For those who came of age when “A Different World,” the late 80’s NBC hit series centered around Black college life (under the creative direction of Bill Cosby and Debbie Allen), was must-see TV; and for those who remember the excitement of seeing Spike Lee’s entertaining and eye-opening “School Daze,” a film that also portrayed Black college life, it was a good time to be studying at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) across the nation. Those works of art were reminders of the importance of Black colleges and of preserving their legacy. In fact, there was talk of an increase in enrollment at HBCUs during the height of “A Different World,” which to this day, is credited with bringing HBCU life to primetime.
In “Between the World and Me,” author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of his experience at Howard University and the legacy of African American intellectuals and activists that came before him. “What it showed me is, even within what seems like a narrow band, which is to say, you know, black life, is in fact quite cosmopolitan, is in fact a beautiful, beautiful rainbow. And to see all of these people, you know, of all these different persuasions, and to have that heritage —you know, Toni Morrison went to Howard. Amiri Baraka went to Howard. Lucille Clifton went to Howard. Ossie Davis went to Howard. And I was aware of that when I was there.”
One person who is all the way in when it comes to promoting HBCUs is Curtis Symonds, CEO of HBCU Network and former 14-year BET executive who helped BET founder Robert Johnson sell the company for $3 billion. Over the past six years, he’s been creating a digital network around HBCUs.
“I feel very strongly that there needs to be more education and exposure of HBCUs,” he told TNJ.com in a recent interview. “In our culture and with today’s generation of parents, there’s a lost value on the importance of HBCUs. It’s sad because a lot of our good students are going to PWI’s (predominantly white institutions) because they’re not educated about the value of attending an HBCU such as Homecoming, the fraternities and sororities, bonding and the idea that the president of the college often knows you by your first name. At a PWI, you’re just a number.”
He is converting his current website, HBCU Network, into a new and improved site to go along with a new app he’s developed to connect HBCU students with each other.
“The new app, HBCU GO, is the result of a partnership between HBCU Network and a company called Kiswe Mobile,” he shares. “It is under the brand “Hang-time.” It’s a social group app that helps people communicate in groups. The app is almost like another channel because of the amount of video and live content provided. The offerings will include lifestyle programming to educational programming to sports and other kinds of programming that we think is adaptable to HBCU students.”
“For example,” he continues, “there are a tremendous amount of good dee-jays on these campuses. We’ll give dee-jays from HBCUs another venue. We can run shows on this kind of app. It will be very attractive to students. We are creating a network where students can provide the content to fill the gaps in Black programming. We want students to see what their peers are doing. There are some very creative students out there at Black colleges. When you look at the Oscars, and they talk about all this new diverse talent, I say to myself, ‘That’s not new.’ It’s been there from Day One going back to the days of Sammy Davi, Jr. and before that. It’s about being in the right place at the right time, to get the exposure. Look at the talent of the Black Panther filmmaker.”
Symonds notes that with millennials, by and large, switching from watching shows on television to watching shows on mobile apps, smartphones, iPads and computers, HBCU GO is right on time. “No one is watching TV anymore; those days are over. Millenials are the viewership we seek,” he says. “We hope the app will provide doors to create content and then we can grow and create jobs for students to grow their content.”
Says Symonds, “I’ve been talking about the value of HBCUs for a long time, but you have to grow capital and get people to buy into your vision. You look at a brand like HBCUs that have been around for 108 years. To me, it’s an automatic sell. As we were trying to build the capital, I had an opportunity for someone to provide a platform, and someone wanted to help. The app is helping to rejuvenate a concept. And now, we are building a new website on top of it.”
According to Symonds, this new website, which like the app, will be called HBCU GO. He says it will offer different umbrellas that will include live content specially curated for the HBCU audience. “What is lacking currently on my original site are all the things that happen at HBCUs such as theater, lectures, guest speakers, commencements, etc. We plan to provide that platform with our new channel and some of our Network work,” he says.
The overall goal?
Symonds, a graduate of Central State University in Ohio, says in addition to getting the Black millennial generation interested in attending HBCUs, he and his team also look to get “crossover” students to enroll. He told me that while at Howard University last week, he spoke to a white student and asked what about the school was appealing to him to come all the way from New Jersey to attend. He recalls, “The student told me Howard offered the classes he was interested in. Plain and simple. He wasn’t concerned about people who wondered why he would attend a Black college.”
The HBCU Go app is available now, free, at your app store.