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Women's Studies and Sexuality Studies at HBCUs: The Audre Lorde Project at Spelman College.

A NATIONAL DISCUSSION ON INSTITUTIONAL CHANGES in women's studies and sexuality studies would be remiss if it did not consider the specificities of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States. Here, I highlight the efforts that the Women's Research and Resource Center and its Audre Lorde Project at Spelman College have made to foster critical discussions about LGBTQ scholarship, activism, and history at HBCUs. In particular, I reflect on the Audre Lorde Project's finding that in order for critical conversations around sexuality and queer studies to happen on HBCU campuses, there must first be an institutional and curricular commitment to black feminisms and black women's studies.

Over the last seven years, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, M. Jacqui Alexander, and their team have spearheaded the Audre Lorde Project, whose objective was to "increase public awareness and understanding about African American LGBTQ experiences; to explore the marginalization of racial issues in the LGBTQ movement and in gay and lesbian studies; and to create climates that acknowledge, value, and respect difference, especially within HBCUs, where profound silences continue to exist around gender and sexuality." (1) Named after the first out lesbian woman to speak at Spelman College, the Audre Lorde Project involved visits to eleven HBCU campuses to investigate the social climates for LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff. Their visits helped document homophobia on campuses: LGBTQ students experienced discrimination in the classroom, lived in fear of being ostracized, struggled with coming out on campus, and sometimes dropped out or transferred to other institutions. Simultaneously, Guy-Sheftall and Alexander made a fascinating, although perhaps unsurprising discovery: the HBCUs that had women's studies programs were more open and receptive than other institutions to having candid discussions about sexuality. They noticed that
    students who had enrolled in women's studies courses... were
   likely to be conscious of the politics and history of their
   campuses in relation to matters of gender and sexuality and as a
   result were more likely to view these matters not as private,
   individual concerns but as public, culturally constructed, and
   ultimately amenable to intervention. (2) 

In other words, women's studies paved, and continues to pave, the way for sexuality studies. And given the reality that women's studies has not been widely institutionalized at HBCUs, LGBTQstudies as a result appears virtually non-existent. (3)

In the Audre Lorde Summit Resource Guide, Roderick Ferguson, Howard University alumnus and American studies scholar, argues that "a curricular interest in black feminism" must be institutionalized in order to transform HBCUs into spaces with an intellectual climate that could engage members of the black LGBTQ community. Black women's studies, Ferguson maintains, "was the first to incorporate examinations of queer sexuality into Black Studies," and "black feminism has had the longest engagement with the issue of black sexuality." If HBCUs are to embark on a project of institutional transformation to become more open and inclusive spaces for LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff, they must first commit to "the insights of black feminism." (4)

Understanding the historical context of HBCUs can shed light on the resistance that many of these institutions have to both women's studies and LGBTQ studies. HBCUs have long been invested in producing ideal black intellectuals and educated women and men who could engage in what was commonly termed "racial uplift." For black women, this too readily meant adopting a politics of silence and respectability in order to counter wider prevailing racist discourses about black women's "excessive" sexuality. As Marybeth Gasman points out, "during the early years of black colleges, black female students were sheltered by the administration; their lives were shaped by institutional policies designed to control their behavior." (5) This policing of black women's sexuality had significant implications for black queer people. As Matt Richardson argues,
    the tradition of representing Black people as decent and moral
   historical agents has meant the erasure of the broad array of Black
   sexuality and gendered being in favor of a static heterosexual
   narrative. Far from being totally invisible, the "queer" is
   in Black history as a threat to Black respectability. (6) 

According to Guy-Sheftall, the politics of respectability is still incredibly strong today on HBCU campuses. As she puts it, "there is a notion that black college students must conform to conventional gender norms in order to succeed in the working world ... in the absence of an official dress code, there is a lot of policing of dress, particularly when it comes to institutional rituals." (7)

To be sure, the Audre korde Project has established the Spelman College Women's Research and Resource Center "as a major site for the exploration of Black LGBTQ issues in the academy." Phase one of the project focused on outreach at Spelman and within the Atlanta University Center and included "student-driven activities designed to raise awareness, combat homophobia and heterosexism, and promote more inclusive environments." (8) Layli [Phillips] Maparyan, Spelman alumna and womanist scholar, established an LGBTQ scholarship and offered Spelman's first course on black queer studies. During this phase, Audre Lorde's papers were processed and publicly unveiled, and an edited volume of Lorde's unpublished writings was completed. (9)

The second phase of the project featured a symposium on the life and work of Lorde in September 2008 and culminated with the remarkable Audre Lorde HBCU Summit in April 2011. Spelman president Beverly Daniel Tatum noted in her opening remarks that Spelman was founded "by two women who lived, themselves, in lifelong partnership." (10) The diverse speakers many of whom were LGBT alumni of HBCUs--offered critical insights and suggestions about the path that HBCUs must take in order to be more inclusive of LGBT community members. (11) One speaker lamented the difficulty of transforming HBCUs due to the fact that many HBCUs are small, conservative, and president-centered. Another speaker observed the continuing erasure of black transgender people. Yet another speaker used archival sources to recuperate LGBT history by discussing Lucy Diggs Slowe, the first Dean of Women at Howard University, who was in a semi-public, long-term relationship with Mary Burrell.

