So, they often say that the best way to be noticed at a party is to show up late and make a grand entrance, right?  Well, we’re heeeeerrrreeee!!  No wait. Actually, we’re baaaaaccckk!! Let me explain.

In 1999, Keith Gilyard wrote a CCC’s article entitled “African American Contributions to Composition Studies.” In that article, he traces the many ideas brought to Composition Studies by African American scholars.  However, what he also shows so clearly, even if unintentionally, is that all of these early scholars who laid the foundation for conversations about race and the African American Vernacular were faculty members at HBCUs.  It wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement, when black scholars had more opportunities, that many then left Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and took their talents to Predominantly-White Institutions (PWIs). Here are just a few scholars and HBCUs that Gilyard highlights in his article:

  • In 1931, Howard University professor Lorenzo Dow Turner became the first African American member of the Linguistic Society of America. His 1949 text Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect “aimed to dispel notions that African-derived language systems, what became popularly known as Black English a couple of decades later, should be regarded as inherently inferior” (Gilyard 630).
  • In 1937, the College Language Association (CLA) was created because Blacks were not allowed to fully participate in MLA activities. (Back then it was called the Association of Teachers of English in Negro Colleges.)  The founder?  Hugh M. Gloster, who later became president of Morehouse College. Members of CLA who progressed with the agenda of teaching English/Composition to Black students were J. Newton Hill of Lincoln University; O. Lewis Chandler – CLA charter member and professor at Morehouse College who taught Martin Luther King, Jr. there.
  • Juanita Williamson of LeMoyne College (Memphis, TN); Nettie Parlor of South Carolina State College (now University); and perhaps the one with the most notoriety in recent times is the late Melvin Butler, Chair of the Special Committee that drafted the 1974 “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” ---  a faculty member at Southern University. As we all know, SRTOL is the foundation for so much of our work now as related to dialect varieties, and to think that the person leading the committee from its onset in 1972 was from Southern University, an HBCU in Louisiana.

When I was preparing for my IWCA presentation in 2014, I reviewed the tables of content for some of the more recent writing center works that approach race and diversity; I found that very few chapters were written by HBCU directors or those with HBCU experiences.  I quickly reviewed authors’ bios for five edited collections and solo and/or multi-authored texts published between 2002 and 2011:  Noise from the Center (2002); The Center Will Hold: Critical Perspectives on Writing Center Scholarship (2003); Marginal Words, Marginal Work: Tutoring the Academy in the Work of Writing Centers (2007); The Everyday Writing Center: A Community of Practice (2007); Writing Centerand the New Racism: A Call for Sustainable Dialogue and Change (2011).  Taken in totality, these 5 texts have 39 edited chapters with 59 authors and only 3 of those authors are confirmed to have HBCU experiences – all 3 having chapters in, perhaps not surprisingly, Writing Centers and the New Racism.  And of those 3, only 1 of them has their HBCU experience listed in their bios; the other 2 I knew about just from personal knowledge.

So interestingly, though colleagues at HBCUs were center stage of conversations about Composition and literacy instructionin the past, our voices no longer are heard consistently at conferences or in the scholarship; we must ask why, and then consider what is lost.

Many of the attributes of HBCUs overlap with the work that occurs in writing centers on any campus.  Mentoring, encouragement, one-on-one assistance beyond the academic, is often what occurs, whether intentional or not, in composition classrooms and writing center tutorial sessions.  Because for so many students, especially those speaking non-standard dialects, their language and identity are so interconnected, whenever we are helping students, we also are impacting (hopefully positively) their identities and perceptions of themselves. Writing centers are “safe spaces,” – we are judgment free zones where students’ full selves are embraced.  HBCUs take on that same role campus-wide, for many students feel that the HBCU campus is the first time that they can be unapologetically “Black” in whatever form that takes – being smart and being Black, liking rock music over hip-hop and being Black, having “natural” hair and being Black.

To be clear, this series of posts is not an attack on PWIs are those who teach there.  I always say that students need faculty from diverse backgrounds at all types of institutions so they can appreciate the diversity of our world.  However, my goal here is multifaceted.  I want those outside of HBCUs to gain some understanding of the concerns and contributions of faculty members and writing center professionals at HBCUs.  I want other HBCUs to see themselves, and to know there is a voice speaking on their behalf.  The loud silence of HBCU colleagues always baffles me, for it seems logical that those who teach and tutor thousands of African-American students each day would be heavily involved in, if not leading, conversations surrounding race and writing centers.  I’d like to highlight some of my fellow HBCU colleagues, so you hear multiple perspectives from people at different at HBCUs; after all, while there are some similarities amongst us, we’re not homogenous spaces. Besides, though I’m the specific one who received this party’s invitation, you never can really party hard until you invite your friends J

I want to thank Anna Sicari and the WCJ editorial staff for inviting me to the party!  As you’ll see in my blog posts throughout this coming month, writing center directors at HBCUs have LOTS to say about teaching and tutoring students of color.  Throughout this month, we’ll talk about several issues, including why HBCUs have been excluded from recent conversations thus far, what PWI writing center professionals can learn from HBCU professionals, how PWIs and HBCUs can collaborate on future projects, and I’m most excited to include the voices of my tutors and former tutors, who will share what PWI tutors can learn from them!

 I’m looking forward to a great month full of enriching dialogue and fruitful discussions!

 We came to show up and show out!

 ‘Til next week . . .


 Karen Keaton Jackson, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of English

Director, The Writing Studio/University Writing Program

North Carolina Central University