No Purses, No Dresses, No Justice, No Peace

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DSC01287Y’all might remember that a few days back, I gave you a link to a piece by a brother named Frank Leon Roberts, who broke the news about Morehouse College’s new dress code for the young black men who attend the school. I have to admit, my first thought about the dress code was, “It’s about time!”

Let me defend myself: I grew up when the Negroes wore belts around their pants and you couldn’t see their drawers. Also, Negroes did not holler at me (or other women) out of the windows of moving cars, “Ay! Ay Shorty!” Which, by the way, is a complete turn-on for me. If you want to get next to me, please buy me a gold necklace with a big old “Shorty” charm hanging on it.

To some folks, my issue with the sagging pants is viewed as classism. Ok, I’m guilty, but I’m not the kind of classist you think. I’m definitely not a member of the Talented Tenth, one of those figures out of the Dubois essay, that will only associate with those belonging to a particular class (which would be upper class).

What I am is a sister who only associates with people who possess class, meaning those people who possess home training.

For example, if your grandmama pinched you or even just gave you the side-eye when you were acting a fool in church—that’s home training or class. Teaching your kids to say “please” and “thank you”—also, home training or class. Pulling up your pants so I can’t see your [insert expletive adjective] drawers–well, you know the rest.

So naturally, I assumed the whole dress code was about belatedly trying to teach home training to the young men who attend Morehouse. And until I read the actual code, I was willing to let Freedom of Speech rights slide, because I attended Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University) back when the brothers at Morehouse carried brief cases. My two sisters and my mother are graduates of Spelman College, Morehouse’s sister school, and my father taught at Morehouse under the revered B.E. Mays. Morehouse Men once represented the pinnacle of respectable black manhood to me.

Then, when I read the code, I saw that the young men at Morehouse are prohibited from the “wearing of clothing associated with women’s garb (dresses, tops, tunics, purses, pumps, etc.) on the Morehouse campus or at College-sponsored events.” I sat there in front of the computer for almost fifteen minutes, sort of confused, until I got it. This was a prohibition against gay and transgendered students at the school, in other words, “male gender” students must now stop wearing “female gender” clothing, and start acting like “real men.” Read: they have to start acting like straight men.

Uh-oh. Y’all know how I feel about the disorder called The Black Homophobia, “TBH” for short. It’s just wrong. But before I start to rip into TBH at Morehouse College–and you know it’s coming– let’s deal first with the rest of the dress code.

Some, including Roberts, have argued that Dr. Robert Franklin, the president of Morehouse, is attempting to regulate on “ghetto style” with this dress code, prohibiting sagging pants and gold grills and such. Now, I have no doubt that there’s some Talented Tenth classism at work with the dress code. Morehouse is one of the birthplaces of the Black Bourgeoisie–or just “bourgie Negroes” for short.

But those sagging pants that everybody’s defending so vocally originally come from “jail style,” not “ghetto style.” This is another reason why Franklin and other older black folks have such a problem with them, aside from the whole I-can-see-your-drawers issue. Because to older black people, playing about being on the chain gang ain’t no joke, considering the devastation young black men used to and still do encounter at the hands of the criminal justice system.

My mother grew up in central Georgia during a time when they would trump up charges on a brother–usually for something you couldn’t put your finger on like “vagrancy”–and then send him to jail so they could use him as labor for white plantation bosses. They didn’t care if they worked you to death or not, because they’d just do the same thing to a new brother.

So, cut the old black folks–particularly those who live in or come from the Deep South– some slack about their Fear of a Sagging Planet.

And while I don’t think we should be criticizing the insides of these young men because of the way they look on their outsides, I do wish we could be realistic as well about the fact that, while you can pull up your pants and buy a belt–or not–if you weld gold onto your teeth, that’s a permanent situation right there. So you won’t be getting a job in anybody’s law firm or going to anyone’s medical school, and you won’t be able to pay off your student loans.

Now, that said, onto The Black Homophobia.

I would agree with Roberts that Morehouse College is trying to regulate on “gay style,” too, and that is what is what’s so disturbing about the dress code. Essentially, this dress code represents what’s called the “bait and switch.” It happens all the time, whether it’s in families or the community, or even a particular country, where the attack of something on the surface allows for the attack of something else, underneath. For example, remember that whole “Weapons of Mass Destruction” thing-y? That was a classic bait and switch.

