Thursday, May 19, 2016

"Meccas are multitudes": Tressie McMillan Cottom and HBCUs

One of the benefits of following a book like Between the World and Me that garners extensive commentary is that you come across several writers converging on a common subject and offering really, diverse thoughtful perspectives.

Among the more than 100 reviews I read on Coates's book, I was pleased to return, months later, to sociologist  Tressie McMillan Cottom's "The Untold Stories." Among other observations, she notes how her own experiences on a black college campus and the experiences of various other black women differed from the "lovely portrait of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)" that Coates presents. While Coates primarily concentrates on the positive aspects of life on the campus of Howard University, which he refers to as "the Mecca," Cottom reminds us of other, more troubling experiences for a range of students. 

Citing a comprehensive report on sexual assault on the campuses of HBCUs, she notes that:
Women who reported not liking or feeling neutral about their HBCU were significantly more likely to report physically forced sexual-assault victimization. Whether you don’t report your rape because you love your HBCU or your rape taints your love for your HBCU, if you are a black woman assaulted in a mecca, you learn that love is complicated. You learn that on the Yard too, and in dorm rooms and cafeterias and in class and in libraries. The men who love you can hurt you. You learn that. You learn that the curiosity fomented in classrooms does not extend to men being curious about you, an actual woman. Unlike books, you talk back. Unlike female professors, you’re not supposed to talk back. The smart brothers may well be the most dangerous for you. The brothers reading Sonia Sanchez talk a game that feels like safety but their politics are for papers and polls, not dorms and wombs. Their violation can feel the worst because you expect it the least.
Part of what made Cottom's narrative so powerful to me was the extent that she offered an alternative to what Coates presents. She acknowledges that "Coates’s book is not about that and that is more than fine." So she pivots from Coates's book, or better, she used the occasion of all the attention on Between the World and Me to make us aware of silenced voices, or, as her title indicated, untold stories.

Her comments prompted me to reflect on the many outsiders at my own seemingly familial HBCU. I recalled and wondered about the many troubling incidents that were somehow erased. So often, in public, when those of us who attended HBCUs encounter each other in grad school at PWIs or in other white spaces, we become somewhat nostalgic about our beloved campuses. Our reflections most often include laughter, pride, and joy.  Like Coates, we love whatever "Mecca" we journeyed to and through.

But as Cottom reminds us at the end of her review, "Meccas are multitudes and no one story can tell their every story." Our laughter- and joy-filled reflections are also apparently forgetful. Or, were we simply unaware that sexual assault, silencing, homophobia, colorism, elitism, class politics, narrow definitions of beauty, and a range of social ills took place at our adored HBCUs?  

Anyway, returning to Between the World and Me recently led me back to important commentary like Tressie McMillan Cottom's "The Untold Stories."  

Notations for a common reading experience of Ta-Nehisi Coates
A Notebook on the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates 

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