Categories
Rape Culture

We Must Dismantle the Morehouse Mystique and Examine Our Masculinity

In her explosive, heart-wrenching article “Our Hands are Tied Because of This Damn Brother-Sisterhood Thing,” writer Anita Badejo outlines disturbing accounts of sexual assault that took place on Morehouse’s campus. The article—released on January 21, 2016—not only contains disturbing actions of Morehouse students but ultimately dismissive and disrespectful responses by Morehouse College administrators. On May 2, 2016, the hashtags #RapedatSpelman and #MorehouseRapedMe trended on Twitter as students/alums of both institutions to call attention to a gang rape alleged by a Spelman student.

The issues exposed in Badejo’s article and by the anonymous Spelman student are not the only ones Morehouse College has seen hit newspapers and online media sources. After the 1996 Olympics, Morehouse College engaged in a land swap with the Atlanta Housing Authority as the residents of the former Harris Homes public housing community were displaced under the aegis of HOPE VI. In 2006, Carnell Walker Jr. was killed by other Morehouse students, who placed him in a trunk to teach him a lesson. Additionally, the College has come under scrutiny for our treatment of gay and trans men on campus over the past two decades.

Dear ol’ Morehouse, we have pledged our lives to thee. But we must come to terms with who we really are, the extent of our pride, and the height of our hubris. We have fostered a culture at Morehouse College that is very similar to Penn State University’s before the rapacious acts of Jerry Sandusky were laid bare before the world. Whereas Penn State sought to protect the cash cow of football and the saintly legacy of Joe Paterno, we have an inordinate focus on “protecting the brand.”

Dear ol’ Morehouse, we have pledged our lives to thee. But we must come to terms with who we really are, the extent of our pride, and the height of our hubris.

What is our brand? Our brand in many ways is the Morehouse Man. As Dr. Hornsby (’61) has written:

…the classical “Morehouse Man” …was not only intelligent and articulate but poised and polished in the social graces. He exhibited moral character and espoused the basic values inherent in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

When President Obama visited Morehouse College in 2013, he spoke to the twin brand of the College, what we call the Morehouse Mystique when he remarked:

That’s the unique sense of purpose that has always infused this place—the conviction that this is a training ground not only for individual success, but for leadership that can change the world.

But one problem that Morehouse men have never examined—collectively as an institution or in the articulation of our brand of manhood—is the influence and presence of structural patriarchy and sexism at Morehouse College. We have not examined the ways by which the domination of men over women has been woven into the dynamics of human cultures all around the world. Male dominance is a fundamental feature of the Judeo-Christian tradition—as manifested in stories such as the origin of sin being placed at the feet of Eve in Genesis or in scriptures that affirm men as head of the household.

Patriarchy and sexism was also embedded into the experience of enslaved Africans and their descendants. As W.E.B. Du Bois explained in his masterpiece Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880, during the Interstate Slave Trade when slave traders shipped 1.2 million Black people from the Chesapeake region to the Deep South to meet the rising demand for cotton pickers and to procure the best field hands, bigger Black men were instructed by White slavemasters to have sex with multiple Black women in order to breed a “superior slave.” Breeding, in fact, was a form of rape institutionalized and sanctified under the brutal regime of American slavery.

Black masculinity in America has been shaped by the dynamics of unexamined patriarchy and sexism found all around the world, even in traditional African societies. Black masculinity in America has been informed and deformed by unspeakable traumas inflicted on Black people while on slave ships, auction blocks, and plantations. Perhaps the most well-known historical trauma that has served as a threat to Black masculinity was lynching. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, there were 3,959 lynchings of Black people in 12 Southern states between 1877-1950. Most lynching victims were Black men.

Black masculinity in America has been shaped by the dynamics of unexamined patriarchy and sexism found all around the world, even in traditional African societies. Black masculinity in America has been informed and deformed by unspeakable traumas inflicted on Black people while on slave ships, auction blocks, and plantations.

