I teach at an HBCU. Doing so is equal parts education, activism and glee. While most of us only get to experience youthful Black brilliance, Black joy and Black beauty through the young people we know, or whom we read about in posts shared across our social media feeds, I am allowed to stand as witness to all this greatness, with hundreds of students, daily.
Any educator will tell you that teaching is a small portion of what we do. I teach literature and writing, yes, but I also provide a safe, judgment free, intellectual space for my students to wrestle with the world, their Blackness, and their radical imaginations. Our young adult years, more than any other time in our lives, is when we figure out who we are and who we aren’t. It’s also a time when we challenge what we’ve been taught by our families and communities—the wonderful and awful things that color our experiences as Black folks trying to survive in America.
I’m always surprised at how my students view topics of race and gender, partly because these are the subjects I’m thoroughly passionate and informed about, but also because I worry about how what my students know (and don’t know) will affect their lives, and even their safety. I thought about all of the men that I love, but especially my male students, when I read the essay, “The Opposite of Rape Culture Is Nurturance Culture.”
Over the past few years, we’ve seen much more media coverage regarding sexual violence on college campuses than ever before. I’m grateful to see this attention to rape and rape culture being reported. I’m even more grateful for Black women like Amelia Cobb who seek to address and impact the number of cases of sexual assault reported at HBCU campuses like my own. Cobb works to attack rape at HBCUs through campus policy; I seek to address it through counseling my students and classroom conversations on consent and rape culture.
But we both may be missing the most important work in this fight.
The above-mentioned essay presents its thesis in its first sentence: The opposite of masculine rape culture is masculine nurturance culture: men increasing their capacity to nurture, and becoming whole. Meaning, our work to end rape and rape culture must focus on boys and men (which we already know), but must begin with boys before they even begin thinking about sex and consent, and the brand of toxic masculinity they’re presented with that colors how they’ll project their maleness onto the world. And the work is all about love—for self to begin with, but for others equally.
We know that rape and sexual violence is about dominance, power and control, much more than sexual pleasure. The question becomes, however, why this kind of violence is so prevalent. The answer, according to the author, is that “violence is nurturing turned backwards.” And that in order to make men less violent towards women, we have to teach them that they (and all human beings, including women) deserve certain levels of nurturing and care.
I find this concept of making space for nurturance particularly important in our community, for the Black men that I know, and for my Black male students who are often forced by society to perform a certain brand of masculinity that leaves no room for the kind of nurturing and tenderness that might prevent them from seeing themselves (and the girls and women around them) as fully human.
I affirm that there are wonderfully loving Black men around us, whose performance of masculinity is neither offensive nor violent. But I wonder how those men learn to nurture, and how they can teach other Black boys and men to nurture as well. And I’m particularly interested in how I can begin conversations with my Black male students on how nurturance can impact sexual violence (among many, many other terrible toxic projections of masculinity).
One shining example I hope to bring to my own campus is a conversation on healthy masculinity created and organized by Men Can Stop Rape, where students, faculty and members of the community share honest and vulnerable conflicts they’ve had with masculine performance. However, these conversations must not begin and end on college campuses. We must bring conversations on male nurturance and healthy masculinity to our communities, our places of worship and, most importantly, our homes.
The opposite of rape culture is, indeed, nurturance culture. So let’s do all we can to provide healthy models for Black boys and men that will teach them to nurture themselves first, and then all those around them.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter at @jonubian.