Morehouse College is the only all-male historically Black college in the country. A recently published book argues that, as a result, the institution is uniquely affected by, and also perpetuates, specific ideas about what it means to be a Black man in America, including the idea that Black men are “in crisis” and Black male students have a responsibility to uplift Black communities through their academic and career success.
The book, Respectable: Politics and Paradox in Making the Morehouse Man (UC Press), bases its conclusions on a series of qualitative interviews with alumni. The author, Saida Grundy, is a graduate of Spelman College, the historically Black women’s institution located across the street from Morehouse, and an assistant professor of sociology, African American studies and women’s and gender studies at Boston University. She responded to questions about her book via email.
Q: Based on your interviews with graduates, what characterizes the Morehouse brand? What does it mean to graduates to meet the ideals of being a “Morehouse man”?
A: In the book I describe multiple instances where all the respondents interviewed described either the Morehouse brand or the Morehouse man (and often both). “The Morehouse Man” is the embodiment of the brand. Participants stressed how the Morehouse man was successful—which almost always meant career success measured in money or profile or both. The Morehouse man embodied a certain kind of Blackness—he wasn’t a sellout, but he was simultaneously palatable to whites, especially in professional endeavors. They got very detailed in describing how the Morehouse man dressed impeccably in suits, ties or professional attire, how he was well-spoken, always on time, tidy and a leader.
In fact that quality of leadership was the most common attribute ascribed to the man and the brand. These men saw a Morehouse brand that produces leaders and saw Morehouse men as leaders. Just who they were leading was a little murkier to answer for many men, as was the question of what qualifies one—aside from being a product of Morehouse—to be “a leader”—in which they almost always implied leadership in Black communities and spaces. But this nearly synonymous ideal about Morehouse men being leaders at the helm of the race was really embedded into all the ways men talked about the institution and how they rationalized an array of practices that outsiders may not understand as being necessary or productive for a college experience. I think it’s essential for the reader to understand that what may seem unusual or even superfluous from the outside is truly steeped in their shared ideology that Morehouse is producing men who will better the race. That’s what the Morehouse man means for them. The question for me is what’s behind what they consider a “better” race.
Q: How were messages about Black masculinity communicated to students at Morehouse, based on your research?
A: First, I will say these messages were communicated unceasingly within the institution such that behaviors, spaces and otherwise meaningless features of institutional life were thought of as having meanings about gender and Black manhood. For example, this was the ’90s and 2000s, when most of my respondents were in school—pre–digitized registration and financial aid. Standing on line for hours for a registrar or aid officer may seem more like a nuisance than anything else to college students elsewhere, but for Morehouse students getting through and dealing with institutional inefficiencies or defective processes were reinterpreted as “grit” or some measure of how only those who can endure or circumnavigate obstacles get to become “Morehouse men.” Mind you, we’re talking about staff and bureaucratic inefficiencies that really have nothing to do with students, and yet students made meaning about the kind of man they are based on their ability to get through them.
So Black masculinity really has multiple ways of being communicated. There is the “direct to consumer” style in which students are literally told by staff, administrators and other students that rituals, curriculum, rules and restrictions are about making them a certain kind of Black man, or even that they are obliged to these rules, etc., because of Black manhood and their duty to become leaders. But then there is just as actively the reflexive messaging, where men apply meanings about Black manhood to experiences after the fact—experiences, as I’ve mentioned above, [that] often have little if anything ostensibly to do with race and gender. So Black masculinity becomes the lens through which men see their experience. What they understand, what they justify, what they are told, what they are instructed, is consistently filtered through this rationale that this makes them men or better Black men.
Q: How do you think the norms set for Black men at institutions like Morehouse affect Black women and Black students of other gender identities and expressions?
A: I really appreciate this question, because a driving argument in this book has been that narrowly constructing and institutionally grooming Black masculinity the way Morehouse does isn’t just about Morehouse at all. It’s about a larger context of Black gender politics and who gets to dictate what’s important for the race’s progress by controlling gender and sexuality politics within the race. Morehouse is just an institutional embodiment of a much larger political ideology that Black male elites (college-educated clergy, business leaders, politicians, etc.) are not only the rightful leaders of the race but that what is best for the race is what is best for these men. Black gender politics, like all gender politics, are relational. Yoking what is best for the race to what is best for its straight, cisgender, “respectable” college-educated men comes at a severe cost to the visibility and priority of issues that affect Black everybody else.
In the book, I explain that my work picks up an ongoing academic conversation about how political priorities within Black communities and spaces are formed. In describing why Black voting patterns are so similar across income and gender demographics, political scientist Michael Dawson explain that African Americans hold to a “linked fate” ideology that what happens to the least among our race affects us all. His colleague Cathy Cohen challenged this thinking by pointing out that if it were true, then the HIV/AIDS crisis should have been top priority within Black politics, because it [by] far and disproportionately affected and killed Black patients. Who it was affecting, however, were mostly low-income and disproportionately queer Black people whose issues and visibility [are] hypermarginalized within Black community politics. I have bookended Cohen’s claim by pointing out that we must look at the most privileged African Americans—“respectable” Black male elites—to understand who controls what social issues get prioritized within Black spaces. I show that the cost of upholding the respectable image of Black male elites comes at a cost to Black everyone else. Issues that affect this group of men get cast as urgencies for the race as a whole, and types of gender and class hierarchies and oppressions that occur within the race often serve the interest of that group of men maintaining their power and visibility as racial leaders and representatives.