There are many obstacles that institutions must overcome if they are to become more inclusive spaces, particularly, as Guy-Sheftall observes, the "heteronormative rituals and traditions that go unchallenged at HBCUs." As she also pointedly notes, "the [Christian] religious affiliation of many HBCUs creates a more conservative climate around gender and sexuality issues." Another obstacle is the anxiety that institutions have about alumni withdrawing financial support. Finally, Guy-Sheftall pointed to a major obstacle when she said,
    We don't have loud, consistent messaging around gender and
   sexuality inclusivity on our campuses. We have very few-
   convocations or public forums where out queer people are speaking.
   There are a small number of out queer faculty on HBCU campuses, and
   few queer studies courses in the curriculum. (12) 

Thus, it seems that the key to institutional transformation at HBCUs--and other campuses--is a curricular commitment to, consistency in messaging about, and visibility of the LGBT community. Ultimately, black feminisms and black women's studies are integral to this process of institutional transformation.


(1.) Beverly Guy-Sheftall, "Breaking the Silence at Spelman College and Beyond," Diversity and Democracy 15, no. 1 (2012), vol15no1/guy-sheftall.cfm. The team consisted of Beverly Guy-Sheftall, who founded the Women's Research and Resource Center in 1981, M. Jacqui Alexander (Cosby chair at Spelman 2008 2009), Aaron Wells (Hampton University alumnus and part-time research coordinator), and Spelman alumna Taryn Crenshaw.

(2.) WRRC, "Facilitating Campus Climates of Pluralism, Inclusivity, and Progressive Change at HBCUs," Summit Resource Guide (Atlanta, GA: Women's Research and Resource Center, 2011), 21.

(3.) Ibid., 17. Out of roughly 106 HBCUs, only a handful have women's studies programs. Spelman College was the first HBCU to implement a women's studies minor in 1981 and the first to have a women's studies major in 1996. Clark Atlanta University was the first to establish a graduate degree program in Africana Women's Studies in 1982, and Howard University has a graduate degree certificate in women's studies. Bennett College has a program in Africana Women's Studies, in which students can choose AWS as a major track within an interdisciplinary studies major in the Department of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Interdisciplinary Studies. Fisk University, Delaware State University, Chicago State University, Medgar Evers College, Xavier University of Louisiana, and Morgan State University all offer minors in women and gender studies. There may be more women's studies programs and majors developing in the pipeline at HBCUs.

(4.) Ibid., 55, 69, 70.

(5.) Marybeth Gasman, "Swept under the Rug?. A Historiography of Gender and Black Colleges," American Educational Research Journal 44, no. 4 (2007): 778. See also Leisa Meyer, "'Strange Love': Searching for Sexual Subjectivities in Black Print Popular Culture during the 1950s," Feminist Studies 38, no. 3 (2012): 625 50; and Jennifer Nash, "Theorizing Pleasures: New Directions in Black Feminist Studies," Feminist Studies 38, no. 2 (2012): 507-15.

(6.) Matt Richardson, "No More Secrets, No More Lies: African American History and Compulsory Heterosexuality," Journal of Women's History 15, no. 3 (2003): 64.

(7.) Beverly Guy-Sheftall, conversation with the author, April 23, 2013.

(8.) The Atlanta University Center includes Spelman College, Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University, and Morehouse School of Medicine. WRRC, "Facilitating Campus Climates," 11, 9.

(9.) Former Spelman College president Johnnetta Betsch Cole played an integral role in convincing Audre Lorde to donate all of her written works that were not already at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, New York, to Spelman. Three years after Lorde's death in 1992, her papers were brought to the Spelman Archives. For more information, see Cole's essay "Audre Lorde: My Shero, My Teacher, My Sister Friend," in I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde, eds. Rudolph P. Byrd and Johnnetta Betsch Cole (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

(10.) Anare Holmes, "Spelman Hosts Historic Summit on Black LGBT Students," Georgia Voice, May 13, 2011, 2629-spelman-hosts-historic-summit-on-black-lgbt-students. Other scholarly sources that document this relationship are Candace Marie Jenkins, Private Lives, Proper Relations: Regulating Black Intimacy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007) and Lillian Faderman, To Believe in Women: What Lesbian Lives Have Done for America-- A History (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

(11.) The following institutions participated in the summit: Bennett College for Women, Morehouse College; Philander Smith College; and Howard, Clark Atlanta, Dillard, Fisk, North Carolina Central, and Morgan State universities. The Summit Resource Guide documents the history of LGBTQ activism on HBCU campuses. Howard University was the first HBCU to have an LGBTQ organization in 1980. Currently, 26 out of 103 HBCUs have LGBTQ student organizations.

(12.) Guy-Sheftall, conversation with the author, April 23, 2013.
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Title Annotation:Forum: W/G/S Studies; historically black colleges and universities
Author:Williams, Erica Lorraine
Publication:Feminist Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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