I traveled to the campus of Morehouse College last week to help facilitate a Planned Parenthood-sponsored panel about sexual assault and consent. No less than 50 students from the Atlanta University Center (which also includes Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University) joined in a rich conversation about a difficult topic that most college kids would likely prefer to avoid on their last day of classes.
The line-up was serious: Morehouse professors Jamila Lyn and Marc Lamont Hill; Planned Parenthood’s Alencia Johnson; writer Mychal Denzel Smith and me. Alencia and I would host a similar event days later in Washington DC, with students from Howard University.
I stepped away from these painful, yet productive dialogues feeling energized—excited even—by what I consider to be a viable possibility: that those of us committed to this work can begin a paradigm shift on our campuses (and beyond. This shift would mean an embrace of sex positivity, as well as increased understanding of the complex nature of rape and sexual assault.
Then, on Tuesday, #rapedbyMorehouse flooded the internet, as an anonymous Twitter user with the handle @rapedatSpelman documented a painstaking account of an alleged assault (and subsequent inadequate response from school officials.) An on-campus protest led by AUC students took place for at least the second time this year, and it would be remiss for me not to mention that a similar on and offline campaign was waged at my beloved Howard U. just weeks ago.
I don’t know yet if any of this week’s online events were at all inspired by our talk, as many of the attendees were already leading campus activism around these issues. I don’t know who is Tweeting from the anonymous account. And, let’s be clear, we went to Morehouse because there is mounting evidence of a sexual assault problem on campus—like many other college campuses. Though the circumstances are different with each alleged incident, the response from administration at these storied Black colleges is consistent: on a spectrum between underwhelming and absolutely maddening.
What I do know is that the response from some (I’m emphasizing that word to make things plain for those who are so bad at reading that they assume that the absence of it implies “all”) people privy to the public conversation was devastating to read. Ranging from straight-up denials to being more interested in protecting institution(s) than the students that it claims to serve, these despicable comments came primarily from young Black men. However, there were also a few young sisters stepping out and suggesting that there was a problem with airing out the schools’ dirty laundry in public or, worse yet, acting as if the hashtag somehow implicated the entire Morehouse student body.
I’m probably more used to sitting through horrible victim blaming and wacky “they trying to take a brother down” conspiracy theories than most folks. Remember: I work for the magazine that put The Cosby Show cast behind a shattered glass photo frame. I’ve heard it all. That still doesn’t make it hurt any less.
It’s maddening to know that a young woman can tuck her hopes and dreams into a Spelman or Howard backpack, only to be violated by a classmate and then be re-violated by the school that is supposed to protect her. It’s nauseating to know how many of her peers would blame her for what happened or prefer that she just remain silent in the interest of protecting the reputation of said institution and/or young Black men.
While it is important to break down the desire to guard these schools at the expense of their most vulnerable students, it’s also important that we don’t look at what is happening at Morehouse and Spelman as wholly unique. Rape culture is global. Campus rape is all too common. And the often-fractured relationship between Black men and Black women isn’t exclusive to elite academic institutions.
At a Congressional event tucked between the Morehouse and DC events last week, scholar/activist Kimberle Williams Crenshaw spoke of the racial solidarity that somehow bypasses Black women and girls, as she often does. It’s one thing to be misled by the widely-held belief that Black men and boys are far more disenfranchised than their female counterparts, but to ask that we dismiss allegations of rape in the service of protecting them? To reduce them to perpetual adolescents who are incapable of treating the opposite sex with respect, to value their safety and freedom more than ours because we can’t let a brother get consumed by “the system?” What sort of liberation is this?
We have these long-held pieces of our identity that speak to how highly we think of ourselves because of our time at these schools. “You can tell a Morehouse Man, but you can’t tell him much,” Howard’s self-ID as “the Mecca of the Black intellectual” are but two examples. But are we so convinced of our superiority that we’d look past the skeletons that have shimmied out of the closet and danced onto our famed Yards?
Alas, I am fighting to keep my sense of optimism and strengthening my commitment to making things better. We can teach our young people the language of consent. We can dismantle the notion of sex as something that is to be given to males, who are thus trained to hunt for it and understand it as a shared experience between people who share a mutual respect for one another. We can, and must, end the flawed framework of racial solidarity that requires us to protect Black men accused of an assault from a White supremacist penal system at the expense of Black female victims. We can acknowledge how our attachment to heteronormative patriarchy prevents us from recognizing the great danger faced by LGBT persons in spaces that may claim to protect them from the racism of outside whilst ignoring the hatred at home.
A better world is possible for our beloved HBCUs and our people if we are willing to fight for it. Be inspired by the young folks who stood up yesterday and be put on notice: If we continue to value the image of our colleges and universities (and our Greek organizations, our churches…) more than those who entrust these institutions with their lives, they will no longer exist. And, frankly, we don’t have much use for spaces that don’t know how to confront sexual assault.
Let’s get to work.