The Four States NPR News Source
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

With 'HBCU Made,' NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe celebrates the Black college experience

 NPR Weekend Edition Sunday host Ayesha Rascoe is the editor of the new book, "HBCU Made." She spoke with STLPR's Marissanne Lewis-Thompson at the Ethical Society of St. louis on Feb. 8, 2024.
Lucas Peterson
/
St. Louis County Library
NPR Weekend Edition Sunday host Ayesha Rascoe is the editor of the new book, "HBCU Made." She spoke with STLPR's Marissanne Lewis-Thompson at the Ethical Society of St. louis on Feb. 8, 2024.

Historically Black colleges and universities have long cemented their legacy in higher education across the country. They have provided access and opportunity to Black people who were historically shut out of predominantly white institutions. For many, choosing an HBCU was also a personal choice to succeed in academia without the constant microscopic gaze that being at a predominately white institution can bring.

HBCUs are full of tradition and moments that can only be understood if you attended one. A new book highlights that. "HBCU Made: A Celebration of the Black College Experience" is an authentic look into that experience. Ayesha Rascoe, the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, is the editor of that book, which features a collection of essays from well-known journalists like April Ryan and political figures like Stacey Abrams.

Rascoe, a Howard University graduate, was tapped by publisher Algonquin to gather the essays. The book is the first of its kind from a major publishing company that centers the voices and stories of HBCU graduates.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with Rascoe about the book at an onstage event at the Ethical Society of St. Louis that was co-sponsored by Harris-Stowe State University, St. Louis County Library and STLPR.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Marissanne Lewis-Thompson: This book starts with you and your story, "Finding My Voice at the Mecca." College was something you knew you were going to do, but for you, it had to be away from Durham, North Carolina, and it had to have name recognition. You had applied to other schools and got in, but what was it about Howard that made you go, this is the school for me?

Ayesha Rascoe: I was a very shy kid growing up. Very introverted. I'm still pretty introverted. And I just felt like I needed to get away from Durham because I wanted to be able to, you know how it is, to set out on your own and see who I would be like if I didn't have the constraints of people who already knew me. Like, who could I be if I was just allowed to become who I wanted to be? And when I thought about Howard, what Howard represented to me was that it was just kind of cool. And I was not cool. I wasn't cool at all.

Lewis-Thompson: Now, Ayesha.

Rascoe: I’m cool now, but I'm talking about back then I was not cool. And I didn't have any friends. But Howard just seemed to have the name recognition. It was the inspiration for Hillman College in [the TV show] "A Different World." It had these luminaries who had gone to the school. We’re talking about Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Phylicia Rashad, Debbie Allen, Thurgood Marshall, you know, the list goes on and on and on. And it just felt like it was in the big city of D.C. to me. And it felt like if I could make it there, then I couldn't make it anywhere. Like if I could go there and survive, I felt like I would come out and be a better version of myself.

Lewis-Thompson: What do you remember about visiting the campus for the first time?

Rascoe: When we went to visit, I had never been there before. I'd never been to D.C. before. At the time, the D.C. snipers were out. It was a very long time ago. That's how long ago it was. My mom was like, "I don't know if we need to go up there." I was like, "Mommy, you know, don't we serve the Lord? Don't we just trust the Lord?" She was like, "OK, fine. We'll go." We went up there with her friend and my little sister. They weren't too impressed by it. At that time, Howard, the neighborhood around it was kind of rundown. It's a very urban campus. I think they were just kind of like, "Is Ayesha really going to be OK here? She has book sense, but she doesn’t have a lot of common sense, and she definitely doesn’t have street sense." But when I got on the campus, and I was on the Yard, it was a kind of rainy day. It wasn't a beautiful day, but it was a Friday. And on Fridays, that's when the Deltas were strolling. I saw people gathering. I saw these beautiful Black people. And I just knew it was where I wanted to be. I wanted it to be my home, I wanted to feel at home on Howard's campus. And so once I saw it, I knew that's where I wanted to be.

Lewis-Thompson: You ended up joining Howard’s student-run newspaper, the Hilltop. You wrote in the book: “As I got deeper into reporting on the university, I realized that the weight of legacy can cut multiple ways. University spokespeople viewed their job as protecting Howard’s reputation at all costs. This was obviously at odds with an editorially independent newspaper that was supposed to be the 'student voice.' The pushback on stories viewed as 'negative' was swift and often intense. The argument was, why would we want to paint the school in a bad light?” That experience was truly a catalyst for you finding your voice as a young Black woman, but also as a journalist.

Rascoe: Being at the Hilltop, which was my life when I was at Howard University — it was one of those situations where there is a push and a pull, because when you work for the administration, you don't want your dirty laundry out there. And you don't want negative stories. But as a newspaper, our job is to report on what's happening. So if there are fires, or if there's crime, or if there are complaints, or students are unhappy, we were reporting on those things. And, you know, there were times when I was called into the administrator's office and told, when I became editor-in-chief: "Will we have to see the paper before it runs?" I'm like, "No. You can't do that. That's prior restraint. That's censorship. I can't do that." That was hard for me, because I'm a people pleaser. I like to make everybody happy. But I was also someone who was like, I'm an ethical journalist. I'm going to stand my ground. Because, as a journalist, there are certain things that we cannot do. And I can't give you a story for you to approve ahead of time and still call myself a journalist, and still call myself someone who has ethical standards. So it was a push and a pull. I think that, you know, part of it is that, even when you love an institution, to love something is to call it to account. I don't feel like legacy is something that you coast on, it’s something that you live up to. So for me, it was the idea that if I love something, if I love you, I love you enough to tell you the truth. You are strong enough to handle it. And that was part of what I had to learn. I had to get a backbone, I had to have thicker skin.