In the case of the dress code, the “bait” is good home training or class. The “switch” is that good home training or class must come at the expense of black gay men’s acceptance into the community.

But perhaps Dr. Franklin feels that he needs to “start from the ground up” in building good black men. I agree completely.

Now let’s begin with some training about acceptance and tolerance of gay people in the black community, and black men who attend Morehouse College in particular. Because there are stories about young black men who tried to live, either privately or openly as gay men on that campus, and were so hounded that they dropped out or transferred, like Jafari Sinclaire Allen, a friend of the blogger Tayari Jones. Worse is the violence, which happened seven years ago, when a young man was beaten severely with a baseball bat at Morehouse because he was suspected of being gay.

Further, let’s teach our young black men how to reject the old, tired scripts for black masculinity. You know what I mean, the ways that older brothers teach younger brothers how to “act like real men.” These scripts deny black men the ability to talk with black women and with each each in a real way, or even, to simply show their feelings openly–except when it’s through violence.

How many times have you been in the grocery store, or at a picnic–anywhere–and heard a black father tell his five or six-year-old weeping son, “Stop all that. Men don’t cry”? But what’s even sadder, many times black mothers pass these same scripts along to their sons, too.

Now what I found surprising about the first Roberts essay, and now the second, is that he didn’t touch—I mean with a fingernail—the issue of sexual violence towards women that has been an ongoing problem at the school, and which is equally as concerning as TBH. Because we need to stop thinking that we can compartmentalize different forms of intolerance and violence. A hate crime toward a gay man and a rape of a woman are simply two branches of the same stunted, hateful tree.

In all fairness to Roberts, maybe he just hasn’t heard about the yearly sexual assaults that take place—allegedly—involving Morehouse College students (as perpetrators) and female students (as victims) from Spelman and other colleges in the Atlanta University Center.

That doesn’t mean sexual assault is not a problem at mainstream schools, but if Morehouse wants to set the tone for black manhood in our community, Dr. Franklin needs to begin a program aimed at eliminating sexual assault on the campus of The House, because when I was a student at Clark, I knew never to go over to Morehouse after dark without a herd of young women accompanying me. I’d been told by other young women (who had been told by other young women and so on) that if I left the herd and ventured alone to somebody’s room on Morehouse’s campus, the guy in that room might rape me. And then, he might go out in the hallway and issue a call-to-action to the guys on his floor. We heard stories about that all the time, back in the day.

(Snoop Dogg even made a song about gang rape: “It Ain’t No Fun If the Homies Can’t have None.” Talk about somebody not being raised with home training. That brother is Exhibit A.)

In order to help him with putting forth a new vision of Morehouse manhood, Dr. Franklin could hire some progressive brothers as professors and support staff at the school. There are more than a handful of these men—full of energy and imagination and humanity—who would love to work at the school. And he could bring in progressive speakers as well.

For people who want to say, speakers cost money, and professors cost money, and historically black colleges and universities are having a hard time financially right now–let me ask you, have you ever looked in the Chronicle of Higher Education and read about the huge amounts of money those administrators make at Morehouse College, as opposed to the pitiful salaries of the professors and support staff? You need to. It will blow your mind this time, and the next one, too.

And, on a for-real tip, have you ever been to homecoming at Morehouse? I’m not sure they spend more money on the coronation of a Queen of England than they spend on the coronation of Miss Maroon and White every year at Morehouse. We educated black folks love our pomp and circumstance and sparkled, color-themed formal balls, don’t we?

I could give Morehouse an entire roll call of good brothers and believe me, Dr. Franklin could find the money to pay them, if he really want to make it a priority. And, by the way, if you never met a black male womanist or feminist, just give me a holler, and I will pull your coat. Let’s start with my brother-friend, the literary scholar and poet, Herman Beavers.

Surely, if I thought a dress code would help to teach progressive scripts for black masculinity, I’d be all over it, freedom of speech notwithstanding. (I don’t care what you say, I can’t wait until the underwear show is over.)

But if we want to burn those scripts, and start writing new ones from scratch, the first thing we need to do is stop confusing the issue of fashion with deeper, underlying problems with our young men and our community at large.

The second thing is, let’s talk about what those scripts are.

