Not long ago I got a email from Firelight Media, the award-winning production company committed to exposing injustice through documentary films. I hadn’t heard of the production company by name but I was certainly familiar with their work, including The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and The Murder of Emmett Till. The producers tracked me down because they wanted to use some of my grandfather’s photos in their new film, Tell Them We Are Rising, a documentary about the rise of historically Black colleges and universities. That unexpected email began my family’s involvement with the film. In discussing the request with my mom and my aunt, I slowly began to see how our family could have caught the production company’s eye. I’ve always known that HBCUs were a part of my family history but I guess I’d never focused in on just how important they’ve been to us.
As it turns out, on my mother’s side I’m the seventh person in my family to graduate from a HBCU. Our family’s long HBCU pedigree includes one Morehouse graduate, three Fisk grads and three Tennessee State University alums. In fact, we are part of the Hale family, the first family of TSU. My step-great-grandfather William J. Hale, Sr. was the founder and first president of Tennessee State University. Because of our family’s history with the university, we were invited to Tennessee State University for an early screening of the film sponsored by Bank of America. On our way to the screening, we drove the 2017 Lexus ES 350 onto campus to get a look at the Alpha Kappa Alpha memorial where my grandmother’s name is enshrined as a founding member of the school’s chapter. Yep, our HBCU roots run deep!
At the screening, I got a chance to connect with Stanley Nelson, the director of the film. “We felt it was very important to showcase the film to students on HBCU campuses because this is a vital part of our African-American and American history,” he said. “Many students and even alumni are not aware of the deep history of how and why HBCUs were created and the foundation for success they provided for African Americans.”
I won’t commit the cardinal sin of giving away any of the film’s secrets but I will say that the way the story is told, the viewer can see at least one obvious difference between the way HBCUs were treated in the past, and how they are treated now. Last winter, Tell Them We Are Rising screened at a number of HBCUs to garner buzz and momentum. It will air publicly on February 19 on PBS. Mark your calendars. In the midst of these challenging political times, the film offers a refreshing perspective about how we, as a people, can tell the world we are rising. Speaking of which, the title of the film was taken directly from 13 year-old Richard Robert Wright who was answering the question of what message should be given to the north about southern Black college students. His response: “Tell them we are rising.”
Tell Them We Are Rising premieres on Independent Lens on PBS, Monday, February 19, 2018 at 9PM ET.