by Elajiah Gibbs Jones
The documentary film “Tell Them We Are Rising” aired on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Monday night. The film displayed the timeline of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and their essential contributions to a global society.
The film is an exhilarating hour and 22 minutes that explains the history of black colleges from the times of the Emancipation Proclamation to the uprising of modern student movements on campuses. Within this documentary, a variety of protests, boycotts, and efforts are illuminated to show the what African-Americans endured in order to gain access to education.
“Tell Them We Are Rising” was produced by Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams. The title obtained its name from 13-year old student, Richard Robert Wright, who told General Oliver O’Howard (whom Howard University was named after), “Sir, tell them [Northerners] we are rising.” The phrase was powerful then and has become even more powerful in today’s society.
Today there are currently 101 HBCUs that foster and educate black students who are rising to be greater than the images and stereotypes society creates for them. This same goal has not changed since before the end of slavery. The documentary exhibits this concept as it juxtaposes slaves risking their lives to read and black students protesting throughout the 20th Century.
The film begins with a quote from slaves such as Elijah Mall and William McGregor that displays how dangerous it was for blacks to even attempt to learn how to write. When slaves finally did get the chance to educate themselves after they were freed, their schools were still controlled by white people.
“Tell Them We Are Rising” is a documentary filled with information that black students have most likely heard about. However, the film discloses interesting new details that are not common knowledge. For example, the story of the North Carolina A&T Four is presented in a new way that provides a visual representation on how much of an impact the four freshmen had on the nation. Instead of relaying that it had such a big effect, the filmmakers actually showed its audience a collage and compilation of students everywhere that participated in the movement.
Throughout the documentary, there was a variety of gruesome and horrific stories that were presented, which made it powerful. Riots, such as the 1924 Fisk University riot, were shown. Along with the visualization of the Southern University demonstration on Nov. 16, 1972 that left two students murdered. As a result, the audience was able to feel the pain of the Southern Univeristy students, which brought the issue closer to home.
Topics such as police brutality, corruption from white presidents of HBCUs, and the importance of black colleges were discussed within the film. Historians and students of a variety of black universities were interviewed. Many of them pointed out that black professors and teachers maintained the vision of HBCUs no matter what adversities occurred. Teachers were on a mission to encourage black students to perform tasks with their mind instead of their hands since ancestors were expected to do that on a daily basis.
HBCUs are essential when it comes to discovering a sense of belonging throughout African-American culture. One freshman Spelmanite explains that in high school she was named the “token black girl” because she wasn’t deemed ghetto and received academic achievements. However, she did not want to be the token student or seen in a negative light. She just wanted to be viewed as her true self. By attending an HBCU, she received that self-validation.
Stories such as these show students why it is important to attend a black college. The euphoria that is accompanied by finally being a part of the majority is a great feeling for HBCU students everywhere.
At the conclusion of the film, a series of videos were shown of black graduates from different HBCUs. This scene also included Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” that created a sense of what students that attend black colleges are able to feel every day on their campuses: Black Excellence.