The campuses of Morehouse College and Spelman College are especially close. In fact, they’re right next to each other. Proximity aside, there’s a special bond between the unofficial brother-sister institutions – one so close that students and alumni affectionately call the pair “SpelHouse.” Recent events, however, threaten to weaken that bond and illuminate old tensions between the schools.
As a Morehouse alum, I can’t imagine my undergraduate experience without the presence of my Spelman sisters. For all intents and purposes, Morehouse and Spelman are one school with a population fused together from the very first week of their college careers in a ceremony where men of Morehouse and Spelman women recite a pledge to each other, promising to be good stewards of our intercampus relationship.
So I was, of course, stunned and disheartened when news broke last week that four Morehouse students had been arrested in connection with two incidents of sexual assault against students at Spelman. It’s a sad story to say the least. And while details of the events are still unclear, one thing we can be certain of is that the lives of all parties involved have been forever altered. The only consolation for me was reading that Morehouse police acted swiftly, identifying and arresting the accused. Hopefully, the truth will be parsed out and justice will be served.
Will the Morehouse-Spelman bond be broken?
But what is left in the aftermath of such a devastating blow to the connection between the institutions? As of now, students and alumni are engaged in long-standing arguments over institutional identity, media attacks on black men and violence against women.
On one side, it’s a common sentiment among members of the Morehouse community that the news amounts to yet more negative press. It’s one more story in a litany of exposés (remember The Mean Girls of Morehouse?) about the nation’s only institution of higher education uniquely dedicated to educating black men. One Facebook post featuring the story by a former classmate of mine is on its way to garnering 200 comments, mainly from other alumni asking him to take the news report down lest he further embarrass the college with negative publicity.
They have legitimate cause for concern. Morehouse men have been depicted in the media as everything from violent homophobes to crossdressers to common thugs shooting up the club. It’s worth noting that these characterizations fit in well with the narrative of pathology usually ascribed to black men. But now, when the school is under a microscope because President Obama is speaking at the college’s commencement this month, we are being portrayed as possible rapists.
I am not alone in feeling misrepresented.
“Morehouse does, more often than not, get a bad rap in the media,” says senior Tre’vell Anderson, who currently serves as a campus resident adviser and the managing editor of the school’s newspaper. “We are an institution already going against the grain of what black men are supposed to be. Any time something occurs that may contradict or tarnish that, every news station is posted outside of our gates. No one is around when we are participating in Denim Day at HBCUs, which supports ending violence against women… But the moment anyone does something that can be said to be in line with the stereotype of what we as black men are supposed to do and how we are to act, everyone comes flocking.”
Seeing the larger picture about “rape culture”
Anderson and other alumni with whom I’ve spoken also agree that, while important, there is a limit to our concern for the school’s brand in the face of rape allegations. Because, although the media’s systematic character assassination of black men is a very real phenomenon, it’s not the only thing that deserves examination.
The issue hiding in plain sight is that of a system which treats sexual violence against women — black women in particular — as incidental. In other words, it is no mistake the headlines related to the case have read, “Morehouse athletes arrested in connection with sexual assaults,” instead of “Spelman student alleges rape.”
Breanna Wilkerson is a sophomore at Spelman. She’s also a RA and a peer educator. Wilkerson says she heard the news that one of her classmates was assaulted weeks ago, and was “disgusted,” but not surprised. “Months ago I drafted a petition to ban misogynistic music from being played in public spaces at Spelman,” says Wilkerson. “The music that is supported on campus is the backbone and support a system of rape culture,” she said of certain forms of rap. “I was not surprised that sexual assault incidents were occurring in a space where it’s indirectly supported.”