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Behind the Cultural Significance and Prevalence of the Howard University Sweatshirt

A minimalist piece of college merch holds a weighty meaning in pop culture, from Winston Duke's character in "Us" to Beyoncé's "Homecoming."
Howard University students lay on the ground in protest outside the White House in protest of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Howard University students lay on the ground in protest outside the White House in protest of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When Beyoncé does basically anything, my timeline, rightfully so, goes ablaze. Members of the Beyhive come out in droves to emphasize that Beyoncé is only providing further, unnecessarily gracious proof to the masses that she is the greatest to ever do it. Naysayers and haters are swiftly cast out, as social media becomes a frenzied shrine to the iconic (and truly unmatched) performer.

The release of "Homecoming," Beyoncé's visually stunning Netflix docu-feature that highlights her efforts to put together her epic, history-making 2018 Coachella performance as the festival's first-ever Black female headliner was no different. But among the unseen angles of both weekends' memorable performances, there were several moments throughout the documentary in which Beyoncé wore a navy blue Howard University sweatshirt.

This sartorial shout-out to my alma mater created a different kind of frenzy on my timeline: Hours after the documentary's release, fellow Howard University alumni were excitedly posting screenshots of Beyoncé holding her twins, Sir and Rumi, while clad in the sweatshirt that looked nearly identical to the ones many of us have in our closets. My phone began pinging frantically with group texts — a friend plainly summarizing all of our sentiments: "Damn, imagine not going to Howard."

While the Howard University sweatshirt made its appearance on small screens that day, just months earlier, it appeared in movie theaters across the country thanks to Jordan Peele's horror film "Us." Winston Duke, who plays the patriarch of the Wilson family, was seen wearing throughout the movie. One particular cameo includes the terrifying Tethered standing in the family's vacation home's driveway, while Duke's Gabe warns, "If you wanna get crazy, we can get crazy."

This sweatshirt's pop culture appearances are not merely a coincidence or even a simple indication of collegiate loyalty. Instead, for the Howard University community, the Historically Black College/University (HBCU) community and arguably the Black community at large, these on-screen shout-outs via a casual, minimalist sweatshirt are symbolic of the continuing importance of a Black-centered education. 

The first HBCU in the United States, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania was created in 1837 — a time when many, if not most, Black Americans weren't free from enslavement, let alone allowed to pursue higher education at universities across the country. Howard University was founded 30 years later in the nation's capital, only four years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to legally end enslavement only within Confederate states.

HBCUs have long-standing legacies of educating Black Americans when other institutions would not accept them. Unless a student decided to pursue lengthy (and, more often than not, dangerous and unsuccessful) legal battles to be admitted to these other universities, HBCUs existed as the only avenue for Black students to explore their educational ambitions, and as such, were beacons of hope for a life beyond the chains of enslavement. Because of the inherent political nature of their mission to provide the Black community with that avenue, HBCUs were also hubs of social justice efforts toward the upward mobility of the Black community.

Though times have changed and Black students are now able to pursue higher education at schools that historically did not allow their admittance (and continue to this day to perpetuate racial and class inequities in their admittance practices), HBCUs still exist as safe spaces for Black students. Many students, for the first time in their lives, are able to explore the full breadth of their ambitions without feeling isolated, lonely and pigeonholed because of their Blackness and the micro-aggressions and often painfully overt racism they experience as a result of it.

For Tevin Scott, a Howard University graduate who's currently pitching his show about a fictional HBCU to networks, his experience at an HBCU was formative in his ability to create diverse Black art. "You basically become a master of Black culture, going to an HBCU," says Scott over the phone. "You've seen every type of Black person there is. You now are equipped to know that there's not just one way to be Black, and you have a more widened view of Black people."

For me, it was the first time I felt I wasn't given the pretty and polished version of our American history. Instead, I was taught its truest form, in all of its violence and darkness that spawned from the often glossed-over devastation of the all-American slavery system. I finally felt validated in my experiences that sprung from the multiple jeopardy of existing as Black, woman and American. And perhaps most importantly, I was instilled with a sense that whatever I should choose to do in this life should be in truth and in service — Howard University's motto — of my community.

