Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Morehouse Mean Girls

I'll admit that I hesitated, more than once-- more than a dozen times, to be honest-- before posting this entry. So, allow me a few caveats here at the start. First, I'm not a Morehouse grad, not even a Spelman grad-- two of the most prestigious HBCU's in the country-- and I can appreciate that the real alumni of those institutions might not take kindly to my weighing in on their business. Second, I am well aware that the vicissitudes of gender-construction often operate differently in different racial communities... though, for all that, I am still convinced that injustice and intolerance is injustice and intolerance, regardless of the context in which it is made real. Third, the fact that I can voice my criticisms below is, without a doubt, a privilege of which I am aware and which I know not everyone enjoys. Finally, and most importantly, some of my closest friends are Morehouse men, ergo there can't possibly be anything misguided or nefarious or uninformed in my remarks below.

(That last one was a joke. C'mon, people.)

You may remember that about this time last year there was a massive brouhaha at Morehouse over the administration's decision to institute a new dress code. As I think most people would admit, most of the details of that dress code were largely non-objectionable-- for example, "no wearing pajamas to class"-- but there were a couple of guidelines that came under immediate criticism. In particular, the prosciption of "grillz," "saggy pants" and "do-rags" caused many to question whether or not Morehouse was imposing a kind of generation-specific image on its undergraduates at the expense of their freedom to express themselves in many of the styles and fashions that define young, black men in the United States. I won't comment on these specific elements of Morehouse's dress code, partly because I don't feel like it's my place, but more so because I can see both sides. I don't find grillz or saggy pants or do-rags offensive, nor do I assume that any young man sporting those fashions is necessarily disrespecting himself or the institutions he represents. But I can appreciate that Morehouse wants to cultivate a particular kind of image among its charges, and it is correct in assuming that most people in our culture would associate that look with the uneducated, or worse, the criminal. I don't have a dog in that fight, really.

There was another proscription in the Morehouse dress code, however, that does cause me real concern. It's Rule #9 and it reads as follows:
9. No wearing of clothing associated with women’s garb (dresses, tops, tunics, purses, pumps, etc.) on the Morehouse campus or at College-sponsored events.
There are many problems with the wording of this rule ("clothing associated with women's garb"?) as well as the sentiment behind it. I understand, of course, that Morehouse is the "College of choice for Black men" (emphasis added) and that, as such, it has an implicit investment in shaping the image of African-American men in this country. But, as has become painfully obvious, some of those Black men have different ideas about how that image should be fashioned.

The floodgates were unleashed recently when Aliya King published her exposé "The Mean Girls of Morehouse" in Vibe magazine. King's article recounted the story of gender-bending, cross-dressing, former-Morehouse-"man" Diamond Martin Poulin and, according to Morehouse administrators, "five students like him," who have been driven out of the college by its dress code. Maybe a salacious and provocative story on its face, but enough to warrant a reponse from the President of Morehouse College himself, Robert M. Franklin. I won't produce King's article or Franklin's response here in their entirety (because I've provided links), but let me sum up:

King's article is, as accused, salacious and provocative... but, presumably, it's at least true, based as it is in the real life of a Morehouse "man." Franklin's response, on the other hand, is an utter disgrace. It neither addresses the issue of Morehouse's institutional patriarchy and heteronormativity head-on, nor does it evidence whatsoever any sensitivity to (or real understanding of) what is at stake. It is, in the very worst sense, lip-service. Franklin's letter effectively says: "Because I believe in the freedom of press, Ms. King has the right to publish whatever she wants. But I will summarily dismiss it. And you, Morehouse men, should too."

Let me be clear, I am sympathetic with Franklin's appeal to the many and varied assaults on young black men's identity and well-being in this day and age. But the presence of one (or many) troubles is no excuse for ignoring another. It reminds me of the manner in which Congress decides to apportion funding for disease research every year: as Senators or Representatives, I know that they must decide to which causes they will lend their support. Maybe it's cancer, maybe it's HIV, maybe it's Alzheimers. Because there is only a limited amount of resources, they have to pick one over the others... but that doesn't make the others any less deadly. But Franklin's "moral" resources are not limited. Franklin does not have to pick one over the other. One ought not pit the dying against the dying.

And so, in this one case, I say: Shame on you, Morehouse. I hope that Morehouse men, whatever they choose to wear, will remember that they have been trained, according to their alma mater, to become "the epicenter of ethical leadership."

It's time to man up. Pun intended.

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