HAMPTON UNIVERSITY STEPPED HARD ON A CULTURAL NERVE WHEN NEWS OF THE no-braids, no-dreads policy for males in the five-year M.B.A. program leaked out earlier this year. Officials at the university appear to have been blindsided by the negative reactions. "We've had this policy in place for six years," says university spokeswoman Yuri Milligan with a note of bewilderment.
Outrage came in waves, spurred on when a chiding letter to Hampton president William Harvey, from Susan Taylor, editorial director of Essence Communications Inc., began circulating the Internet.
The school tried to "quiet down" each wave of criticism, but "finally, we had to go on CNN," to try and calm the storm, says business school dean Dr. Sidney Credle.
But while that strategy, may have worked, the surf could get choppy again at any moment because what Hampton officials don't seem to have fully realized is that by targeting hair they have cracked open the crypt and exhumed the corpse of a collective childhood trauma that haunts the deepest, darkest corners of the African-American psyche.
That trauma centers around the burning shame associated with the label "bad hair."
I remember as if it were yesterday the tears, the pleading and the screams that accompanied the weekly ritual of shampooing, hot combing and braiding.
And I remember as well the twin thunderclaps during the 1970s that signaled the official blowing of my mind. Thunderclap No. 1: seeing Angela Davis's 'fro and learning the mind beneath that mop of fabulous hair belonged to a Sorbonne- and University of Frankfurt-educated Black woman who was also a college professor. Thunderclap 2: seeing Cicely Tyson's haunting beauty in "Sounder" and suddenly finding a context for and beauty in the faces of women like my grandmother, who wore cornrows beneath their headrags, too.
In the years since I experienced that epiphany, natural styles have proliferated beautifully, wildly--running the gamut from twists to locs to braids to cornrows to 'fros and back again--but the possibility that I saw in the '70s remains unfulfilled.
Though we are no longer excluded in wholesale fashion from society, the mainstream still demands that people of color "cover" our most visible differences.
The term comes from sociologist Irving Goffman, whose ideas are being updated and reinterpreted by Kenji Yoshino, professor and deputy dean of the Yale University School of Law, in his new book Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights. …