Q: You write that Morehouse College’s mission, and initiatives like Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper, evolved partly in response to the “rhetoric of Black male crisis,” the idea that Black men were failing to thrive, and the futures of Black communities hinged on their “respectability” and educational and professional success. During the pandemic, there’s been a lot of concern among campus leaders about enrollment losses among Black men, and some colleges have recently launched new initiatives dedicated to their enrollment and retention. What do you think of those discussions and efforts happening in academia right now in the context of your research?
A: Well, this concern in higher ed about “the Black male problem” in enrollment and retention is not new. In fact, it has its origins in the 1980s, and we should pay particular attention to a 1983 “The Crisis of the Black Male” special issue of Ebony magazine that I cite in the book. Nineteen eighty-three, mind you, had the highest rate of unemployment on record in the last 70 years. It was the devastating effect of Reaganomics, neoliberalism and globalization on Black urban industrial workers. What’s interesting is how a crisis that affected Black women just as much as Black men got recast by Black male leaders (in this case Ebony’s [executive] editor … Lerone Bennett) as a gendered crisis affecting only Black men. In his letter from the editor, he harped on the issue you bring up—that Black male “crisis” could be measured in college enrollments. College enrollments for all African Americans were up from the previous decade, however. What the “crisis” was for Bennett (who [was] a Morehouse alumnus) was that Black men were outnumbered by Black women on college campuses for the first time. So, this is something to keep in mind about what insights Respectable offers about how this rhetoric about “crisis” gets articulated and propagandized through gender. Black male college enrollments—like all college enrollments—are still up compared to previous generations but did take a 14.3 percent drop in spring 2021 compared to spring 2020, but Black enrollment over all declined a whopping 8 percent during the pandemic, particularly at community colleges, where Black enrollments declined 13 percent. But how are we talking about this issue that is affecting Black men and women on college campuses? It’s not being articulated as the crisis of Black community college students—it’s articulated as the crisis of Black men. Legal scholar Paul Butler coined a term for this, called “Black male exceptionalism,” i.e., when issues affecting the race writ large are articulated as disproportionately or exclusively affecting Black men. There are issues that disproportionately affect Black men, such as mass incarceration (men over all make up most incarcerated people, while Black incarceration rates have fallen 34 percent since 2006) but Black male exceptionalism provides a way of singling out Black men while obscuring how these issues penalize other groups disproportionately as well. We have no reason to believe Black college women’s enrollments are holding steady in the pandemic, but you would be hard-pressed to even find the stats on Black women’s pandemic enrollment numbers, because there isn’t a political exigency to track issues that affect Black women. Low-income and first-generation Black students have historically accessed community colleges more than other African Americans, so why isn’t this 13 percent drop seen as an urgent matter of access inequality for the most underprivileged Black students? So, yes, Black enrollment declines in the pandemic are of great concern, especially at the two-year college level, but we miss the picture when we misleadingly articulate these issues as Black male issues, as though other demographics of Black people aren’t harmed as well. That’s a big part of what my book tackles—how the rhetoric of Black male crisis misses the scope of these issues, and, thus, how to redress them, if we don’t capture how race, class and gender work in conjunction.
Q: You write that being a graduate of Spelman College makes you both an insider and an outsider to the Morehouse alumni community. What was it like for you to write this book from that perspective?
A: It’s like respecting the soldiers and critiquing the military. That’s how it feels as a Spelman woman to have so many close bonds with Morehouse graduates. The core of my adult life in terms of how I am plugged into Black America from coast to coast is really based in my “SpelHouse” family. My college experience was the first time I realized how America must feel for white people. I was in a place that was all about young people like me, where the curriculum reflected me, where I never worried about being second-guessed and where, for the first time in my life, I could explore all the complexities of myself without the white gaze collapsing all of me into a single lens of Black inferiority. So to say I loved my college experience is an understatement. I felt free there. What bothered me so much was realizing there were other Black people who were queer or gender-nonconforming or low income, etc., who couldn’t feel free there. It doesn’t sit well with me that Black colleges aren’t havens for marginalized Black people, who catch hell within the race.
I say in the book that “the best men I know went to Morehouse and the worst men I know went to Morehouse,” and that remains true for me. Because I have such an insider perspective on this institution, I am very careful to not piece apart the men from the institutionalization process. These men had varying levels of objection to these institutional processes themselves, so my job as an ethnographer is to put their stories into a larger context that maybe they don’t even have—maybe they thought they were the only ones thinking this and maybe they’ve never thought about how these issues fit into a long arc of over a century of Black gender politics. That’s my outsider, right? The socio-historical lens I applied to this study as a researcher. But I always crafted that lens with the responsibility and love of an insider. Because of misogyny within Black spaces, there are many who would cast any critique Black feminists have of Black men and masculinity as man-hating or even betraying the race by “airing our dirty laundry.” But one of my Morehouse classmates said it best. He said, “Saida loves Morehouse because she knows we can do better.” There are those who would wrongly judge this book prima facie as some disdain I have for Morehouse. To that I say what James Baldwin said about America: that he loved his country and therefore reserved the right to be fiercely critical of it. I love the parts of Morehouse that Morehouse often doesn’t love—the queer, working-class, trans and gender-nonconforming Morehouse. These are Black people who forever cast outside of Morehouse even as they are students within it. If they were loved and affirmed like they belonged inside this institution, then I wouldn’t have a book to write.