The School on Hilltop High; Who Is Down Below? Howard University and D.C.’s Native Black Population

Written by

Maleke Glee

Chocolate City – from Go-Go to Howard University

Go-Go got its due moment as Black Washingtonians, the population that established its prominence began to subdue.  Go-Go is both the genre and the event, it is a grand expression of Black Washington, and its treatment by the city reflects the treatment of Black Washingtonians. In 2020, Go-Go was decreed the official music of D.C., although it held a de facto occupancy since its inception in the 1970s. Go-Go music has been referred to as the soundtrack to D.C.; it is an art form that embeds counternarratives, histories, and geographies in its lyrics prioritizing colloquial understandings of all things local. Go-Go documents what traditional repositories have absented: the daily experience of Black Washingtonians. The music shares their values, style, and experiences. Go-Go is an arena of truly seeing oneself reflected by those on stage as well as the peers to the left and right who make up the audience. We are all participants, and one could not exist without the other. Audience and performance collide as the fourth wall sheds thin with each reverberation of the drum.

A black and white photo of people dancing at a crowded concert.
Still from “The Let Out” (2019). Photo courtesy Ayanna Long.

Sonically, the genre is a blend of percussive polyrhythms found in West Africa and South America. Go-Go in itself is an archive, for and by the people. The genre has been politicized and ostracized by forcible, governmentally funded means. Wherein, an issue of cultural allegiance begins to fester between the nation’s leading HBCU, Howard University, and the mass of D.C.’s longtime Black populations. Howard helms itself as a premiere ground of intellectual debate for the African Diaspora, but often left out of its considerations and community is the local, those of lesser means and otherwise culturally disparate.

D.C. was coined the “Chocolate City” by Parliament-Funkadelic in their 1975 album with the same name. The “C.C.” was cited because of its unique autonomy, with Black political leadership that allowed for many other social and cultural currencies to develop and sustain. Go-Go, beloved by D.C.’s long-time Black communities, is one conduit to understanding the broader social dynamics of the Chocolate City. Howard University is another major contributor to this community and its cultural identity, bringing in Black students and faculty from around the nation and world.

Growing up in the suburbs of Prince George’s County, Maryland, I am grateful for the reverberating cultural implications of Howard University. The cultural influence of the school on “Hilltop High” is both complicated and complex. A school heralded for its diverse population has a contentious history with D.C. ‘s arguably most African cultural symbols, Go-Go.

Howard is a local informer, national treasure, and global catalyst. Howard stands as a cultural icon for its contributions to Black Culture. Locally, Howard’s students have developed much of Washington D.C.’s political and economic life. Alumni have settled into the suburbs of Prince George’s County; they have developed societies of country club culture. Herein, we may see some of the residual effects on liminal experiences and engagement with D.C.’s local Black population; their affinity to the suburbs is understable, but an investment in D.C. would echo to the generations earlier when Howard Alum participated in the civic wellness of D.C. as homeowners, voters, and tastemakers.

Collective Spirit of D.C.’s Local Black Residents

My grandparents moved to Washington, D.C. in the early 1960s and their description of Chocolate City is much different from Washington, D.C. today. From my family and community recollection, there was a felt class integration in Black Washington partly due to the racial segregation that persisted post-Brown v. Board of Education (1954). In Washington, and this is lesser discussed in American history, Blacks not only lived together out of force but also the choice – a choice to sustain a community, to help all progress toward intellectual and economic liberation. 

D.C. was an enclave with its own unique cultural dynamics. This togetherness embedded a cultural capital; Black class integration produced a cultural melting pot and a sense of neighborliness and pride because of its autonomy, especially mid-Civil Rights Movement. A plumber could easily exchange services for a legal counselor, the middle school educator could exchange her childcare service in exchange for the Howard professor to tutor his daughter. There was rich sociality that pressed against the individualism and class stratification embedded within modern capitalism. Without naming it as such, barter economies were fostered and as time progressed Afro-centricity became commonplace. 

Howard University on Hilltop High

Much of these cultural nuances and histories are not a part of Washington’s public history and are especially absent from Howard’s public legacy. I consider the “Double Consciousness” theory of W. E. B. DuBois (1903)  for Howard – African Americans are socialized to compromise cultural nuance to participate in hegemonic American practices, i.e., white dominant cultural normative behaviors, for social and material gain.  To sustain its prominence, Howard benefits from some levels of elitism, from some separation of the majority of African American experiences. As a Howard alum, I wonder how much of this has been fostered by the University and its constituents, and how much the media, the economies of gossip, and folklorist tales have sustained this. This perception of Black elitism, of exclusivity, is felt in conversation with Black Washingtonians.

Howard University is a basin of Black intellectualism and creativity. It is one of the few institutions where competing interests and microcosms of global issues are held.  This is not specific to Howard, but specific to HBCUs with Black-centric and normative social arrangement and epistemological scholarly frameworks. Here, global Black communities can debate and learn from each other’s traditions, norms, and values. At Howard, one can observe the past, present, and future of Black global perspectives in real-time. As it related to the local, I observed centuries-long debates of “The Talented Tenth.” Regardless of their expressions of W.E.B. DuBois’s philosophical framing of the Black elite in the 1920s, we walked in the legacy. As such, our role within the Black community was met with mixed results, as it is informed by histories with varying levels of interests for the wellness of all, especially those not of that caste.

