In 1999, I applied to only two colleges: Florida A&M University and Hampton University. I visited both institutions that summer, and decided on FAMU.
For most of my life at FAMU, I alternated between twists, a short Afro, and cornrows. In 2003, I finally decided to loc my twists and have donned locs ever since.
By rule, I would have had to change my hairstyle if I wanted to be a business student at FAMU. At the business school’s mandatory forum, gentlemen are supposed to “maintain a neat, professional and well-groomed haircut (no braids, no dreads).”
According to three of my close friends who were business students, officials did (and do) not enforce this rule. Actually, one of my friends who had cornrows, told me, “the only caveat was that dreads or braids had to be ‘neat.’” He kept his neat and went on to graduate at the top of his class.
Reportedly, FAMU business officials have been open-minded enough to emphasize neatness, and teach their students that to look neat is to look professional. They have been culturally sensitive enough to realize that braids and locs can be professional if they are neat. They have not been stuck in the past of flagrant assimilation and accommodation to a white cultural aesthetic.
The same cannot be said of Hampton University.
In my next two blogs, I would like to showcase two historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that have strict student codes, strict products of the past, starting with Hampton.
When HBCUs were founded in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, administrators injected a series of rules that regulated student freedom and agency, rules on the way out at historically white colleges and universities (HWCUs). Students were instructed when to eat, sleep, study, socialize. They were told what to wear, where to go. Cohabitation of the so-called hypersexual genders was strictly forbidden. Couples at many institutions could not even walk together on campus. Class and university events were mandatory. Expulsion usually greeted any student who dared to break any rule.
This moralized contraption of rules was meant to Christianize and civilize black youth emerging out of the so-called barbarism of slavery, and later the so-called barbaric African American communities. The “ideas that justified these rules were deeply colonialist, racist, and sexist, and the moralized contraption resembled the off-campus segregationist directive that continuously endeavored, for a century after the Civil War, to keep African Americans a step away from slavery.”
From almost the beginning, student activists challenged these rules. Many were ejected by the 1960s. Some tragically remain with us.
As we move towards the New Year, HBCUs should resolve to eliminate these strictures of the past, remove the remaining remnants of the moralized contraption.
But Hampton appears defiant. Business officials and Hampton spokespeople not only enforce the ban on locs and cornrows in class. They regularly defend their controversial ban to the media.
“These students choose to be in this program and aspire to be leaders in the business world,” said HU spokesman Naima Ford, early in the fall 2012 semester to a local television station, 13News. “We model these students after the top African-Americans in the business world.”
Business School Dean Sid Credle added, “If you’re going to play baseball, you wear baseball uniforms. If you’re going to play tennis, you wear tennis uniform. Well you’re playing that business.”
Credle does not believe cornrows to be an aspect of African American culture, nor does he consider it a historically professional look. “I said when was it that cornrows and dreadlocks were part of African American history? I mean Charles Drew didn’t wear it, Muhammad Ali didn’t wear it. Martin Luther King didn’t wear it.”
I quoted Credle at length because I wanted you to follow his line of reasoning. He and the (white) people who run corporate America do not consider cornrows and dreadlocks to be professional, no matter how neat. To him, taking out and cutting the cornrows and locs is not a big deal, it does not necessitate one’s loss of self. It is just a hairstyle.
This is a classic line of accomodationist reasoning. To Hampton officials, the total Hampton business student is supposed to accommodate to the desires of (white) corporate America. Hampton’s business school is not just about refining a student’s business skillset, it is seeking to develop the student’s total self to make him or her hospitable to (white) corporate America (I keep putting ‘white’ in parentheses because the implication is obvious).
Some corporations have banned or frowned upon some traditionally African American hairstyles. Some have told black women they cannot wear neat braids. Some have ordered black men to cut their neat locs. But should HBCUs submit to this racist reality, or push back against it?
In many ways, Hampton has come a long way from its founder, the vicious scientific racist, General Samuel Armstrong who believed blacks to be “little better than that of brutes.” I would be one of the first to firmly place Hampton as one of the nation’s top five HBCUs. But every college and university in America has its stench. Hampton’s hair ban reeks of Armstrong who molded an education for submission.
Hampton students have been silently protesting this latest hair rule, initiated in 2001, for quite some time. “I don’t think it (should) matter what the hairstyle. It’s my life,” said incoming freshman Uriah Bethea, who wears locs. “I would just find another major.”
I wonder how many would be great entrepreneurs and corporate executives with neat locs and cornrows avoided the business school. I wonder how many Hampton business graduates are happy about their bank accounts and distressed about their controlled sense of self. I wonder.
The ban needs to be lifted. Neatness for all hairstyles instead needs to be stressed. Hampton is trekking down a perilous road to the past if it keeps the ban. Because when would the cultural accommodation for jobs stop?
Today, it may be hair. What if tomorrow it is skin complexion? Light-skinned black applicants are more likely to get jobs than dark-skinned applicants. Will an HBCU require students to bleach their skin? Just like changing one’s hairstyle, bleaching one’s skin is possible these days.
What if we find corporate America is more likely to hand a job over to a black Republican? Will Hampton require its business students to register Republican? Will it require them to show their registration cards before they enter class, like they must show their appropriate hairstyle?
I think you get the point.
Hampton’s Business School trains its students for the culturally insensitive past, not the culturally sensitive future. It trains its students to accommodate to the racist world, as HBCUs used to do, instead of training students to compel the racist world to accommodate to them, as more and more HBCUs are learning to do.
New Year’s Resolution — remove the hair code.
Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of Africana Studies at University at Albany – SUNY. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972.