Black Girls in Durham, NC, School Denied Right to Honor African Heritage

What began as a celebration of Black History Month in Durham through the wearing of African head wraps is now a protest over expression.

Students in Durham, N.C., proudly don their African geles.   
Students in Durham, N.C., proudly don their African geles.    Jamaica Gilmer

It started as a collective expression of pride. A group of young women at the School for Creative Studies in Durham, N.C., decided to wear head wraps—also called geles—to align with and honor their culture at the start of Black History Month.

Instead, they say, administrators warned that they were in violation of the dress code and threatened them with suspension. They were given the choice to wear the geles only in a way that allowed their hair to show or to remove them altogether. According to the policy, “hats, caps, hoods, sweat bands and bandannas or other head wear worn inside [the] school building” are impermissible, but it details nothing about garments worn in accordance with cultural tradition.

“It says to me symbolically that our girls—and our boys, as well—have to alter not only their attire but their whole selves in order to seem less disruptive or offensive,” said Dosali Reed-Bandele. Her daughter Nandi, an 11th-grader at the school, was among those admonished. “This is utterly ridiculous, and I am tired of those messages bombarding our babies day in and day out.”

That the enforcement is falling heavy on this particular segment of students is part of the cycle of inequitable standards, a tradition in and of itself. The young women also say they were told that they were not being inclusive of other students at the school. Because, of course, being expressly proud of being black compromises the ability of others to be expressly proud of their variety of nonblack.

The bright spot: In the same glorious way that black women have always pushed back against the limitations and obstacles pressing in on them, those young women being told how to wear their blackness helped organize a mass demonstration Monday afternoon to rally community support. Clusters of protesters showed up wearing their own geles, calling for administrators to acknowledge the students’ right to honor their heritage. Particularly at a school focused on creative studies, that form of expression seems elementary, since cultural pride lies so close to the root of identity and self-perception.

Students and parents are encouraging supporters to stand in solidarity by posting pictures of themselves in their own geles with the hashtag #ItsBiggerThanaHeadwrap. They also invite fellow advocates to send letters of support for the girls and their right to wear head wraps and to demand an apology for being threatened with suspension.

We can’t continue to absorb messages—both subtle and overt—that attempt to keep black girls boxed in.

“I hope that my daughter and the other girls learn that you should not alter who you are to fit in or assimilate to society’s so-called standards, and that it’s perfectly on point to stand up for what you know is right,” said Reed-Bandele. “It is your birthright to be who the Creator made you to be.”