During my first week at Howard in August 2012, I took the bus to the thrift store up Georgia Avenue. I remember an older woman, possibly in her 70s,  with a scornful gaze asking me if I was “one of them” as she pointed to the campus. I politely, and perhaps with the excitement of my first few days as a student, replied, “yes.” Her gaze, pointed squint, and slow pivot away held so much, almost a disappointment. 

Howard students represent the entirety of the African Diaspora — from the American South to the Global Southern countries of Guyana, El Salvador, and many more. These relations are complicated, actual or perceived, by social, geographical landscape, educational and thus class divisions. Being one of the students who is familiar with D.C., I had a unique perspective and interest in observing the curiosity of students who traveled from outside of the region. I was acutely, and perhaps painfully aware of what was absent from my peers’ experience of Washington, D.C.  Everywhere these students would travel, their affiliation to Howard would be present, both in how they were perceived for positive or negative. I saw this most in nightlife, one of the more integrated parts of D.C. sociality. Albeit, groups by music interest would have cultural and racial commonalities, their educational levels and professions varied. Here, dynamics of class would pronounce themselves, e.g., this viral tweet from 2017, “I hate partying with Howard [expletive]. [They] in the bathroom arguing over slavery. Bye.”

As a Howard alum, I found this quite humorous, it also serves as a subtle record of existing stereotypes, some of which kept Howard as separate from the mass of Black Washington.

Scapegoating Go-Go

In the 1990s, Go-Go was a tool of expression for social ailments within a city of inequity. In a city that was recovering from the crack cocaine epidemic, Go-Go became the scapegoat for the lack of government intervention in public health, housing, education, and jobs,  a pronounced neighborhood conflict of resources, including cultural credibility and landmarking of territories. When there is a lack of resources and opportunity, criminality is soon to follow suit, and rivalries of neighborhoods were fostered both by pride and territorialism to protect underground drug economies. Where there is no access to engage with the broader societies, neighborhoods become their own worlds with sets of cultural normative rules, rules that may evoke harm as punishment for those who do not adhere. 

All of this activity, including crime, became the problem of Go-Go, which provided a space for massive gatherings of rivaling neighborhoods and their drug circuits. For communities spatially separated, the common interest in Go-Go music placed rivals in the same place and became a space of confrontation. Howard’s ban of Go-Go on campus in the 1990s is emblematic of its relationship to Washington’s local Black  populace as the city began to ready itself for gentrification. Howard then, via additional intangible symbolic measures, distanced itself from the local Black community, e.g., in the 2010s, their participation in gentrification, selling of land and buildings for the establishment of luxury apartments and condominiums. It appears that Howard, then and now, toes a lie between collective and capital interests. 

The Go-Go ban is not something I experienced having attended the school nearly two decades later. However, as I engaged with members of the Go-Go community and Howard alumni, this ban was not well received by my peers or the local community. This decision by the administration exacerbated perceptions of elitism and separation from the wider Black communities of Washington, D.C. 

Looking forward 

As D.C. continues to morph, Howard University is now lost against sprouting condominiums that compete with its sky. Howard’s once prominent campus overtaken by these properties is symbolic translation of its engulfment by corporate interests that threaten the sustainability of Black Washington’s culture and population. Its grounding has shifted, no longer pressed by the pulse of Chocolate City. Howard is a staple, anchoring a city under corporate seize and cultural compromise. For Howard to maintain its local influence, it must serve its local interests.  

In 2016, when my friends and I started an informal planning commitment for community investment. As seniors preparing to ascend into alumni  status, we became increasingly aware of Howard’s fiscal management challenges. This also came alongside the Washington Post article, “Is this Howard University’s tipping point?” published in April 2016 which shared personal accounts of students facing homelessness. This article and others questioned the financial management of the University, and others pointed to fraudulent activities from the administration. This began commonplace, local inquiry and concern. For us, the concern was exacerbated by Howard’s seemingly willful participation in gentrification. The University sold buildings and land that our committee saw as spaces of retail and housing; we envisioned the potential for long-term investment. However, these ideas never left our circle as graduation approached and priorities shifted. Still, I think about our young minds aware of and frustrated with the signals Howard was sending to its communities; one being that corporate interests may compromise cultural landmarking and placemaking.

While Howard is selling land, their students protest against unsafe or fully absentee housing. The priorities of the University are in question. Perhaps its wavered and lessened connection to the broader community of Black Washington has afforded a lack of accountability. Howard has the necessary tools and resources to reach all of D.C.’s Black communities in meaningful, transformative ways.

More on Go-Go

This playlist by SuperFlyTy reflects the subgenres of Go-Go, specific to each generational evolution. Please listen carefully to catch the rich sampling of popular music and original songs that reflect the lived experiences of Black Washingtonians.

Go-Go has been described by Kip Lornell and Charles Stephson Jr. as “a complex expression of cultural values masquerading in the guise of party music in our nation’s capital.” in their book The Beat: Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C.

Maleke Glee

Washington, D.C.

is a Washington, DC-based curator, writer, and cultural worker. Maleke obtained his M.A. in Cultural Sustainability from Goucher College and B.F.A. in Arts Management from Howard University. Maleke is an adjunct professor in the Department of Art at Bowie State University. His curatorial and writing practice focuses on contemporary Black art, specifically abstraction, performance, and the evolving terrain of the digital world.