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NPR host Ayesha Rascoe delivers a collection of love letters in ‘HBCU Made’

Woman seated in front of mustard yellow wall smiles into camera with hands folded on white table top
Mike Morgan
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Submitted
Howard University graduate Ayesha Rascoe compiled essays from famous and lesser-known HBCU alumni for her new book.

Ayesha Rascoe is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday on NPR. Her new book, “HBCU Made” came out Tuesday.

When Ayesha Rascoe was approached by publishing company Algonquin Books, the proposal shocked her.

Rascoe said they asked if she was interested in pulling together a collection of essays celebrating Historically Black Colleges and Universities from graduates themselves – something Algonquin said hadn't been done before.

“I was like, this should have been done long ago!” she said.

So Rascoe, a graduate of Howard University, took it on. For her, the book project was a way of giving back. She wanted to recognize the lessons and sisterhood she found at Howard, as well as the joy of being in a classroom where she said she and many others didn’t have to explain their Blackness.

The cover of "HBCU MADE." The subtitle is, "A Celebration of the Black College Experience."
Hachette Book Group
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Submitted
"HBCU Made," a collection of essays by alumni of historically Black colleges and universities was edited by Ayesha Rascoe.

The product is “HBCU Made,” a collection of essays edited by Rascoe. The writers are famous and up-and-coming HBCU alumni celebrating the universities that nurtured them. They celebrate schools like Tennessee State University, where media mogul Oprah Winfrey found the encouragement to pursue her first ever TV gig; Spelman College, where Georgia politician Stacey Abrams found her voice in student activism; and Florida A&M University, where comedian Roy Wood Jr. got a second chance at finding his voice.

Rascoe spoke to LPM’s Divya Karthikeyan about the new book and what it means to her. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your book, “HBCU Made,” stood out as really a collection of love letters to historically Black colleges and universities. There's a couple of common threads here — one was about the freedom to not have to conform to an idea of Blackness, or to explain oneself in the classroom.

I think that what you hear from a lot of the students is that being in a space where Blackness is not looked at as this other, they are then able to develop and be themselves. And that's a wide range of the human experience. And they then don't also have to feel like people are looking at them and thinking about stereotypes, or that people are looking at them and not seeing their humanity, people who are looking at them and automatically diminishing them. And so you see this over and over in the book.

Some of the essays talk about the diversity in Blackness — like hey, there’s Guyanese students, Jamaican students at HBCUs too. It subverts this idea that HBCUs are not diverse. Can you tell me more about that?

You hear this over and over in the book, but it's this idea that first of all, there are Black people from all around the world, who have all sorts of experiences – Black people from Nigeria, from different countries in Africa, from the Caribbean – and they come to HBCUs.

You also have people from diverse backgrounds. You have people who have their summer in Martha's Vineyard, and then you have people who are first generation college students and everything in between.

And you have a diversity of political backgrounds. There’s a funny story from Lauren F. Ellis who went to Hampton University, and now she does all these special effects for Marvel and DC movies, and she talked about running into her first Black Republican on Hampton’s campus. So there's all sorts of diversity because Black people are not monolithic, and you see that in this book.

Some alumni in the book also bring up complicated feelings around being openly gay on campus, and holding HBCUs accountable for some of their actions, including your essay on that specifically. Tell me more about making space for those narratives.

I love that, you know, when you call these kinds of love letters, because these are love letters to HBCUs. But love does not mean that everything is perfect. When you love something, you hold it accountable.

And that's kind of what I learned at Howard University, at the student newspaper. There were stories that I had to do, that didn't put the university in a good light. But it was important for them to be done. Because if you want something to be the best that it can be, you have to shine a light on it.

Then you talk to Michael Arceneaux, who's a New York Times bestselling author. He's also a Howard graduate, and he's also a gay man. He talks about being a part of the LGBTQ experience and not always being embraced at Howard University and at other HBCUs.

And that's important, because LGBTQ people are also Black people, right? They are part of the Black experience. So I wanted to make sure that all of that was represented, and that it wasn't just the nice and pretty things, but also the things where there could be some growth and development.

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.