(The Root) — When I hit the campus of Hampton University as a senior in the fall of 2007, I had one thing on my mind: Free the Jena Six.
The Iraq War made me pay attention, Hurricane Katrina angered me, the murder of Sean Bell left me disillusioned, but when I heard the story of the six young black men facing years in prison for what amounted to a schoolyard fight, I decided that it was time to get off the sidelines.
I spent that entire summer getting involved in the online activism that pushed the case to national prominence. I would be entering school that fall as the editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper, the Hampton Script, and I let it be known that my number one objective was to be an advocate for those teens from Jena, La. The summer was long and lonely, but I knew that when I got to school, I'd have the support of one of the nation's oldest and most celebrated HBCUs.
It didn't exactly work out that way.
Most of my peers were on the same page I was, and none of us anticipated the resistance we would face from Hampton's administration. At the same time that I was being denied access to funds to sponsor a trip for students to participate in the rally being held in Louisiana, the fraternities looking to host a rally and forum on campus met with a frustrating runaround.
Initially the on-campus rally was approved. No less than a day later, the organizers were told no. Finally they were given a different time from the original plan — a slot when fewer students would be available to attend.
The reasoning given for the rescheduled rally was that there was a pep rally for the football team taking place that same day and time. But when we at the newspaper looked into it, we realized that the pep rally had never appeared on any of the student-activity calendars, and the football coach informed us that they would never agree to a pep rally on the day of the game because it would interfere with their pregame scheduling. Our administration had lied to us.
The administration likely maintains to this day that it was all a misunderstanding, but from where my classmates and I sat, it felt as if they didn't want us getting involved in any form of activism — at least, not with anything that could be seen as controversial or "radical." And when I look back at our experiences over the four years there, that seems pretty consistent with the administration's views.
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.