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Beyoncé emphasized similar sentiments toward the end of "Homecoming" with small white text sprawled across the screen: "So many people who are culturally aware and intellectually sound are graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including my father. There is something incredibly important about the HBCU experience that must be celebrated and protected."

Screenshot via Netflix

Screenshot via Netflix

During an exclusive screening of "Us" at Howard University, Peele told an audience of students that the purpose behind putting Duke in a Howard University sweatshirt throughout the movie was to display the Wilson family's attachment to their Blackness. Duke put it more succinctly, saying, "Howard is dope. Howard is iconic. It's one of these things that pops and represents on film."

And though they're more recent and famous, these sightings of Howard University sweatshirts on screen are not isolated incidents. Khadijah James (played by Queen Latifah) in the 1990s sitcom "Living Single" proudly paid homage to her alma mater in the form of a navy blue T-shirt on the show. Will Smith wore a navy blue sweatshirt emblazoned with the letters "HU" (for Howard University) on "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." Martin Lawrence wore a white sweatshirt with red lettering that read "Howard University" on his hit television series "Martin." In the 1992 movie "Boomerang," Eddie Murphy wore a gray Howard University sweatshirt as he worked out next to Lawrence.

Despite these shows (and one film) being canons within their respective genres, they entertained a predominantly Black audience, so their reach was ultimately limited. With the more recent displays of Howard University paraphernalia, the reach is much more expansive, in part, because Black creatives, be it Peele, Beyoncé or others, have worked relentlessly to build themselves a much larger platform on which they can display their art. The loyalty and devotion to what Howard University ultimately represents isn't what's new — the size of the stage is.

Justin Phillips, who co-owns Support Black Colleges, a clothing company that sells HBCU gear, notes that the cultural significance of Howard University has always been there, but it's important to see more celebrities pay homage to it. "People are saying, 'Maybe I should wear something that supports my people and our education,'" explains Phillips. "I think it starts with making that definitive decision to put something on because it supports [our] culture."

Of course, there are numerous HBCUs in addition to Howard University across the country, from Morehouse and Spelman College in Atlanta, to Hampton University in Virginia. Those and many more have also been represented through clothing on film, and often in the same shows mentioned earlier. Something that strings these hubs of higher learning together, aside from their core mission to provide a safe educational space for Black students, is the traditions put on display during Beyoncé's Coachella performance. 

From the Black fraternities and sororities, to the epic marching bands, to the stomp-and-shake cheerleaders, to the more subtle, nuanced traits of HBCUs that capture the communal elements of existing as Black Americans, these traditions serve as a universal language within the Black community. Howard University, being one of the most well-known HBCUs with a long list of notable alumni (Toni Morrison, Kamala Harris, Chadwick Boseman, Taraji P. Henson, Thurgood Marshal, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen, just to name a few) serves in the cinematic sense as the most obvious and recognizable embodiment of that universal language within the Black community, hence its commonplace across films and television.

"That's damn-near like a superhero uniform — having Howard [University] on your chest," says Scott. "Howard is the mecca. If you think about it like a basketball team, Howard is like the [Los Angeles] Lakers or the [Boston] Celtics. We have so many hall-of-famers. The track record is proven."

When a character in a show or movie wears a Howard University sweatshirt, it serves to fill in the blanks of their backstory for a Black audience to further its understanding of that character's values, as instilled in them by a Black-centered education — or, as Peele puts it, to represent their attachment to their Blackness. Take Khadijah from "Living Single:" The roots of the character's pro-Black stance and relentless efforts to be a pioneering force in the magazine industry can be largely summarized by her minimalist, navy blue Howard University sweatshirt. In "Us," the Wilson family's affluence and success can be, at least in part, attributed to the education Gabe proudly displayed on his sweatshirt. Beyoncé's ode and reverence to HBCU culture — showcased in both her performance as well as her navy blue Howard sweatshirt — can be traced back to her father's formative years at an HBCU.

In essence, the Howard University sweatshirt represents a subtle communication between the Black creatives behind a work of art and their Black audience. Maya Cade, a Howard University graduate and screenplay writer, puts it perfectly: "The gesture [of the Howard University sweatshirt] is similar to a head nod from one Black person to another: I see you, I respect you, I love you."

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