National Geographic : 2018 Apr
a place of their own 141 preseason football practice. The sun still rested between yesterday and today, not yet etching its way into the blue-black sky. Dressed in plain white T-shirts, black shorts, and an array of multicolored running shoes in front of the Frederick Douglass Academic Re- source Center, the Morehouse freshman class stood with their arms locked, swaying left to right as they sang the Morehouse hymn. On the stair- well stood upperclassmen wearing various iter- ations of all-black garments. Some held torches that illuminated the area, while others moved between the interlocked lines of freshmen. “ When you go out, people are going to see Morehouse,” shouted one of the torch-bearing upperclassmen. “ They don’t just see you. So you have to hold your brothers accountable.” After another more forceful rendition of the hymn, the young men sprinted off into the morn- ing behind an upperclassman holding a torch. Every few minutes the students transitioned from station to station—blurry cavalcades of white streaks crisscrossing the campus. At each station they learned more of the history, the rit- uals, and the mission of being a Morehouse man. At one of the stations, an upperclassman in a tweed jacket and maroon tie stood on the high pedestal of the college’s Martin Luther King, Jr., statue in front of the chapel and spoke forceful- ly: “Our color intimidates them, for they fear an educated black man.” The freshmen stared up at him as he moved between the wide bronze legs of King’s rendering. With the vehemence of a southern preacher, he invoked the nomenclature of the racial justice movements that have shaped the social and cultural landscape in the past sev- eral years: Hands up, don’t shoot. Say her name. I can’t breathe. Black lives matter. what MaKeS MorehoUSe anD SpelMan important is not necessarily the idea that these students represent the best of black America but that they represent the diversity of black Amer- ica. There are students who grew up being the only black students at their elite primary and secondary schools and students who went to public schools in low-income areas. There are socially conservative evangelical students who struggle to accept homosexuality, and there are transgender students pushing the traditional boundaries of gender and sexuality in new di- rections. There are students with radical polit- ical sensibilities—who advocate the abolition of prisons, police, and capitalism. There are students who represent the third generation of their families to attend these schools and who plan to work in finance. There is not so much a quintessential “More- house man” or “Spelman woman” as there is a range of students defining for themselves what they will draw from their experiences. These students are coming of age at a time of renewed political engagement and are trying to better un- derstand who they are as young black people in relation to a changing world. Students at HBCUs have often been at the forefront of advocating so- cial change across lines of race, class, gender, and sexuality. “During the civil rights movement the women of Spelman and the men of Morehouse were on the front lines,” Spelman president Camp- bell says. “The entire history of HBCUs has been to disrupt the narrative around black people.” I did not attend a historically black college, but I am the progeny of Spelman and More- house. I, instead, made my way to a small liberal arts school where I was one of 12 black men in my graduating class. I was a Division I athlete. I wrote for the school paper. I joined a black frater- nity. I made lifelong friends. I always knew, however, that there was an ex- perience I wasn’t having, that there was some- thing unique about an HBCU that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else. I think about the pride of my parents. I was adorned in maroon-and- white Morehouse paraphernalia at a young age. I would hear my parents laugh in a way I had never heard before when their college friends visited our home for dinner. It was a different kind of joy. The historically black college experience reaf- firmed that they belonged to something, a place and a people worthy of celebrating. j The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting provided a grant to support the photography for this story.