Spelman, and Morehouse have attracted a more elite student population that tends to dominate and define the black college narrative. Favors’s chapter on the history of student activism at North Carolina A&T University demonstrates the broader demand for change that is driven by a Marxist perspective on class inequality. In all three of these areas, Favors has provided a foundation on which scholars can ask new questions about the evolving relationship between black colleges and inequality.

Shelter in a Time of Storm is a welcome addition to the history of higher education and the contemporary scholarship on student activism, social movements, and leadership. In its epilogue, Favors writes about his personal story and relationship to black colleges. He discusses how A Different World, a spin-off of The Cosby Show that took place at a fictional black college, made black colleges “cool” in the late eighties and early nineties. By the late nineties, the popularity of black colleges began to wane, a trend that was hastened by their inadequate resources. More recently, black colleges have witnessed an uptick in enrollment as a result of the physical and psychological violence experienced by black students at majority-white institutions. Amid those fluctuating trends, Favors’s Shelter in a Time of Storm provides a powerful reminder that black colleges were not just a consequence of de jure segregation. They have been, and continue to be, a symbolic space that affirms the humanity and agency of black youth.

Thai-Huy Nguyen is assistant professor of education at Seattle University and a senior research associate for the Center for Minority Serving Institutions. He is coauthor (with Marybeth Gasman) of Making Black Scientists: A Call to Action. Recognized as a 2017 Emerging Scholar by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, he receives funding for his research from the National Science Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the Helmsley Charitable Trust.