Morehouse Man In The Mirror

Now, if you’re blue
And you don’t know where to go to
Why don’t you go where fashion sits
Puttin’ on the Ritz
Different types who wear a daycoat
Pants with stripes and cutaway coat
Perfect fits
Puttin’ on the Ritz

Dressed up like a million dollar trooper
Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper
Super-duper

Come, let’s mix where Rockefellers
Walk with sticks or umberellas
In their mitts
Puttin’ on the Ritz

      — Irving Berlin, “Puttin’ On The Ritz”

Morehouse College, one of the flagship HBCUs in the country and the alma mater of generations of prominent African-American males, including Martin Luther King, recently conjured up some controversy by establishing a dress code on campus.  The new policy prohibits do-rags, hats, sunglasses, hoods or offensive clothing in class.   It also bans such items as “decorative orthodontic appliances” (A white female friend who is much more “Black” than I am tells me that these things are known, in the vernacular, as “grillz.”), pajamas, sagging pants, and bare feet.

However, the part of the policy that has drawn the most attention from the media — including a certain Philadelphia Negro — states “No wearing of clothing associated with women’s garb (dresses, tops, tunics, purses, pumps, etc.) on the Morehouse campus or at College-sponsored events.”

Some believe, and I think that they are correct, that this policy is a not-so-subtle attempt by the College administration to control homosexuality and transgender identification on campus.  Homosexuality is one of the most sensitive issues in the so-called Black community; and it is an open secret that Morehouse has a large population of gay men.  For the record, I do not believe that Morehouse is atypical in this regard.  College is (or should be) a place of experimentation and exploring boundaries.  If we expect intellectual awakenings on a college campus, why should we be surprised that sexual awakenings occur there, as well?  Given the generally conservative orientation of Black society, the freedom of expression generally associated with the college campus can be even more powerful for young Black men who do not define themselves — openly or otherwise — as heterosexual. 

By choosing to implement a dress code that at least appears to target a specific population of the College community, Morehouse is treading on difficult ground: the fault line between individual expression expected in an academic setting and the culture of conformity — including the “rules” of what it means to be a Black man.   Though I have certainly ranted against the extreme informality of undergraduate dress and — in my angrier moods — have even advocated a dress code, I find that ultimately, I cannot support this kind of regulation.   While being a “Morehouse man” does carry a certain mystique — in more ways than some would care to admit — attending Morehouse is not, or should not be, like joining the military.   The latter needs to engender conformity in order to prepare its members to undertake the serious business of killing people.   (The armed services can talk all they wish about education and training opportunities; but the bottom line is that they train people to inflict harm upon our enemies as quickly and efficiently as possible.)   Like other institutions of higher learning, Morehouse should encourage the creativity and diversity of its students — even if it means that a few of them look rather stunning in a nice frock.    

Each day I am more conscious of the fact that I am from a different time than the one I share with my students.  I wear button-downs and khakis, and whistle Mozart and Cole Porter.  I voted for Ronald Reagan.  The Establishment works for me.  I like it.   Would I prefer more “conservative” apparel on campus?   Yes.   But fighting for this is a waste of powder.   Morehouse would be wise to invest its resources in the development of young men of character and not the regulation of cravats.    

Ultimately, the late Bart Giamatti said it best when he chose to call his book about the purpose of the university Free and Ordered Spaces.   He believed that on a college campus (and everywhere else), freedom should not be subordinate to intolerance disguised as discipline.   He was right.

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Little Barry Gets A Gold Star

That ain’t workin’, that’s the way you do it

Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free

Now that ain’t workin’, that’s the way you do it

Lemme tell ya, them guys ain’t dumb

Maybe get a blister on your little finger

Maybe get a blister on your thumb

— Dire Straits, “Money For Nothing”

I would like to thank the Nobel Committee for forcing me out of my long hiatus from my duties as a blogger.  I could not have imagined a greater gift that its decision to award the 2009 Nobel Prize for Peace to President Barack Obama.  H. L. Mencken is most assuredly spinning in his grave.

I must have missed something in the last nine months of the Obama presidency.  Have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended?  Have the Israelis and Palestinians committed themselves to peaceful coexistence?  Have Iran and North Korea given up their ambitions to become (overtly, at least) nuclear states?  Has the genocide in Darfur ceased?  No?  Then why did Obama win what is arguably the most important and recognizable prize in the world?

My liberal friends and other Obama sycophants insist that the President’s actual achievements in the area of world peace are far less important than his potential to do good.  (I wish I could get my credit card company to accept that logic: surely my potential to pay my bill means more to them than getting a silly check from me every month.)

Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I was under the impression that the Nobel Prize was awarded to people who had actually done something in the area for which they were being recognized.  Some of Obama’s predecessors in the Oval Office have amassed an impressive record for peace–and they did not get the Nobel Prize for their efforts.  For instance, Jimmy Carter brought Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin to the negotiating table. (Sadat and Begin won the 1978 Prize.  Carter eventually won the Prize in 2002.)  Ronald Reagan restarted nuclear disarmament negotiations with the Soviets and pushed Mikhail Gorbachev to unleash democracy in the former Soviet Union and its satellites.  (Gorbachev won the 1990 Prize.)  Bill Clinton hammered out peace in Northern Ireland and got Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin to shake hands on the White House lawn.  (Arafat, Rabin, and Shimon Peres won the 1994 Prize.  Bill is, I am sure, actively campaigning to get the Prize before Hillary does.)  Even Presidential also-ran Al Gore managed to finally win something: the 2007 Prize.

To be sure, achieving peace anywhere in the world–or even down the block–is an elusive and frustrating goal; and prior Administrations could not and did not accomplish everything that they might have desired.  And President Obama faces challenges that his predecessors could not have imagined in their worst nightmares of global Armageddon.  Be that as it may, he has not yet met what should be a very high standard to join such exclusive company.

Awarding Obama the Nobel Prize for his potential as a peacemaker is disturbingly similar to the current practice of giving children prizes, certificates, etc. for just about anything that they do.  (I mean, how ridiculous is kindergarten graduation?)  Greater minds than mine have proposed that this ready availability of praise cheapens its value and creates an expectation that merely showing up merits getting an award.  Hard work, sacrifice, and determination are dismissed as unnecessary or even foolish.  Obama, of course, could not have achieved such amazing success before reaching age 50 had he subscribed to this point of view.  But accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace now ironically contradicts the amazing and (I admit) inspiring narrative of his life.

President Obama should do the right thing and refuse the Nobel Prize for Peace.  I am pretty sure that he will get another crack at it.