While lynchings became broadly identified as a tool of terrorism and emasculation with respect to the violence exacted against Black men (often due to spurious accusations of Black men raping White women), Black women were often raped at the hands of White men without any punishment and without much in terms of community protests. As Danielle McGuire shows in her book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance, in many ways, the Civil Rights Movement started because White men raped Black women, but the acts of White men went unpunished and unnoticed by society. Fast forward to today. When we juxtapose the media attention given to the trial of George Zimmerman compared to the trial of Daniel Holtzclaw (who raped 13 Black women), we can see that White society cares much less about the suffering of Black girls and women compared to Black boys and men.

By not examining this long legacy of structural patriarchy, sexism, sexual violence, and treating Black women as property who could be raped without consequence, Morehouse College institutionally has fostered an environment that turns a blind eye to sexual assault and rape within our community in the same way that Penn State turned a blind eye to sexual assault and rape in their community. We have held up an ideal of manhood that does not examine how Black masculinity intersects with capitalism, patriarchy, religion, and the politics of respectability.

We have held up an ideal of manhood that does not examine how Black masculinity intersects with capitalism, patriarchy, religion, and the politics of respectability.

We have been silent in the face of the sexual violence and rape that some Morehouse men have committed against our Spelman sisters. Even if the vast majority of us never committed such heinous acts, we are complicit due to our silence and our negligence. Morehouse men, along with Morehouse administrators and officials, have demonstrated a willful indifference to the suffering of Black women. Our revered president Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays told us that Morehouse College must produce: “…men who are sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society and who are willing to accept responsibility for correcting [those] ills.” We must publicly acknowledge that we have failed.

We must be sensitive to the wrongs that we, or our brothers, commit against our Spelman sisters or other women. We must establish policies and practices that say in no uncertain terms that rapists and sexual assaulters on our campus will not be shielded for the sake of “protecting the brand.” We cannot continue to say or think—as President Wilson said recently—that women who are victims of sexual assault come to the police force and administration of Morehouse College to “complain about what our men have done.” Women who report rape or sexual assault are not “complaining,” they are reporting their experiences and seeking justice.

We also cannot simply rely on President Franklin’s “Five Wells” that reinforce respectability: well-read, well-spoken, well-traveled, well-dressed, and well-balanced. None of the Five Wells instruct us to confront and deconstruct structural patriarchy, sexism, the culture of rape and sexual abuse of Black women, or the legacy of treating Black women as property who could be raped without consequence. None of the Five Wells compel us to understand how Black men are often complicit in the suffering and oppression of Black women.

Thus, it is incumbent upon Morehouse Men to become well-attuned to how patriarchy, sexism, and sexual violence intersect and reinforce each other. We must ensure that moving forward, men of Morehouse are socialized and educated to come to terms with how we use our power and privileges as men to silence, hurt, abuse, and ignore the pain of Black women. We must publicly acknowledge, publicly apologize, and begin to change our culture and dismantle the Morehouse Mystique.

The Morehouse Mystique has unwittingly contributed to the culture of rape and sexual abuse of Black women because past administrations, our professors, and our courses of study do not identify how our lofty ideals to an elite brand of masculinity obscure our patriarchal, possessive, and abusive designs. Only by dismantling the Morehouse Mystique can we fully examine our culture and fully own our crimes. Then we can begin the arduous work of creating a new manhood that is no longer deformed by previously accepted traditional norms, no longer informed by American capitalism which thrives on powerful people exploiting vulnerable people, and no longer relies on Judeo-Christian proscriptions that reinforce male hegemony. As Danielle Wallace writes in her work “It’s a M-A-N Thang”:

It is necessary to do away with these preconceived conceptualizations of gender and redefine masculinity and femininity in ways that will aid the repair of familial and love relationships as well as be beneficial to the forward movement of the Black community.

This is what Morehouse Men must do. The road will be hard. The challenges will be many. But in the end, we must accept responsibility for mending the bonds we have broken with our sisters.

By Lawrence Brown, Ph.D

Lawrence Brown is the grandson of sharecroppers who lived in the Mississippi Delta and is a native of West Memphis, Arkansas. He is an Assistant Professor at Morgan State University in the School of Community Health and Policy. He is engaged in Baltimore communities as an activist for equitable redevelopment along with housing stability and studies the impact of forced displacement, historical trauma, and masculinity on health.