The third thing–and listen very closely to what I’m saying–is that while we’re talking about the “classism” of the dress code, let’s not display classism in the way the conversation is taking place.

Let’s have this conversation about black masculine scripts–and how these scripts generate homophobia, and sexism, and rape and other forms of violence– in plain language so that not only the young men who attend Morehouse can understand the conversation, but also,the brothers hanging on the corner can understand as well, because it’s going to take all black men to work this thing out, not just the Talented Tenth.

But in addition to giving my own opinion on this issue and being honest about my criticisms of Roberts’s two essays, I’m repeating the praiseworthy points he made, because I think when you hear something wise by a brother (or sister), even if you don’t agree with everything said, still you need to pass the wisdom on–and on and on and on. And also, I’m passing it on because things are getting crucial up here in this community, and that is not an exaggeration. Please excuse my vernacular, but they done been crucial.

Just like back in slavery, when someone used to give a friend directions to the Underground Railroad, I’m telling you now: It’s late at night and we don’t have much time. Tie your fatback and cornbread up in a handkerchief–and let’s get to moving up the road.

0 thoughts on “No Purses, No Dresses, No Justice, No Peace

  1. Great commentary. I especially like the way you highlighted the ongoing issues of sexism, homophobia and importantly sexual violence. As an alum of morehouse and you of the AUC we both know these are not simply new issues, but long standing ones that we must grapple with. Thanks for speaking honestly and powerfully. Let’s get moving on the underground railroad!!!

  2. Good blog as usual.

    I want to say–borrowing the language from another article I read on this topic–Morehouse’s newly revised (and let it be known: I believe this code has always been in place, it’s just that now it’s revised and being more strictly enforced) dress code is less homophobic as it is “femiphobic.” Although, certainly, the two are heavily related, and perhaps you can say more often the latter stems from the former, they aren’t exactly identical. We may look to Morehouse to see the difference: most recently, they fired an employed who sent “homophobic” emails. This is an attempt, it would seem, to combat and end the school’s own history in regard to homophobia. With this move, it’s as if someone’s saying: “Okay, you can be gay. . .” but there’s a catch “. . . if you dress this way.” It’s less about, it would seem, being gay, as it is about certain gender presentation (“women garb”).

    I would also like to touch on the sagging-pants. Personally, I’m not a sagger. Or not much anyway. My pants sit comfortably on my hips (but this to my grandmother is still not appropriate: they should be at the waist). I’m always on the line with this issue: I understand, on the side, the need to be dressed properly; but I also understand, on the other side, that this ‘need’ does stem from white hegemonic understandings of proper dress. I also understand sagging’s history with jail, and I think, Honoree, you do a good job of explaining how many (older) black people would take offense to this (seemingly) bold celebration of “jail culture.”

    There is yet another component to this, I think, and it may even root back to your idea of TBH (The Black Homophobia) in two ways: one, I know at least for me, I can’t help but to sometimes be attracted to man sagging, and I mean, therefore, his revealed butt. To me, it’s seems similar to woman’s cleavage (which does nothing for me): it’s that part of the body that’s objectified. I’m not celebrating this. I’m just saying: I wonder if this is one reason why sagging is strictly prohibited: in an effort to dismiss/disrupt the (potential) homoerotic gaze.

    Moreover, the second reason, if we do go back to jail where it has been said sagging originates, we will find (at least I have found) a history that shows that men who sagged in prison did so as to show their “sexual availability.” There’s a definite homo- erotic and -sexual component here, which we are quick to want to erase/cover: “Pick up those pants!” I hear one saying, but you tell me if it’s too much to suggest that beneath that one can’t also hear: “Don’t be showing off your butt like a sissy!”

    Thank you for this blog.

  3. As a graduating senior of Spelman College, this is an ongoing issue within the AUC. I remember when the ban on leggings started at Morehouse College, and I must say that you definitely highlighted some major points concerning tolerance for gay men and the LGBT community. Now in 2014, the LGBT community has actually spoken up about acceptance of the gay community for all three campuses. I also think that your point on home training is something that is expected at the prestigious Atlanta University Center, however, self-respect is something deeper on the level of African American communities in general. Many students come to these institutions expecting to be home trained and unfortunately paying 40k will not buy you class.

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