Between the World and Me Book Club: The Stories Untold

Between The World and Me paints a lovely portrait of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs):

I was admitted to Howard University, but formed and shaped by The Mecca. These institutions are related but not the same. Howard University is an institution of higher education, concerned with the LSAT, magna cum laude, and Phi Beta Kappa. The Mecca is a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body. The Mecca derives its power from the heritage of Howard University, which in Jim Crow days enjoyed a near-monopoly on black talent … The history, the location, the alumni combined to create The Mecca—the crossroads of the black diaspora.

For many audiences it is a description as invitation. For me, it is memory.

I graduated from historically black North Carolina Central University. My parents attended North Carolina A&T State University and Winston-Salem State University. I grew up at homecomings, battles of bands, and step shows. When it came time to apply to college, there was never a question that I would go to an HBCU. Howard is one of hundreds of meccas. Its “yard” is epic and storied. But I am from the South—North Carolina, not Baltimore. In my South, D.C. was up North. If you are talking chocolate cities where I am from, then you had to talk about Atlanta, Durham, and Greensboro. We played New York’s Wu-Tang and D.C.’s go-go but Master P and Outkast and Scarface were the official soundtrack.

It is a reminder that Coates’s tale of black life and struggle is an urban one, even as it pulls at the threads of universality and humanism. The struggle is a big thing, but we live it with different flavors. Coates’s block, where black boys learned the official head-nod as they traverse dangerous neighborhood alliances, does not perfectly overlay my southern-suburban map. Where I am from our cities rarely have a grid, sliced into neat blocks. We had neighborhoods like Charlotte’s Hidden Valley. It had a hedge-lined community entrance and deadly street narratives of what happened to folks who crossed it when they weren’t supposed to. Like many planned communities in the suburban iteration of segregated housing, Hidden Valley’s streets dead-ended at concrete barriers designed to stem the flow of undesirables on bikes and in cars. You walked in Coates’s Baltimore. You drove in Hidden Valley. These differences in blocks, hoods, and yards reminded me of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called the danger of “one story becom[ing] the only story.”

That is the remembering I was doing as I read the rendering of HBCUs over and over again. I kept coming back to the way Coates described the universal black male heterosexual mating call on the yard:

I remember her large brown eyes, her broad mouth and cool voice. I would see her out on the Yard on those spring days, yell her name and then throw up my hands as though signaling a touchdown—but wider—like the “W” in “What up?” That was how we did it then.

That is how we did it then. On my yard, in my South, with my eyes attached to this body, when a brother threw up the W the responding script was not so easy. If you threw the W back, you were “mannish.” That is to say, you were performing a masculine gesture. It could be played ironically or it could signal that you viewed the brown boy as just a friend, a “play brother” in our parlance. It could also mean that you were one of the many brown girls who weren’t heterosexual. Those girls have always been on the yard, too. Even as they pledged sororities or played in the band in short skirts, these brown girls adopted the rhythm of fraternities and fraternal posturing. They got their sorority signs branded on their arms or wore the men’s long white tee and baggy-shirt uniform. Black college yards are often painted as extremely homophobic spaces and black people as inherently parochial about gender and sex. I do not remember that we knew the liberal lexicon, but we had a more complex, respectful map of sexuality than we are often credited for in the single retelling of our worlds.

You could also play it straight when the W was beamed at you from across the yard, always as other young men—the crew—watched and waited for your response. A smile and an eyeroll acknowledged the greeting for what it was but did not give so much away as to have the crew label you sexually available. You could also crush the encounter by turning your back. It was a refusal—and refusals come with social cost for black girls on the yard. At the next Greek party, the next gym jam, or the next house party, you could pay the price for refusing a W thrown up on the yard. That story isn’t at odds with the great love story about the yard. It is a complementary story for our girls who are our daughters, and even for our sons who can also grow up to become our daughters.

We haven’t much cared about what happens to our daughters on the Yard, either real or imagined. The earliest Yards are now well over 170 years old, but one of the first comprehensive reports of sexual assault on black college campuses among women was conducted in the 2000s. It is an interesting study, with much useful data. The data point that lives in me after reading it is this: 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.

I remember the yard fondly like my uncles and father, all veterans, remembered the peaceful breaks in war. There were good times. There were the best of times. But the good times were the best of the times because there was danger between the times. Some of that danger came from young men who loved the books I loved, who revered Malcolm as I did, and who mostly threw welcome Ws. Coates’s book is not about that and that is more than fine. But it reminded me of that, which is also fine. It also reminded me of Alford A. Young Jr.’s wonderful book, The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances. The black men in Young’s study are from Chicago, which is similar to Coates’s Baltimore. The study was conducted during 1990s. It is the era of broken-windows policing and drug-war rhetoric that made internment camps of many black urban communities. It is also the same era when Coates was on the yard and I was navigating its landmines. The men in Young’s book aren’t as chronically curious as Coates. They are the kids Coates learns to avoid, the one he reads himself beyond but remembers clearly in his prose. They are at the margins of society. I remember reading Young’s book as I read Coates’s. I made pages upon pages of notes, chronicling my reactions and annotating passages. There are two passages, one from each book, that are marked most heavily. In Between The World and Me it is the passage about Mecca. In The Minds of Marginalized Black Men it is this one:

When talking about the African American community the men’s initial reactions were extraordinarily gendered. Black women were brought into the discussion only when the men were specifically asked about them (emphasis added). When asked to speak about the situation of black women in particular, the men almost unanimously indicted the women for their troubled circumstances.

These men had a single story about their communities and the women only played a role when asked. Like Chicago and like Baltimore and like all the black meccas across this country the risk of a single story is as great as Adichie warns about stories of Africa. Africa, the land we cross to other meccas has a lesson for all meccas. The lesson is not for writers. Writers do not owe us that. The lesson is for readers. Meccas are multitudes and no one story can tell their every story.