Yes, I’m a Spelman Woman, but do I have to wear a white dress every damn day?
“Spelman thou name we praise STANDARDS and honor raise we’ll ever faithful be throughout eternity . . .”
Reflecting on my twenty some years of existence, I must say the best decision I’ve made thus far was to attend Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. Not because it was the blue print for the show, A Different World (even though I loved that show) and I often imagined myself as high pitched voice Whitley Gilbert and not the strangely socially conscious Freddy because I thought she was annoying always yapping about helping the world and saving the damn humpback whales. But, life is ironic and as I get older I feel more and more like Freddie always yapping about violence and oppression. But this is not the point of this post. The point is to answer the question, “Why is Spelman the best decision I’ve made thus far?” And the answer is because of the many invaluable lessons Spelman has taught me and continues to teach me about the strengths, weaknesses, complexities, “respectabilities,” and boundaries of who can be called a bonafide black woman.
You see at Spelman we would chant with arrogance, “You can tell a Spelman Woman, but you can’t tell her much.” We would also bellow, “You get you hoes from Morris Brown. You get girlfriends from Clark Atlanta. But you get your wives from Spelman College.” We understood from the very beginning who could and could not be called a Spelman woman and by default who could and could not be called a real black woman. In many ways the social practices at Spelman defined black womanhood as feminine, heterosexual, smart, non-promiscuous, have good relationships with Morehouse men, Christian, and class privileged. For instance, during orientation week at Spelman, incoming students are required to wear dresses the entire week and also until recently they were paired with incoming Morehouse students to foster a sexual platonic brother and sister relationship. Mind you, when I was a first year student I didn’t see any problems with either tradition. Yeah, I was in my Whitley Gilbert’s phase.
However, as an emerging Freddie, I can now say that these seemingly innocent social practices, Spelman and Morehouse Alumnae would call traditions, narrate and with an iron fist in a white velvet glove enforce “appropriate” feminine and heterosexual behaviors. Of course, this is not to say that Spelman should not create spaces for young women to be traditionally feminine or to identify as heterosexual. I think they should. However, I think this same facilitation of social practices—once again alumnae would call traditions—should be extended to girls who are queer. Yes, girls who prefer to date other girls. Yes, girls who are attracted to men, but feel awkward around them for various reasons. Yes, girls who don’t like to wear dresses and prefer pants and Timberlands. Yes, girls who like to have sex with different partners, male and/or female. I will be the first to admit I felt very uncomfortable around my Morehouse brother not only because he was weird, but because he was aggressive. So, to be paired the first week at Spelman with a man from Morehouse was not comfortable for me. To say the least, these social practices help to define appropriate behavior for Spelman women.
You’re probably wondering where I am going with all of this. Well, the recent uproar surrounding Morehouse’s announcement of their Appropriate Attire Policy got me to thinking not only about Morehouse College, but also about Spelman and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) like Hampton University (i.e. no braids or locks policy) where similar policies seek to control sexuality and present “respectable (i.e. class)” heterosexual images of black men and black women. So, the frustration and anger that many feel about the new Morehouse’s policy should also be equally apportioned among other HBCUs where the “politics of respectability” reign supreme. Of course, many people have been throwing the phrase the politics of respectability around as if it was a Frisbee and self-explanatory. But I do not think the term is completely transparent and easily understood.
I think the term entails the “politics” originating, surrounding, litigating, and enforcing why Morehouse, Spelman, and other HBCUs must constantly be “performing” appropriate masculine and feminine scripts even when the audience is only them and their peers. Perhaps, to have a more robust understanding of what is happening at Morehouse and other HBCUs especially the ones that have been singled out by the media as the crème de la crème of HBCUs (i.e. Spelman, Morehouse, Hampton, and Howard) we should have a discussion about foundations and the politics of their funding at HCBUs. This is not to say that Morehouse President, Robert Franklin, is innocent of homophobia and classism, but it is to say that there are intersecting types of politics animating why he and other HBCU Presidents make “very” public announcements like his Appropriate Attire Policy.
In a time where many HBCUs are closing their doors or merging into state-run schools, many HBCUs are scrambling to find ways to keep their doors open. And yes this also applies to Spelman and Morehouse who are thought by many to have “everlasting endowments” which is a lie. Many school endowments including Spelman and Morehouse took drastic hits when the economy tumbled last year. Therefore, in some ways President Franklin’s announcement signals to current funders and would be funders that Morehouse is deeply invested in producing men who are good black men meaning the men at the “house” are not gay and that they know the rules for black men to excel in a white male supremacist capitalistic society. Once again this is not to say that homophobia and classism is not deeply wedded to the tailoring of this policy because it is. I am just offering how the politics of funding by foundations and corporate America shape the announcement and enactment of this discriminatory policy.
And of course there are small liberal arts schools like Smith, Amherst, Mount Holyoke, who get tons of funding from foundations, but who have really robust policies for and in support of LGBTQ students, so why is it different at HBCUs? Because it is as the term implies a “historically black college and university” whose very origin was to make newly freed slaves who are thought by white people to be hypersexual, animalistic, descendants of Cain—sinners, rapist, dumb, and lazy into “domesticated” literate Christian heterosexual men and women. This political project has shifted in many different ways, but the politics of being respectable—moral heterosexuals—still shape the operating and funding of these institutions. With the exception of Morris Brown who was founded by the AME church, most HBCUs were founded by white missionaries who either received their funds from their respective church denominations or from business mavericks like John D. Rockefeller. Of course, my account should not be taken as a historical account by any stretch of the imagination. All I am trying to say is that the politics of respectability entails audiences and one of those audiences is foundations that have stock in funding “acceptable” images of black people.
When you enact such a policy like the one Morehouse has enacted you create and legitimize a culture of violence against non conforming black men where violent stories like what happen to Greg Love becomes commonplace.
Yeah, enough writing, time to go watch “A different World” on Nick at Night and see what Freddie is ranting about today . . .