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Historically Black Colleges and Universities share a similar sense of pride and enthusiasm around Homecoming Week, marking the occasion with step shows, parades, tailgates and, of course, "the game." These are hallmarks of HBCU homecoming culture everywhere, but for some schools, the moment takes on a greater significance. North Carolina A&T in Greensboro has pegged their celebration the Greatest Homecoming on Earth. Morehouse and Spelman combine forces to take over Atlanta for their "Spelhouse" homecoming. And Howard’s homecoming in Washington, D.C. has become downright iconic, enshrined in rap lyrics (“Ain’t no telling where I may be/ May see me in D.C. at Howard homecoming,” Biggie rapped in 1997) and cultural lore -- a brand unto itself. In all cases, celebrities and famous alumni make it a point to return to their beloved alma maters for homecoming. It’s a nonstop marathon for those with the stamina to hang, but there’s something much more consequential about the celebration.
It’s not every day one finds a place where “Lift Every Voice And Sing” has the same significance as the National Anthem - and honestly, so does “Swag Surfin”.
These campuses often become ‘home’ in every sense of the word -- a place where students are surrounded by people who look like them and who share a similar culture, maybe for the first time. It’s the place where some can finally be themselves after 17 or 18 years of feeling like they don’t belong. They’re surrounded by brothers and sisters who are bound, not by blood, but a kinship that runs just as deep. The HBCU experience is one that aims to root students in their histories, to inspire them to greatness and to celebrate their Blackness. These are professors who, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “put The Struggle in my heart and Consciousness in my head.” We are because they were.
In this way, homecoming is extension of the classroom, only the curriculum is based on culture rather than academia. It still means sharing across generations, learning from the elders -- an opportunity for individuals to connect the dots of where they exist in a lineage of Black excellence. From architects and doctors to entrepreneurs and entertainers, an HBCU homecoming surrounds its attendees with models of success in every field. It reminds us that our excellence is the rule and not the exception. That for every Taraji P Henson, Anika Noni Rose, DJ Envy and 2 Chainz, there is an Alice Walker, a Toni Morrison, a Rosalind Brewer and an Oprah. That we are people of multitudes who can turn up and still take care of business.
It’s not every day one finds a place where “Lift Every Voice And Sing” has the same significance as the National Anthem - and honestly, so does “Swag Surfin”. Maybe, for a previous generation, it was Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under A Groove” or George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog.” Find an older alum, and they probably wouldn’t hesitate to share their song -- after all, the music that popped during college embeds itself in the heart. Old heads will shake their heads at the babies who have traded in the bump for something a little more risque, but it’s all out of love. And when all else fails, there’s always the “Wobble” or, better yet, Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Before I Let You Go.” There is little better than seeing the evolution of a culture through the lens of people now standing where you once stood, weaving their own place in the tapestry of their school. A new reality can never undo the memories.
Where else does this spirit of love and giving exist? Where else is something so positive celebrated so fiercely?
The entire week exists as a flood of recollections that call back to easier and more carefree times. Oh, the things we’d do over if only we knew what we know now. But there are no regrets, only appreciation for how far we’ve come and the people who ‘get it.’ Old friends, the ones that saw you through hangovers and heartbreak to get you to graduation, show up and it’s as if the years haven’t passed. These bonds helped smooth the transition to adulthood, and it’s impossible to not be proud of these people if for no other reason than they survived whatever the world threw at them and made it back home -- looking good too, because fashion during an HBCU homecoming is incomparable. Just take a glance at any relevant hashtag on social media to see astonishing displays of style and beauty in every shade. Some go with school spirit attire, while others go all out with heels and suits. Members of fraternities and sororities represent in their colors. True to the legacy of distinction, appearances are everything.
These are places to call home when the world has tried to put you out. And if that ain’t a reason to party, then what is?
Family takes on new meaning after attending an HBCU, and homecoming is perhaps the best reminder of that. These are people who root for you even when they don’t know you, who celebrate the accomplishments of perfect strangers - because with this connection, there is no such thing. From the yard to the game to the tailgate, folks look forward to the fellowship. They’re willing to share everything from their food to their clothes, as if to say, by nature of this communion, “you are welcome here.” Where else does this spirit of love and giving exist? Where else is something so positive celebrated so fiercely?
This year, nine HBCUs celebrated their 150th anniversaries: Alabama State, Barber-Scotia College, Fayetteville State, Howard, Johnson C. Smith, Morehouse, Morgan State, Saint Augustine’s and Talladega College. Next year, so will Hampton. That’s nearly two centuries of enduring in spite of. Few spaces are designed to center Black people and make them feel safe, but HBCUs remain constant. They were created when Black people weren’t welcome at white schools, and remain a beacon of the community where no one has to feel unvalued. Alumni return for homecoming year after year because these are spaces of refuge and resistance. These are places to call home when the world has tried to put you out. And if that ain’t a reason to party, then what is?