An audience member asks NPR's Ayesha Rascoe a question at the Ethical Society of St. Louis on Feb. 8, 2024. Rascoe is the author of the new book, "HBCU Made: A Celebration of the Black College Experience."
Lucas Peterson
/
St. Louis County Library
An audience member asks NPR's Ayesha Rascoe a question at the Ethical Society of St. Louis on Feb. 8, 2024. Rascoe is the author of the new book, "HBCU Made: A Celebration of the Black College Experience."

Lewis-Thompson: There are so many high points in speaking about the HBCU experience, and one that was shared by many in the book was this idea of just being able to be Black in peace in an academic space. No questioning whether you were deserving of being admitted. No code switching. How did that shape your experience?

Rascoe: It’s a through line in so many essays. I start off with a quote from Toni Morrison about the function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. Toni Morrison, who is a graduate of Howard University, I always got to point that out. She was my favorite author, so I got to point that out. But, you know, the reason why I chose that quote from her is because that's what was brought out so much in the book, is this idea that racism is a distraction — that by being on the campus of an HBCU, it's not that racism no longer exists, but you are able to just be a student without having to prove why you're there. Why you belong. No, I didn't sneak in through the back door. Yes, I'm human. Yes, I have thoughts. You don't have to do all of that. You can instead just get to the learning and all the other challenges that you're going to face instead of having to prove that you are just worthy of being heard, that you're just worthy of being seen. And, this idea of having to prove just your basic humanity.

Lewis-Thompson: HBCUs are severely underfunded, to the tune of more than $12 billion in comparison to predominantly white institutions within the last 30 years. There have been efforts to eradicate HBCUs. Why is there this belief that somehow these schools are less than and unworthy, especially when so much talent comes out of these schools?

Rascoe: I think that I would almost say that I don't think that is the idea that they are less than or unworthy, that people think that. Because I think that if you really felt that way, you wouldn't be so afraid to fully fund them and to fully support them. I think it’s the idea that if you fully supported them, if you fully backed them, then you know the incredible things that they could do. And so I think that's a part of it, because HBCUs have punched above their weight for years. There's something like 80% of all Black judges came through HBCUs. When you look at Black doctors, when you look at Black dentists, when you look at Black people in STEM, the way HBCUs have been able to produce and to do all of this in a country that is not for them that has been hostile to them, and you see that, then you know that if they were able to get the funding, what would be possible? I hope that this book can be a testament, right? It's not a research tome or anything like that, but I do hope that part of what people can get from reading the book is an understanding that HBCUs have made and continue to make the world a better place. And I also truly believe that by not supporting or not fully pouring into the talent at HBCUs, you're not just harming the Black community, you are harming the world — because Black people are a part of the world. You are losing out on potential that could help everyone. So you're not doing us a favor. You are actually holding this country back when you do not pour into the talent, into the spaces that have been proven to develop Black talent.

 STLPR afternoon newscaster Marissanne Lewis-Thompson talked with NPR Weekend Edition Sunday host Ayesha Rascoe on-stage at the Ethical Society of St. Louis on Feb. 8, 2024. Rascoe is the author of the new book, "HBCU Made: A Celebration of the Black College Experience."
Lucas Peterson
/
St. Louis County Library
STLPR afternoon newscaster Marissanne Lewis-Thompson talked with NPR Weekend Edition Sunday host Ayesha Rascoe on-stage at the Ethical Society of St. Louis on Feb. 8, 2024. Rascoe is the author of the new book, "HBCU Made: A Celebration of the Black College Experience."

Lewis-Thompson: We can’t have a conversation about HBCUs and not talk about one of the most iconic shows ever made, "A Different World." That show inspired an entire generation of Black kids to go to HBCUs. And of course, we must acknowledge Howard alum Debbie Allen’s role in that show. How true to life was that show in comparison to your actual experience?

Rascoe: I think it really caught the essence of it. I think that, you know, by having HBCU graduates and Debbie Allen at the helm, she really gave a sense of and caught the essence of what it means to go to an HBCU — what it means for it to be with administrators and feel like it is family and feel like you're not just a number. And I do have to say, the people in this book, they don't know each other. They weren't talking to each other. But there were so many references to "A Different World." I had to cut out some of them because I was like, well, we have talked about this in essay after essay. It's amazing the impact that that [show] had on so many people when they thought about going to an HBCU.

Lewis-Thompson: What do you hope people will say about the mark that you've left on this world?

Rascoe: I hope that they will see me as a person who tried to be always authentic and honest, and as a person who tried to spread joy in the world. And when I say joy, I don't mean in the sense of Pollyanna happiness. But in the kind of, you know, church essence of joy — not something that is circumstantial. The world didn't give me the joy. The world can't take it away. The idea that if you are alive and you are here on Earth, why don't you make the best of it. Why don't you be grateful. Why don’t you try. And always acknowledging the things that have gone wrong, the things that are not right and doing our best to try to change them. But also just trying to make the best of this. We’re in this together, and so that's what I tried to do. And I hope that people remember me for being that. I hope they remember me as someone who just tried her best and gave her best and really just tried to leave things just a little bit better than what they were before.

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Marissanne Lewis-Thompson