The Gaze on HBCUs

“Gaze: This is a term that Foucault introduces in his 1963 book The Birth of the Clinic. The French word ‘le regard’ poses difficulties for translation into English as the translator Alan Sheridan notes. It can mean glance, gaze, look which do not have the abstract connotations that the word has in French. Foucault uses the word to refer to the fact that it is not just the object of knowledge which is constructed but also the knower. Clinical medicine at the end of the eighteenth century set much store on visibility – on looking and seeing and on visible symptoms”-michel-foucault.com


During our class discussions, we analyzed “the gaze” in School Daze, in regard to the portrayal of the female characters, and the audience’s relation with the film.

However, I want to advance this analysis by conveying how the entire film could also be an illustration of Spike Lee’s gaze on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Inspiration for School Daze: Spike Lee graduated from Morehouse College, one of the top HBCUs in the country, in the year 1979. While in Morehouse, Lee discovered his passion for film-making, during his sophomore year (link #1 below) and he was very keen to the social structure of the school. In an interview (link #2 below), Lee asserted that one of his main inspirations for making the film was to depict the atrocities of Greek Life. Lee explains that, in fact, after he finished Morehouse, “a brother died pledging Alpha Phi Alpha, he had a heart problem, he was pledging, and his big brothers made him do some strenuous work, and his heart gave out”.  He further states, “That is one of the reasons why I wanted to get into the whole fraternity, sorority thing. It always amazed me the amount of abuse and punishment that people would have to put up with just to belong to a group…to any organization….broken limbs….I mean they would fuck you up!”

The gaze in School Daze: 

The film reproduces Spike’s gaze through significant overemphasized forms that represent features of HBCUs. The first and most prominent example of this is the depiction of Greek Life (especially fraternities). Spike even mentioned that he strategically created the Gamma Phi Gamma in a way that could demonstrate all “the worst elements of the Kappas, Qs, Alphas…all of them…and show all the ills of the organizations”. Although Spike Lee never declared that fraternities were solely barbaric, it is evident from the horrendous pledging, the sexism, the disgusting infatuation of females, and the overall immorality of the G Phi Gs, that Spike “looks” at fraternities with judgement. This gaze, however, seems to be different for sororities. The judgement persists. But it’s different. I think that Spike “looks” at female sororities as maids, followers, or groupies (as Professors Drabinski coined it), but there also seems to be an element of surrender, in this group, that is similar to the males. Why else would Rachel’s friends be so against her joining a sorority?

The second most dramatized feature that represents Spike’s gaze on HBCUs is conflict: the conflict between the jigaboos and the wannabes, the conflict between Dap and Julian, the conflict between the administrators, the conflict between Tha Fellas and the individuals from the neighborhood, the conflict between Dap and Rachel, and the conflict between Jane and Julian. These conflicts illuminate the divisions that Spike sees in HBCUs, and (as wonderfully explained by lzl10 below) their overarching implication, in the film, is enhanced by the montage and the “wake up” ending; Spike is evidently appalled that the institution, which was built to uplift the race, defeats its own purpose by enhancing intra-racial tension.

However, this second gaze on HBCUs extends beyond the context of the film, because most of those intra-racial conflicts could be found in many other black-centered settings.

Link 1: Morehouse Interview

Link 2: Greek Life Interview

School Daze

One scene that was particularly interesting to me was the scene where Dap and his friends go to KFC and encounter the three men sitting across from them who won’t let them have the salt.  The men ask Dap and his friends is they are “Mission Men” and mocks them.  The men then follows Dap and his friends outside and expresses discontent with the way that college educated black people supposedly look down on non-college educated black men.  The men proclaim, “You ain’t no kin to me,” and “We ain’t your brothers.” He accuses college black men of thinking higher of themselves and stealing jobs from other black men.  Dap fires back at the man, calling him a “bama,” a derogatory name originally for blacks who migrate to the North, but kept their Southern mannerisms, and asking why the man has a jerri curl.  The man the retorts, “Y’all niggas, and you gon be niggas forever.”  Dap continues by stating, “You’re not niggas, none of us are.”  The confrontation represents a larger conversation about the role of education in black life.  Education functions as a vehicle of social mobility and as well as a symbol of elitism.  The black people who go to college as seen as leaving behind their roots, opting for the “white way.”  The black people who don’t resent this sentiment.  Education provides upward economic mobility, creating a divide- a sort of have and have nots is created.  It is reminiscent of something I’ve seen amongst black people who identify with Jack and Jill and those who do not.  Jack and Jill is often referred to as an organization for upper middle class to upper class black people.  The members are often seen as “bougie” and thought of as elitist and “uppity.”  The separation that ensues causes a ripple in the brotherhood that is supposed to exist between black men.  The man seeks to put Dap and his friends back in their place by reminding him that the world sees them the same as any of other black person.  The ending lines, “You’re not niggas..” is Dap’s way of encouraging the man to sees himself as more than the way the world sees him.  Dap fails to realize that his education is probably part of the reason that he can say that and see himself that way.