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.