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.

Advertisements

Land of the Lost

A couple of weekends ago a friend and I saw Will Ferrell’s new movie Land of the Lost, which is based upon Sid and Marty Krofft’s classic Saturday morning TV series in the 1970s.  The movie hit all of the right notes: it paid the appropriate amount of homage to its source material and contained enough wry self-mockery to keep the viewer from getting too nostalgic for the days when dinosaurs, obese black kids, and talking Great Danes were about as raunchy as cartoon fare got.  The capstone of the cinematic experience was, of course, Will Ferrell, whose reverence for and mastery of physical comedy makes him an indisputable heir to such legendary comedians as Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and Don Knotts.  Indeed, Ferrell’s gleeful willingness to use his flabby, pasty, middle-aged body as his central prop was a welcome reminder that human actors will always be superior to their CGI counterparts, no matter how amazingly life-like the latter may be.

The premise of the film is simple: disgraced scientist Ferrell and his companions are stranded accidentally in a place where time has no meaning and where creatures and artifacts from other eras and planets are dumped as casually as a fast food wrapper.  Our heroes must then survive the myriad of perils confronting them in this “land of the lost” and find a way to return home, restore their reputations, and make a fortune through self-promotion.  I laughed.   I cried.   I wondered if a world like the Land of the Lost could actually exist.  It did not take me long to realize that this alien dimension was, in fact, quite real.   We know it, however, by a different name: Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Now before fire and brimstone begin to rain down upon my head—and I assure you, Dear Reader, that it will—let me make a few things clear.   First, my parents and nearly all of my siblings graduated from HBCUs, as have many of my closest friends and most valued colleagues.  I began my academic career at one of the most respected HBCUs in the country.  And I have spent most of my professional life working on behalf of HBCUs by helping secure the financial, human, and intellectual resources they need to achieve their collective mission of providing education and opportunity to a population whose needs and potential have been ignored and underserved by majority institutions of higher learning.  Indeed, it is my wide experience with HBCUs that gives me the confidence to say that they embody some of the signature traits of the Land of the Lost.

For instance, the Land of the Lost is ruled by a cantankerous dinosaur, a Tyrannosaurus rex nicknamed “Grumpy”.  Likewise, many HBCUs are governed by “tyrant kings”—presidents whose philosophies and leadership styles are tragically out of step with the needs and responsibilities of the modern university.  They foster cults of personality (theirs), eschew transparency of process, and stifle debate and the free exchange of ideas among the faculty.

And what of the faculty?  They are the Sleestak, the lizard-like humanoids who inhabit the Land of the Lost.   Like the Sleestak, which are confined primarily to their subterranean realm, HBCU faculty members are prisoners of crushing teaching loads and the demands of innumerable departmental and university committees.  Rarely are they able to escape these duties and engage in the research and scholarship from which new knowledge flows.

That leaves the students at HBCUs and the prickliest analogy of all.  They are the Pakuni, the primitive, ape-like creatures who resemble human ancestors. I do not nor would I ever suggest that HBCU students—or any students, for that matter—are apes.  For me, the Pakuni represent innocence and potential.  When exposed to the right opportunities at the right moments, the Pakuni demonstrate the capacity to learn, adapt, and excel beyond what would normally be expected of them.  By and large, such has been my experience teaching and working with students at HBCUs.  However, they have also exhibited some of the less favorable traits of the Pakuni: a profound reluctance to defy group (or parental) expectations, a suspicion of new ideas that challenge established systems of belief, and a selfishness that is too often promoted and rewarded by society.

Brighter minds than mine have debated whether HBCUs still have a role to play in our “post-racial” society.  Both sides have made compelling arguments; and I doubt that I could add much.  I do believe that HBCUs should compete in the modern educational marketplace.  However, these institutions can no longer rely solely upon their historical and moral mission to survive in the twenty-first century.  HBCUs must embrace the best practices in leadership and governance, institutional advancement, faculty development, and student retention.  They must be relentlessly creative in making education relevant and continue to be a fearless advocate for those whom society would consign to the abyss of hopelessness.

If HBCUs fail in these vital tasks, they will be trapped forever in a time-warp.  And they would deserve to be.