Morehouse Men in their Sunday Best

I read an interesting story about my alma mater Morehouse College over the weekend. Gayle White of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution reported on institutional efforts to secure the aesthetic image of a “Morehouse Man.”

Recently inaugurated Morehouse President Robert Franklin, a nationally renowned Christian social ethicist, now requires all incoming freshmen own and wear blazers with the Morehouse insignia, and has prohibited sagging jeans, flip flops and the wearing of hats inside buildings. Franklin says that his decision stems, in part, from a desire to make being smart cool again while bringing morality back to the forefront of the college’s mission. His charge to last year’s class of entering freshmen was, “Look the part. Act the part. Talk the talk and walk the walk.”

As someone who prefers suits, ties and wingtips over t-shirts, jeans and sneakers, I am admittedly ambivalent at best and frightened at worst about this renewed emphasis on aesthetics.

For one, I thought Morehouse was supposed to be a premier institution of higher education for black men in America. Along with its prominent alumni, this is the institution that produced three Rhodes Scholars in less than a decade. If this is the case, why are school officials worried about an “almost thuglike orientation in dress, speech and social behavior.”

Have standards of admission dropped? If Morehouse is admitting gangbangers and convicts, then blazers are the least of President Franklin’s worries. On the other hand, might it just be that there are high school valedictorians and potential Rhodes Scholars that simply like wearing doo-rags and saggy jeans at the age of 19? Maybe we should remind ourselves of what President-elect Barack Obama was doing at that age….sniff, sniff.

Second, would baggy jeans or foul language be an issue on the campus of Georgia Tech? Bates College? Princeton University? More importantly, would this story have even been investigated and written. Sadly, this whole issue seems to have less to do with intelligence and more with what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham refers to as a politics of racial respectability in her book Righteous Discontent.

Higginbotham coined this phrase to describe the strategy of social reform adopted by the women’s movement in the black Baptist church in the opening decades of the twentieth century. These women embraced Victorian ideals of morality, sobriety and outward appearance as a religious-political ethic of self-help. Such a strategy of racial respectability enabled black women to counter racist images of African Americans in the dominant imagination while condemning what they perceived as the immoral manners of the black poor. Hence, in effect, though surely not in intent, this form of racial politics concedes and conforms to structural racism while exacerbating intraracial classism.

This is the main reason I am so uncomfortable with respectability discourse, particularly when it comes to higher education. We must teach emerging leaders that there is a stark difference between respectability and morality, just as we should never confuse preppiness for critical aptitude. Having spent almost a decade around some of the best minds in the Ivy League, I know first hand that few could be accused of sartorial splendor or linguistic temperance. And while there are some who may argue that black men are judged by a different standard, this does not mean that we should institutionalize flawed cultural logic.

The goal of higher learning is to promote intellectual flourishing and creativity, not professional provincialism and class-based pretentiousness. The last I checked, dear ol’ Morehouse was better than that. And I am know for a fact that Robert Franklin’s brilliance is far superior to a pedagogical approach worthy of the 19th century Freedman’s Bureau.

As the hymn-writer penned, “we’ve come too far. Oh, can’t turn around.”

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