elite women

“Our Hands Are Tied Because Of This Damn Brother-Sisterhood Thing”

Melissa Golden

For decades, students at Spelman — the elite historically black women’s college — have spoken out about instances of sexual assault committed by students from Morehouse College, their unofficial brother school. Now, in the wake of a petition, protests, and a federal investigation, their messages are ringing louder than ever. Why haven’t we heard them?

The afternoon of Nov. 11, 2015, in the Atlanta University Center (AUC) was meant to be a quiet one. The day before, students and faculty at the consortium of historically black colleges — which includes the all-women’s Spelman College, all-men’s Morehouse College, and co-ed Clark Atlanta University — had flooded Morehouse’s recreation center to hear Vice President Joe Biden speak as part of the “It’s On Us” campaign, the White House initiative to prevent sexual assault on college campuses. They had listened as he implored college men to play a more vocal role in addressing issues of sexual violence — victims of which are still predominantly women and members of the transgender, genderqueer, questioning, and not listed communities — and had dutifully snapped photos and posted them to social media along the way. But now, the vice president was gone, and campus life had resumed its steady rhythm.

Melanie, a Spelman junior, was thankful. Having spent much of the previous day waiting for Biden’s speech, on top of October’s frenzy of midterms and homecoming preparations, the international studies major was drained. A sexual assault survivor who reported being raped by someone she considered a friend at Morehouse her freshman year, she was at once frustrated that she’d had to leave the Biden event early to go to class, and already wary of what she had heard — Morehouse President John Silvanus Wilson Jr. describing the college’s “zero tolerance” policy for sexual violence in his remarks and Biden’s booming declaration that “no means no.”

After all, Morehouse had handed off Melanie’s case to an independent investigator based in Massachusetts who, without ever meeting her in person, concluded she hadn’t been raped, despite the fact that both parties agreed Melanie had said “no” repeatedly. Later, she’d learn that the college also classified her reported rape as a case of “simple battery.” Like most Spelman students who are assaulted by a peer from Morehouse, Melanie was raped on the latter’s campus, so her own college had no jurisdiction over her case. She’d been struggling to make sense of it all ever since. Sure, it was nice that the vice president had visited. He and people like Wilson talked a great talk. But she knew the AUC had a long way to go before they could properly handle cases of sexual assault, an issue students — particularly at Spelman and Morehouse — had been discussing for decades.

So, Melanie (who requested BuzzFeed News use her first name only) was jarred, but not entirely surprised, by what had begun to circulate within the AUC that Wednesday afternoon: a photo of a “sexual consent form,” scrawled on notebook paper by a Morehouse student for potential female visitors, complete with space for a “hoe signature” and a date. “By signing this I (hoe signature) will not spread misleading truths and/or ignomious [sic] lies. If found in violation of this consent form I (hoe signature) will be indicted and prosecuted accordingly as well as be exposed campus wide as a lying bitch.”

Administrators sent emails denouncing the contract, student activists in the AUC drafted a list of demands from the colleges, and other students like Melanie who’d been assaulted during their time on campus spoke out — some through social media, others through active protest — pleading for their peers and administrators to finally acknowledge problems that they knew had long existed.

At Spelman and Morehouse, two private single-sex schools so connected that they’re often referred to as one — “SpelHouse” — some Spelman survivors who have reported their assaults have been left to wrestle not only with a campus adjudication process that they feel didn’t serve them justice, but also with deep guilt for having turned in one of their Morehouse “brothers.” Spelman and Morehouse are, respectively, the first- and fourth-ranked HBCUs in the country — and thus incubators for the next generation of black elites. But in many ways, they still represent a microcosm of the black community at large, within which respectability politics and expectations that black women stand in solidarity with black men in the quest for racial justice make the conversations surrounding gender and sexual violence particularly fraught. In the days BuzzFeed News spent in Atlanta, members of both communities expressed concern that this combination — of ineffective institutional processes and black cultural dynamics — has created a climate in which silence has become not only standard, but expected.

On Nov. 17, Morehouse and Spelman convened a forum to address the issue of “gender based violence” on their campuses, a rare joint event. The pews of Spelman’s Sisters Chapel were packed. “Ideally, Spelman, Morehouse, and Clark Atlanta should be models of mutual respect between black men and black women,” Spelman President Mary Schmidt Campbell said in her opening remarks. “We know that is not the case.”

A “no means no” sign outside of the campus center at Morehouse. Anita Badejo / BuzzFeed News

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