Li'l Wayne vs. W.E.B. Dubois
This week, a Hampton University dean banned its MBA students from wearing dreadlocks and cornrows. In an era of stark individualism, where anything can be said, worn or done, it’s refreshing for a university to set standards.
Dreadlocks and cornrows have become staple hairstyles particularly among millennials. Hampton University’s hair lockout will undoubtedly pit ole’ school traditionalists against supposed wayward youth. But the politics of hair involve more than just conflicts between generations. This is about who gets to shape professionalism, gender and race.
In his magnum opus, Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Dubois penned “How does it feel to be a problem?” Dubois believed he needed to see himself through the tinted glasses of racism as a Black man. He also found a need to see himself as American - the conflict of double consciousness.
Wearing dreadlocks or cornrows can be at odds with the assumptions of being American. I know this all too well. Unfortunately, police set the ticket price for proudly wearing my locks that ran down my back like rainwater. At least in New Orleans, black and white people recognized my hair as part of the thug’s uniform. I saw it as being me.
Institutions of higher learning see people as potential scholars regardless of hairstyle. Particularly at liberal arts institutions, hair should be considered a choice of individual expression. However, I believe that most who wear dreadlocks or cornrows are no more conscious of what they project or how they’re perceived than those who see it as thuggery. Many who wear dreadlocks are more likely to quote Lil Wayne than Dubois.
In trying to understand what it means to be black and American, too many find comfort in the superficial. Whether it’s the length of our hair or what the Notorious B.I.G. affectionately called "money, hoes, and clothes,” blackness has become more about style than about community.
This is why historically black universities share a role in redefining what it means to be an intellectual as a black American. Clearly, there’s a danger in encouraging self-hate or assimilationism. This is the case for many public schools that enforce harebrained uniform policies that are detached from their racialized social contexts. For these schools, to be a scholar is to have short hair and a Midwestern accent. Many schools don’t understand how hair can be used to develop cultural understanding and academic growth.
However, as a higher education administrator, I see how students matriculate in colleges as if they were banks or supermarkets. Students enroll, get products they assume they need and then leave. Undergrads and grad students are seeing less of themselves as a part of a community, even less, part of a legacy. Community and legacy require standards.
There’s enough diversity among our historically black colleges that a few can set seemingly superficial standards of what it means to be a scholar. Bans on hair won’t make people any blacker or smarter, but university policies should get us to think deeply about what is and what is not acceptable in becoming better human beings.