On Hampton’s Hair Rules

A years-old cornrow-and-dreadlock ban highlights a culture mired in the "politics of respectability."


Which is why it surprises me every time someone is outraged to find out that Hampton’s business school has a long-standing policy against Afros, braids and dreadlock styles. (The dean recently offered this as a reason for the rule: “When was it that cornrows and dreadlocks were a 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.”) People are shocked to hear that it’s a dry campus where freshmen face a dorm curfew for their first few months.

Hampton, like many other HBCUs, is a bastion of conservatism.

It’s not political conservatism, though Hampton’s president, William R. Harvey, is a big-business Republican; it’s lowercase-c conservative. The administrations at HBCUs often view college not as a place for discovery, experimentation or the fostering of new ideas but as a stepping-stone to a good job with benefits. Their role isn’t to rage against the machine but to train the next generation of the talented tenth on how to become integral parts of the machine.

They are lifelong devotees to the politics of respectability, rooted neither in reality nor present-day concerns. Whether it’s Hampton’s policy on hair or Morehouse’s dress code banning sagging pants and “women’s clothing,” the goal of these rules is noble, if misguided.

These schools still see their role as producing the best and the brightest of black America, those who can go out into the world and defy the stereotypes and shift the country’s ideas about black folks until all the barriers to our success come down. What they don’t understand is, not only is this a different era from when that ideology held currency, but what we should have learned by now is that no amount of clean-cut respectability can rescue us from racism.

I love Hampton, and I wouldn’t trade my time there for anything. The events that followed the Jena Six dustup taught me important lessons about the power of words and solidified my desire to become a writer. More important, they taught me just how far we have to go. As the Class of 2016 prepares to invade campuses across the country, I hope that those attending HBCUs will recognize that in addition to getting a degree, their job is to continue to challenge these institutions and help move their thinking forward.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental-health advocate. Follow him on Twitter.

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