Beyoncé performing at Coachella 2018
Credit: Larry Busacca, Getty Images for Coachella

“When I decided to do Coachella, instead of me pulling out my flower crown, it was important that I brought our culture to Coachella…It was important to me that everyone that had never seen themselves represented felt like they were on that stage with us.”

In 2018, Beyoncé became the first Black woman to headline the almost 20-year-old Coachella festival, and in the words of Bey herself, “Ain’t that ’bout a bitch.” It’s no secret that the arts and music festival has long been a show catered to white audiences. As the first Black woman to headline, Beyoncé made it a point to put her Blackness at the forefront—a beautiful image as, over the years, we’ve watched her artwork and persona transform into a statement of Black pride. From the Louisiana-style marching band opening to the Black fraternity step-infused choreography, Beyoncé’s performance shed much-needed light on the cultural importance of HBCUs. Her newly released Netflix documentary, Homecoming, makes that fact even clearer.

Honestly, Beyoncé could have stood silent on that stage for two-plus hours and that performance would have still been golden. Instead, she made it a celebration that referenced wisdom from Black thinkers and poets whom Coachella has never recognized. While Beyoncé could have chosen to specifically highlight any part of the Black experience, she decided on an HBCU homecoming—the one week or weekend of the school year when, no matter what trials and tribulations you’ve endured, you celebrate.

You go back to the “home”—the HBCU—that gave you the skills and self-awareness to survive in a world that tells Black people they’re inadequate. You’re amongst so many successful people, all of whom just so happen to solely be images of Black excellence. An HBCU experience is so precious that homecoming always feels like a reset, a confirmation that your greatness is unlimited. Beyonce took Coachella, a predominately white institution, and transformed it into a representative journey—much like what HBCUs have done for Black college students for centuries.

Similarly, after Bey’s performance and documentary, viewers were reminded of their own greatness.

In the documentary, Bey discusses her connection to HBCUs, and why she chose to trade in a flower crown for an event to honor Black culture:

Throughout the documentary, Beyoncé highlights the difficulties she faced in preparation for Coachella, including the eight months spent conditioning herself for her figurative homecoming—returning to the stage. She also talks about fueling her set with what she’d learned about Black culture and what she has experienced as a Black artist.

The fact that Beyoncé felt inspired to create her own Black homecoming proves how vital HBCUs are to Black culture. It also confirms that being a face of Black excellence is of the utmost importance to Beyoncé in her megastardom.

I graduated from Howard University, an HBCU that Beyoncé celebrates in the documentary. I once felt ashamed of attending it.

That’s why it’s hard for me to put into words just how much pride Homecoming has reinforced within me.

The biggest criticisms of HBCUs include their “lack of diversity” and “failure” to prepare Black students for the “real” world. I attended a non-Black specialized high school, and whenever someone asked what college I’d be attending in the fall, I pretended that I hadn’t yet decided. On College Acceptance Day, I tried my best to remain unnoticed, feeling especially afraid to tell the few other Black students in the school my decision. Many had been conditioned to see PWI’s (Predominantly White Institutions) as prestigious and HBCUs as a sham. I spared myself the judgment.

While my high school environment forced me to feel ashamed, deep down I knew that an HBCU would shape me into the person I needed to be. It would provide me with the courage to maneuver in a world where excellence and Blackness felt like oil and water. Attending a high school with few Black students made me feel like I needed to silence my Blackness in order to fit in. I couldn’t imagine putting myself through that for another four years.

Still, I didn’t fully appreciate attending a Black school until I graduated. Now I truly understand that attending an HBCU is about more than receiving a diploma. An HBCU is a cultural experience that prepares Black people for the world in ways that PWI’s can’t. You learn who you are and find pride in your identity that no one can strip from you. Conformity doesn’t have a place on this kind of campus; you’re taught to live in the real world as your authentic self. An HBCU is where excellence feels attainable because you see yourself represented as such.

If you ask me my alma mater today, my reply is accompanied by a smile and a hair flip.

For those of us who attended an HBCU, this documentary resonated in a way others can’t imagine because Beyoncé put a stamp on our greatness. Watching Homecoming felt like a refresher course in Black pride, an education that I once received on the campus of Howard University. And according to my Twitter timeline, I’m not alone:

Watching Beyoncé embrace HBCU culture and rock my school’s gear is confirmation that I made the right decision. I look forward to seeing even more greatness emerge from these schools, and as our forever first lady Michelle Obama put it, Homecoming “is both a celebration and a call to action.”

This is what we mean when we say, “Do it for the culture.”