Documentary charts historic rise of black post-secondary education
Tell Them We Are Rising offers in-depth look at how Historically Black Colleges and Universities have helped shape the societal and cultural history of America.
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Stanley Nelson is no fan of zooming in. In fact, he’s more likely to be pulling the camera back for the most sweeping view possible.
“I am really interested in telling the stories of institutions rather than stories of dynamic individuals,” says Emmy Award winning documentarian Nelson. “To me that is a more intriguing way of telling history.”
As the title suggests his new film, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, is another doc that turns a macro lens on its subject. A wide ranging look at how Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, have helped shape the societal and cultural history of America for the last 170 years, it’s a detailed account of the establishment of schools for African American students.
“As a filmmaker there were these incredible resources,” he says, “stills, film, diaries and letters that existed in black colleges, that generally hadn’t been used.”
But there is also a personal side to the story.
“My parents both went to black colleges,” he says. “They both went to school in the 1930s and that was the only option they had. That option changed my life, my sibling’s lives, my kids’ lives, and their kids’ lives. Generation after generation will be changed because my parents had the opportunity to go to college.”
Research for the documentary, which makes its Canadian premier at the Toronto Black Film Festival on Wednesday, Feb. 15, began several years ago and encapsulates a wide swath of history.
“We start the film during slavery,” he says. “Not only was it illegal for black people to learn to read and write, it was illegal for a white person to teach a black person to read or write. That was against the law. There was punishment for teaching slaves to read and write.
“The film started there and follows this incredible long search for knowledge in the African American community that goes through black colleges and goes through to today.”
In recent years several HBCUs have flourished while others struggled.
“The universe for black colleges has changed in the last 40 years or so,” he says. “Before, these were the only places, pretty much, where black students could go if they wanted to get a higher education.
“Just as importantly they were the only places black professors could teach. After integration and now, to a certain degree, if you’ve gotten great marks in school and are at the top of your class you have options as to where you go to school. If you are a professor at the top of your profession in your chosen field you can teach at Howard or at Harvard where there are greater resources, greater prestige and you’re getting paid more.
“There are choices now. Not to say that is bad in any way, but it has exacted a toll on black colleges and universities.”
Still, Tell Them We Are Rising asserts HBCUs have an important place in higher education.
“We try to say that there are still reasons why any given student might choose to go to a black college or university. One of them is that it is a safe space. It is a space where you are not looked at as one of a kind. As one girl says, ‘Movements are launched on black campuses,’ because it is a place of people of like minds.”