Hampton Steps on Cultural Nerve

Hampton Steps on Cultural Nerve
With No-Braids Policy

Hampton University stepped hard on a cultural nerve when news of the
no-braids, no-dreads policy for males in the five-year M.B.A. program leaked out earlier this year. Officials at the university appear to have been blindsided by the negative reactions. “We’ve had this policy in place for six years,” says university spokeswoman Yuri Milligan with a note of bewilderment.

Outrage came in waves, spurred on when a chiding letter to Hampton president William Harvey, from Susan Taylor, editorial director of Essence Communications Inc., began circulating the Internet.

The school tried to “quiet down” each wave of criticism, but “finally, we had to go on CNN,” to try and calm the storm, says business school dean Dr. Sidney Credle.

But while that strategy may have worked, the surf could get choppy again at any moment because what Hampton officials don’t seem to have fully realized is that by targeting hair they have cracked open the crypt and exhumed the corpse of a collective childhood trauma that haunts the deepest, darkest corners of the African-American psyche.

That trauma centers around the burning shame associated with the label “bad hair.”

I remember as if it were yesterday the tears, the pleading and the screams that accompanied the weekly ritual of shampooing, hot combing and braiding.

And I remember as well the twin thunderclaps during the 1970s that signaled the official blowing of my mind. Thunderclap No. 1: seeing Angela Davis’s ‘fro and learning the mind beneath that mop of fabulous hair belonged to a Sorbonne- and University of Frankfurt-educated Black woman who was also a college professor. Thunderclap 2: seeing Cicely Tyson’s haunting beauty in “Sounder” and suddenly finding a context for and beauty in the faces of women like my grandmother, who wore cornrows beneath their headrags, too.

In the years since I experienced that epiphany, natural styles have proliferated beautifully, wildly — running the gamut from twists to locs to braids to cornrows to ’fros and back again — but the possibility that I saw in the ’70s remains unfulfilled.

Though we are no longer excluded in wholesale fashion from society, the mainstream still demands that people of color “cover” our most visible differences.

The term comes from sociologist Irving Goffman, whose ideas are being updated and reinterpreted by Kenji Yoshino, professor and deputy dean of the Yale University School of Law, in his new book Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights.

“Covering is different from ‘passing,’” Yoshino says, “because the underlying identity is known when someone is covering, while it is unknown when someone is passing.”

As for Hampton’s policy, “Of course, [it] constitutes a covering demand,” Yoshino says, conceding at the same time that, “It may be that the rule … is an attempt to protect African-Americans from discrimination in the outside world.”

Essence editor-in-chief Angela Burt-Murray, ironically a Hampton graduate herself, isn’t buying it.  “We live in a world where African-Americans are given messages from childhood that their hair is unacceptable. I just think [the policy] sends a message that isn’t healthy,” she says.

But Credle doesn’t plan to alter the policy any time soon. “We’re like the Marines. You want to join us, you have to wear the uniform,” he says.

And the approach works, he adds. “We have a 100 percent placement rate. We have 22-year-olds leaving here making $90,000. They’re happy, and believe me, their parents are very happy.” But larger questions linger.

As I was preparing to write this column, I just happened to run across this quotation, published a century ago, in W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks. Describing the tragic double-bind of “double consciousness,” Du Bois writes: “[We] simply [wish] to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

There is a sort of reasonableness to the notion that one may attain the heights of American capitalism simply by cutting one’s hair, learning tennis and golf — or even, as with our secretary of state, classical piano — and wearing conservative dress.

But I also think that if the Black upper class, the very group that is best equipped to challenge “White is right” norms, is co-opted by the promise of gain, then what we’re watching is one more generation trading its birthright for a
mess of pottage.

Kendra Hamilton is assistant editor at Diverse.



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