Why Dress And Appearance Matter At Black Colleges
When the school year began at Dillard University, a historically-black institution (HBCU) located in New Orleans, returning male students asked everyone to wear professional dress to classes. This meant suits and ties, looking the part of the man of business affairs, politics or law. Maybe even a President of the United States. Well, this request made some students and observers wonder why it is that African Americans at HBCUs believe in looking “respectably.”
Well, there has long been attempts by the African American middle class to display proper bearing. This desire began largely at the same time as the founding of the HBCUs, which is a reason why there remains a connection. Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, the first of the race to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University, was the most prominent leader of the respectability movement. A Fisk graduate, and later professor at Atlanta University, both HBCUs, Du Bois believed in the elitist Talented Tenth. These high achievers would be the vanguard of the race, here and abroad, producing the leadership needed to prove the falsehood behind racial segregationist assumptions of black inferiority
The Problem Underlying Respectability
The problem with respectability, as some perceive, is two-fold. First, this elitism, to a degree, looks down upon the masses of African Americans, who might not be able to afford professional dress and might not speak the King’s English. Second, resectability, which emphasizes the values of the white middle classes, implies a negative view of black folk culture.
Should Dress Matter at Black Schools?
So, should dress still matter? Some say it should. Part of the reason for attending college is to move up in the world. Learning to dress well could be part of this training. Moreover, in a day when many young African American men wear sagging pants, perhaps donning a suit every now and then is a good change.
Others contend that being able to afford fancy clothing should play no part in the educational system. They perceive the call to wear a suit and tie a clearcut example of elitism that has pervaded at various HBCUs since their foundings in the post-Civil War Era, largely by white philanthropists and religious organizations.
Seeking a New Mission
The debate about dress and respectability parallels the one raging over whether HBCUs still matter. These schools served a definite purpose during the Emancipation period, when freed slaves needed to develop literacy, and racial segregation era, when state and private institutions largely refused admission to African Americans. HBCUs were places to challenge prevailing myths of inferiority.
Today, with an African American in the White House, and when Georgia State University in Atlanta, a formerly segregated institution, awards more degrees to African Americans than any other, the continued relevance of HBCUs is not readily apparent to critics.
Perhaps the calls to wear professional dress at schools such as Dillard will be a means to revitalize the belief in the HBCU mission during a time when some, such as the once-fabled Morris Brown College, in Atlanta, have filed for bankruptcy.