Morehouse President Robert Franklin, who was named president last year, instituted the practice of giving every freshman a tie and a blazer in the college’s primary color, maroon, as a tangible symbol of the image of a gentleman in higher education.
Morehouse is one of several historically black colleges taking action recently to improve dress on campus. Overt dissent on the Morehouse campus has been minimal, but a smattering of bloggers nationally have suggested that schools might be trying to take away students’ freedom of expression.
Profanity and exposed boxers are not exactly part of the stereotype of Morehouse, whose distinguished alumni have included actor Samuel Jackson, director Spike Lee, theologian Howard Thurman, Olympian Edwin Moses, former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan, current Morehouse President Franklin. And, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Sagging pants seem inconsequential in comparison, but dress and language help create the campus atmosphere, Franklin said.
“The fact is a significant percentage of our students arrive at Morehouse with a preppy orientation and understand the importance of presentation of themselves,” Franklin said. “Some of the students themselves are surprised to discover a small number of students who arrive with a different, almost thuglike, orientation in dress, speech and social behavior.”
Some students don’t seem to be aware of their language, said William Tweedle, director of Hubert Hall at Morehouse. “They don’t know they’re cursing. They don’t know they’re using the n-word the way they use it.”
Likewise, Tweedle said, “I understand that baggy pants and a certain level of sagging is part of culture, but showing your drawers, your underpants, is unacceptable.”
Tweedle and Franklin’s efforts predate the recent presidential election. But President-elect Barack Obama’s win has boosted the backlash against the sartorial and linguistic byproducts of the hip-hop culture.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, an activist, former presidential candidate and radio host, is among those taking note. Sharpton, long a critic of vulgar rap lyrics, recently told the Chicago Tribune, “You can’t be using the b-word, the n-word, the h-word when you have Barack Obama redefining overnight the image that black people want to have.”
“Obama Won; Now Pull Up Your Pants” was the headline on a post-election column by Justin M. LaGrande, lifestyle editor of The Gramblinite, the newspaper of the historically black Grambling State University in Louisiana. “Obama isn’t sagging his pants,” LaGrande wrote.
Obama himself said in an MTV interview shortly before the election that he opposes laws and ordinances — such as one proposed by an Atlanta city councilman last year — that would control dress.
“Having said that,” he added, “brothers should pull up their pants. You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing.”
Morehouse freshman Gregory Brito, 18, looks to the president-elect as a role model, but he is struggling to live up to the image.
Brito, who is from New York, doesn’t wear sagging pants but, he said, “I’ll be honest. I curse. I say ‘n…..’ I need to have time to transition from using the word to not using it. I come from an urban area. That’s the way we talk.”
Some African-Americans have argued that by using the racial epithet themselves, they take away its power to be used against them. To Brito, it’s just a slang term of address.
But since being at Morehouse, and especially since Obama’s election, he said, he would prefer not to hear or say it.
“African-American men and men of color can’t make excuses anymore,” Brito said. “It’s hard, though.”
Ray Hayes Jr., a 20-year-old Morehouse junior from Chicago, said he gave up sagging pants and the n-word in high school.
“A lot of guys use profanity here,” he said. “A lot of guys sag their pants. They say it’s a fashion statement.”
Hayes disagrees with some observers who say the vestiges of hip-hop culture were already going out of style.
“I don’t think it was going out of fashion at all,” he said. “I think it was going to get worse as time went on. Guys who weren’t doing it would fall into the trap and start doing it.”
The Morehouse campaign is effective, said freshman Paul Daniels, 17, of Raleigh, because it is linked to the college’s illustrious legacy.
Franklin, he said, “doesn’t condemn the n-word or sagging or cursing. … He’s teaching us why we shouldn’t do it.”
When freshman Ryan Hobbs, 19, of Fayetteville wears his maroon blazer, he’s conscious of its message. Receiving it was a rite of passage, he said.
“The blazer and the tie made me feel like I was really a man of Morehouse, accepted into the brotherhood,” he said. “Morehouse has produced great, great individuals. I want to be another added to that list.”