Many young women and men arrive at Atlanta University Center, that bastion of black excellence and prestige, believing that it will provide shelter from the violence, sexual and otherwise, that lies beyond its gates.
In January, BuzzFeed's Anita Badejo, in the investigative report "Our Hands Are Tied Because of This Damn Brother-Sisterhood Thing," delved into the so-called Morehouse Mystique, which "embodies all that is good, noble, and strong in the African American Educated male." Banah Ghadbian, Spelman's 2015 valedictorian, described the archetypical Spelman woman this way: "She's middle class, she's Southern, she has good manners, she's heterosexual, she's not deviant in any way."
I arrived at Clark Atlanta University in the fall of 1998. By spring of 1999, I had become acquainted with two women who told me they had been raped by their Morehouse “brothers"—two women who remained silent because society had taught them that anything they said would and could be used against them. Upper-class students told me that this kind of thing had been happening for decades in the AUC. And as the years went by, I heard more stories, read more news reports, watched the threads of kinship become undone publicly as more and more sisters began speaking out about sexual assaults against them.
So when I read the traumatic tweets of @RapedAtSpelman, an anonymous Spelman freshman who claims that she was raped by four Morehouse students at a party, I was not surprised by her story—or by the hashtags #RapedByMorehouse and #RapedAtSpelman that exploded across social media in response.
Nor was I surprised by her claims that she was allegedly ignored by Spelman's dean for close to a month before finally being met with pressure to remain silent.
The alleged victim's feelings of worthlessness are all too common. According to the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs:
African-American women have a "tendency to withstand abuse, subordinate feelings and concerns with safety, and make a conscious self-sacrifice for what she perceives as the greater good of the community, but to her own physical, psychological and spiritual detriment." (Ashbury, 1993, Bent-Goodley 2001, p. 323)
And this is why black women and girls are less likely than their white counterparts to report being raped or sexually assaulted:
For every African-American/Black woman that reports her rape, at least 15 African American/Black women do not report theirs. (Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, Hart & Rennison, 2003. U.S. Department of Justice)
This is a crisis that prestigious black institutions of higher learning are not precluded from experiencing; in fact, they are ripe for it. Wherever there is masculinity, privilege and power—and a perceived responsibility to protect all three—there will be rape. We don't teach our daughters that enough. We don't teach our sons that enough.
We don't teach them that rape is both tradition and inheritance—as is the institutional protection of the men who commit it. We are taught early on that prison is not intended for "good" black men and that black women should conduct themselves as "ladies," not as promiscuous excuses to send them there. We are told that we must protect them from white supremacy's iron claws. That we must become the containers into which men pour their pathology, the keepers of the secrets that kill us.
This is what so many black women are taught: good men lead, good women behave. And if they are transgender or genderqueer, good luck finding anyone who will give a damn if they are assaulted, or even whether they live or die.
In response to @RapedAtSpelman's tweets, Spelman President Mary Schmidt Campbell announced that an investigation is underway: "Our hearts go out to this student and I want to personally offer her our full support and assistance," Schmidt Campbell said in a statement provided to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"We are a family at Spelman and we will not tolerate any episode of sexual violence," she wrote. "No student should ever have to suffer and endure the experience she has recounted on social media. Spelman is conducting a full and thorough review of these events."
Schmidt Campbell made a similar statement in January in response to the BuzzFeed report, saying, "The women who filed those complaints exhibited courage and fearlessness. At the same time, the circumstances that occasioned those complaints are unacceptable.”
Yet here we are months later. And a young woman is saying not only that she was raped by a Morehouse student but that Spelman attempted to shame and silence her.
Morehouse President John Silvanus Wilson Jr. also released a statement, which reads in part:
The information anonymously shared on Twitter was our very first indication of this incident. Now that we are aware of these allegations, we are determined to pursue the investigation to the fullest extent possible.
I encourage any victim of sexual assault to report the incident to our Title IX office, the Office of Campus Safety, or any other mandatory reporter. Morehouse is determined to create, shape and maintain an environment where victims are supported and feel free to report any incident of sexual assault, trusting that they have Morehouse as an ally. We are determined to change the culture on and around campus, and "get right” a problem that has confounded the industry of higher education and the country. We must all work together to shape an environment and culture where sexual violence committed against our students or by our students is not tolerated.
Though I find it highly unlikely that there was no prior conversation between Spelman and Morehouse about an alleged gang rape, Silvanus is right in saying that rapes and sexual assaults are not specific to the AUC, nor to HBCUs in general. Rape culture is an epidemic that infects college campuses across the country. According to a recent Brown University study, about 1 in 6 women were raped during their freshman year of college; 15 percent of those women were incapacitated in some way—and these are only the ones that are reported. NPR delved deeply into this issue, and its work influenced the Obama administration to launch the It's on Us campaign to raise awareness of and eradicate sexual assault on college campuses.
It is also important to note that this is not a blanket indictment of Morehouse College. My own Morehouse brother treated me with nothing but love and respect my freshman year at Clark Atlanta, and I recently and quite randomly ran into a Morehouse brother in Times Square who expressed concern because I was walking alone. He insisted on showing me his driver's license before walking me to a cab and making sure that I made it back to my hotel safely.
That kind of experience mirrors those of many AUC women across the country. We are family, and that is the AUC way. Still, the issue here is not anecdotal; it is institutional. And no #NotAllMen arguments could or should soften the deserved scrutiny that Morehouse and Spelman are both facing in this moment. Sometimes family has to air out the dirty laundry to wash the filth away.
In The Color Purple, there is a powerful moment when Sofia says, "I had to fight my brothers. I had to fight my cousins and my uncles. A girl child ain't safe in a family of men. But I never thought I'd have to fight in my own house."
Many women in the AUC believe that they will never have to fight against Morehouse, a prestigious family of men praised all over the world. They believe that their own administrators will not be complicit in their victimization. And year after year, women like @RapedAtSpelman realize that sometimes prestigious families of men can be the most dangerous because they are the ones that society is most invested in protecting.
I stand in solidarity with the students of Spelman College and Morehouse College who are fighting back against the rape culture of violence, silence and shame that threatens to weaken the bond between them. Legacy and reputation are not worth the expense of forgetting, even for one moment, that where respectability and rape collide, the bodies of black women and girls are too often the casualties.
And until our most cherished institutions do right by us, everything they even think about is going to fail.