Before he died in January, Internet voyeurism mogul Lee ‘Q’ O’Denat said that the key to his success with World Star Hip Hop was a basic human fascination with misery.
“9-to-5 people love to see misery,” Mr. O’Denat told Vibe in 2011. “People want to say, ‘I thought I had it bad, but look at these people.’ That’s what sells.”
That’s partially at the core of why we are obsessed with sex tapes, and particularly those originating at college campuses. They happen everywhere, but when they surface at HBCUs, they become a special attraction for the Black Interwebs.
We love to see people in messed up situations. But the other part of our fascination is based on the very real, very American expectation that black people in messed up situations is a tragedy of character. We slow down at car wrecks or stand in our yards to watch a neighbor’s house burn down not because we are surprised by it, but because we are intrigued by suffering that is not our own.
We want to have empathy, judgment and wonder at the frailty of humanity all at the same time. And when it comes to matters of indiscretion or corruption involving black people, that mix of emotions gets churned up within the cultural grinder of “why can’t black folks just do better?”
And so this is the case with the alleged sex tape at Jackson State University. Not posting it here will cost us some hits, but in short, it is a video with people having sex in plain view of dozens of students, near what appears to be a dorm room window.
Its safe to say most of its in-person and online viewership has had or has seen people having sex before. But they’ve not seen it like that, and they’ve not been able to attribute it to an entire university and its role in recruiting or encouraging ratchetness within its students.
This tape is not a big deal. The tapes which preceded it and those which will follow have not and will not be anything to substantively discuss outside of your GroupMe or DMs. But they will always have an amplified place in the public square of black discussion, because they are a constant reminder of how bad the car wrecks and house fires of our character can be, and how little our schools can do to prevent them – as if they are responsible in any way.
All of us believe HBCUs to be some place where young black people learn and embrace the highest of human ideal. That’s why we criticize brothers who dress like women on campus, women who have too much sex, and the fact that everybody else is willing to tape and to post them on the Internet. Institutionally, we buy into it with outdated policies on co-ed visitation, preachable moments at convocation and in classrooms, and mentoring which comes with lessons on black respectability free of charge.
Logically, we know none of this will stop basic human desire or justification to do something ratchet – but the pull of preventing one of us from embarrassing all of us is too much to resist in our individual and collective efforts to save the race one HBCU at a time. So we keep the policies and the culture in place as a deterrent – a deterrent which ultimately shows as failed every time one of these tapes come out.
But it’s not just with sex tapes – it’s in Black America’s total view of HBCUs in politics, business, and social engagement. One of the emerging questions in the era of Trump is “did HBCUs get played?” That’s about as stupid as asking if Elon Musk got played for joining – and leaving – Trump’s economic advisory council, or if Jeff Sessions got played because Trump hates him for moonwalking out of the Russia investigation.
Just because we’re black and running HBCUs doesn’t mean we’re more gullible or less strategic than rich white guys who took the same shot we did with Trump for the exact same reasons – to see if there was something to be gained from working with an unpredictable, maverick leader of the free world with no political experience and penchant for splashy headlines.
If it turns out there’s nothing to be gained, nothing was truly lost but a few days in Washington D.C. where our presidents also got to meet with legislators actually working to change conditions for black folks. But the obsession with the village being compromised by the real or perceived bad acts of a few leads to the whole “got played” narrative, which if you really think about it is worse than the “are HBCUs relevant” narrative because it promotes that strategic action, when we do it, is a waste of time.
Jackson State is a flagship public HBCU with thousands of students and millions of dollars dedicated to world-class teaching, research and outreach. Were it not for JSU, who knows what the prospects would be for a state that is among the nation’s worst in healthcare, education and political access – particularly for black folks?
So let’s hope that the latest HBCU sex tape runs its usual course through the blogs and social space, and we can get back to thinking about ways we can preserve JSU and all HBCUs beyond our always failing effort to make them the castles of black perfection and grace.