“You can always tell a Morehouse man… but you can’t tell him much!”
President Obama recited this old saying while delivering this year’s commencement speech at Morehouse College. It was a friendly jab at the reputation of its students for being rather confident and outspoken.
Or in the words of GQ magazine, Morehouse men are “douchey.” For the fourth year in a row, Morehouse ranked in the magazine’s annual, lighthearted listing of the America’s 25 Douchiest Colleges – a suburban slang term that essentially means obnoxious, pretentious, and snobby. In other words, these students and graduates have the distinction of being perceived as especially “sadity,” to use a synonymous word more common in black vernacular.
And once again this year, Morehouse was the only historically black college or university, or HBCU, included on the GQ list.
Could it be that the magazine misconstrues the pride of a Morehouse man with run-of-the-mill male obnoxiousness? Let’s examine why this might be the case.
What’s GQ’s problem with HBCU pride?
The list was mostly comprised of majority-white, large state universities and small, high-priced private institutions that were included for having arrogant rich kids, or fanatical sports fans who believe that their football team makes them more important than you. But there, amid this collection of mainstream institutions of privilege, was Morehouse, which was branded as “douchey” for having students that are well-dressed, fraternity types who love materialistic hip-hop and militant black activism equally.
But as any HBCU graduate will tell you – and as a Hampton University graduate, I’m speaking from experience here – we are proud, and proud of our schools at levels that would put those on the GQ list to shame. There is simply nothing like the brazen pride of an HBCU graduate.
When graduates of those GQ schools begin rambling about their football team, we’ll kindly remind them that the halftime show is the real reason to come to the game. Then we’ll chuckle as our marching band breaks it all the way down and turns the stadium into a block party, while theirs tepidly play some catchy tunes.
HBCUs: As snobby as the best of them
And when their students from elite backgrounds brag about their membership in country clubs, the HBCU graduate will show them how his black alumni network provides more nationwide connections than they could ever dream of. (And, yes, he’ll do it while completely clad head-to-toe in a fraternity outfit.)
HBCUs can exercise conservative, traditional values in ways that would put the most exclusive private schools to shame. They ban inappropriate dancing, unacceptable hairstyles and attire, and can have limited visiting hours for socializing with the opposite sex.
At our schools, a fashion show occurs every day as students just walk the campus; it’s not uncommon to see a female student show up for an 8 a.m. class in heels and a sundress. That’s something that even the southern belles of the Old South colleges can’t match.
In other words, an HBCU graduate will not blink an eye when saying the most pretentious, sadity collegiate phrase on earth: “My school is better than yours.” And we’ll mean it.
If that makes us “douchey,” so be it.
The reason for gargantuan pride
All kidding aside, the reason for the enormous pride HBCU graduates have in their schools stems from these institutions’ histories and founding principles. Many of them were founded to educate newly-freed slaves. They produced graduates that fanned throughout the nation teaching blacks how to read, write, conduct business, and gain an increased sense of independence.
HBCUs were instrumental in turning enslaved people into doctors, inventors, teachers, academics, and hugely successful entrepreneurs in just a few decades. This historic mission is an unassailable point of pride.
Fast forward to the present, and the black college experience is one of the more unique cultural phenomena in America. It’s been captured for mass consumption in movies such as 1988’s School Daze and 2002’s Drumline. It is one of the few places where academic higher learning is matched by riveting social and historic customs that are deeply ingrained in these institutions’ identities.
Most HBCU students and graduates readily admit that they chose their university over a white college for one simple reason: the intangible and profound black college experience. The family atmosphere of black colleges is equal parts safe haven to be ourselves and a challenge to expand our horizons and become better, all in a place somewhat removed from the gaze of racial discrimination.
“Douchey” pride versus valid pride
Certainly, the objective here is not to argue that HBCUs are more sadity (or “douchey”) than the predominately-white schools on GQ‘s list, and thus, should comprise a larger portion of it. The point is that HBCUs are such special places that there really is little comparison at all. Every aspect of the black college experience is outsized and a direct outgrowth of the remarkable history of blacks in America.
Our pride is not their pride. Unlike the other “douchey” schools, the pride exhibited Morehouse men has been earned by the blood, sweat, tears and heroic accomplishments of its founders and graduates in an environment that did not want or expect blacks to succeed. Valid pride is never obnoxious.
As HBCUs battle to stay fiscally solvent amid cutbacks in government loan programs, hits from the recent recession, and reductions in government funding, their role remains just as important as ever. These economic changes have been so severe that a consortium of HBCUs are contemplating a lawsuit against the Obama administration for failing to prevent changes to eligibility requirements for federal student loans that are pricing out black students.
As Morehouse and other HBCUs engage in this battle for survival, such superficial critiques by GQ show just how out-of-touch the entity is with the black college experience, and why we need to preserve that experience to shelter our young people from such mainstream misinterpretations — if only temporarily. This will give them the armor of strength to brave the real world, even if that armor is dubbed “douchey” by those that don’t really know.
Theodore R. Johnson is a military officer and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. A graduate of Hampton and Harvard Universities, he is an opinion writer on race, politics, and public service. He currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Theodore R. Johnson on Twitter at @T_R_Johnson_III.