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Morehouse Model Creates Stir, Debate

Shantella Y. Sherman | 11/4/2009, 6:14 p.m.

When Morehouse College President Robert M. Franklin announced the school€s new €Appropriate Attire Policy€ in October, he opened up a Pandora€s Box concerning the parameters of Black self-expression. The private, all-male historically Black college in Atlanta, Ga., has banned tooth art or grills, earrings, do-rags and sagging trousers on the sprawling 61-acre campus. The policy also prohibits plaited hair, dreadlocks and women€s attire.

Morehouse College, founded in 1867, prides itself on creating €Renaissance Men.€ The administration expressed concern that many of the conservative policies, far more relaxed since the 1990s, had led to a student body that resembled media stereotypes of failure and degradation. In the age of Obama, Franklin said, those policies needed to be re-established and enforced.

€The attire policy is only one element of a comprehensive student development program that not only outlines appropriate on-campus dress, but also challenges students to discuss the balance between individual expression and social responsibility,€ Franklin said in a statement to clarify the school€s position. This is an ageless debate that calls each generation to discuss, discern and formulate solutions that work for their time and their circumstances,€ he said.

Franklin, 55, said that the policy change was the result of more than two years of discussions on aligning student development with the College€s historical mission of producing educated and ethical leaders who are well-read, well-spoken, well-traveled, well-dressed and well-balanced.

Irv Randolph, managing editor of the Philadelphia Tribune, the nation€s oldest African American newspaper, said that the return to a more conservative dress policy at Morehouse is part of a larger reality check needed among African Americans.

€Young men will be entering the work force and will need to know that this is unacceptable. Job recruiters are on campuses at any given time. They see men poorly dressed and they will make some type of judgment about that and those young men as individuals, but also those types of men coming from that college. Standards have been relaxed so much that it is necessary,€ Randolph, 51, said.

Like Morehouse, the Tribune is representative of an institution whose centuries-old legacy is predicated upon racial uplift. The two also share similar dress policies that include: no jeans, shorts or earrings for men, and mandates jackets and ties. Randolph said that the policies long preceded his tenure at the 125-year-old paper and were designed to engender a sense of legitimacy in the industry.

€Our community has always had different standards of dress because we had to show that we were credible. Our White counterparts didn€t have to prove themselves in this way. We are dealing with stereotypes and we would be naive to believe that, in the broader society, Black-owned or Black-operated institutions €" whether they be colleges or newspapers, are not believed to be €less than€. We can€t go and give folks ammunition by presenting a poor image of ourselves,€ Randolph said.

One of the most hotly debated issues regarding the Morehouse attire policy is the prohibition of female attire among their male students. The ban includes clothing, as well as accessories such as purses and pumps. Viewed as an affront to positive relations between Morehouse and the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) communities, some accuse the college of using the items outlined in the new policy to smoke screen a homophobic stance.

Support from the GLBT communities across the nation has been generous. Nathaniel Davis, a senior at Columbia College in Chicago, Ill., said that he is baffled by Morehouse€s directive and is pleased that so many people across the country are taking a closer look at the policy.

€I would have bucked that. Students are paying to go to colleges and universities whose creeds speak of embracing the beauty of themselves, but in the process, Morehouse in talking specifically about Black men, are trying to define what a black man is,€ Davis said.

€ If a boy wants to go to class €whipped€ and go to class with a dress on, so long as he is getting the grades, there should be no problem. At a collegiate level, exploration of identity, including sexuality, is a rite of passage,€ Davis said.

For Davis, 23, being an openly gay Black man who cross dresses, means having the option from one day to the next of dressing either in men€s or women€s clothing. The Omaha, Neb., native said that he has been fortunate that his academic career has led him to universities that embraced his choices. However, he is concerned that other colleges and universities are attaching clothing styles to their codes of conduct.

€Your representation should be your grades, how you are doing as you matriculate, but I think it is ingrained in our [Black] culture for us to be homophobic. Listen to our music, our messages and it is very clear: stay in the closet,€ Davis said.

€Among the people Morehouse lists as great alum are loads of homosexual men who did not have the freedom to express themselves among their own people. The older generation is losing their control and looking at us like we are screwing up the nation. I am not the stereotypical Black man. We need to examine all of us, all Black people,€ he said.

Franklin and the Morehouse administration insist that the policies have nothing to do with the sexual orientation of their students.

€Since the policy was released, a lot of attention has centered on the standard that prohibits men from wearing women€s clothing on campus. Some critics have concluded that Morehouse seeks to discriminate against certain groups of students, specifically gay, transgendered and bisexual men. This is not our intent,€ Franklin said.

€In fact, we have worked diligently to ensure that Morehouse is a safe, inclusive and respectful community with a strong commitment to social justice, diversity and respectful tolerance,€ the university president said.

Hampton University has since instituted an appropriate attire policy, which also encourages its graduate business students with locs or braids to cut their hair. Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., has adopted a policy comparable to Morehouse€s.

€Young African American men in particular need a reality check. With a recession and unemployment the way it is €" particularly among young Black men who have these high unemployment rates €" someone has to make them competitive. The reality is that people make snap judgments about others based on their appearance, dress and speech,€ Randolph said.