Head-wrap challenges officials' attitudes

May 10, 1998|By Rev. Robert A. F. Turner

IN 1857, Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, speaking for the majority in the Dred Scott case, wrote, "[Blacks] had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

All of America's people have come on a long and very painful journey of progress since that time. However, for African-Americans, echoes of that past remain as does an unfinished struggle to rescue and reconstruct our history and reaffirm and reclaim aspects of our culture, both in America and on the African continent, that were prohibited, lost and stolen.

That struggle must be completed to make us a whole and fully productive people in America and the world.

In 1998, in Howard County, the issue is no longer physical enslavement, but enslavement of the mind and respect for African-American cultural heritage.

Principal James Evans and Vice Principal Madrainne Johnson at Harper's Choice Middle School, supported by Superintendent Michael E. Hickey and aided by General Counsel Mark C. Blom, have taken the position that an African head-wrap, worn by Shermia Isaacs as an expression of her cultural heritage, was prohibited by a school rule based on board policy.

Dr. Hickey considers the African head-wrap to be contrary to maintenance of order, scholarship and discipline in the operation of a school and a possible source of distraction and disruption.

This is a high level of danger from a cloth wrapped tightly around a young lady's head.

American history and the judicial process are replete with proclamations in celebration of diversity, while in reality enforcing a very narrow application of the concept of diversity.

That is the situation at Harper's Choice Middle where the reality is more like Henry Ford's statement that customers could have any color car they wanted so long as it was black.

Restrictions as to the wearing of certain clothing was an integral part of the "slave-making process" in America. Remnants of that process remain alive in American society.

In A. Leon Higginbotham Jr's. landmark volume, "In the Matter of Color," which won the highest award given by the American Bar Association, he stated: "The best illustration of the extent to which a slave could be deprived of property held with his owner's consent is in the [South Carolina Negro] Act of 1735.

When a slave managed to obtain clothing that might accord him some dignity or prestige, the act declared that when such clothing was "above" that which a slave should wear, it could be taken from the slave by "all and every constable and other persons to be used for his or their own benefit.

"A slave was to be forever aware of his degraded status; the requirement that he always wear the most inferior clothing -- 'negro cloth' -- ensured that he never have an appearance giving him even minuscule status. The slave was forced to 'know his place' and never to reflect or symbolize any higher aspiration than that which the white society had irrevocably imposed upon him."

Therefore, limitations on wearing certain clothing was a key instrument of social subjugation. The echoes of that obnoxious past practice of subjugation are present in today's African head-wrap issue in Howard County.

Head-wrapping is deeply associated wth the history of African-American culture.

In "Stylin': African American Expressive Culture From Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit," Shane White and Graham White of the University of Sydney state, "As advertisements for escaped slaves show, head-wrappings were quite common among the female slave population in the 18th century."

A "new-negro wench of the Guiney country," who ran away from a plantation at Goose Creek, S.C., in 1769, wore "a new oznabrug coat and wrapper, and a black striped silk handkerchief round her head." Sarah, a South Carolina runaway who escaped in 1784, covered her hair with "a spotted red and white handkerchief." Nanny, a Georgia slave who absconded in 1787, had on when she went away "an oznabrug coat and wrapper, and a check handkerchief on her head."

Finally, we note that in the Board of Education's submission to the U.S. District Court, Mr. Blom's memorandum and the affidavit of Dr. Hickey both state that the school had adopted a rule against the wearing of "hats and head wear."

The affidavit of Mr. Evans states that the school rule prohibits "hats and headgear."

However, the Harper's Choice Middle School 1997-1998 Parent/Student Handbook states in the school dress code section: "Students may not wear hats or coats in school without permission from the administration."

Notwithstanding the assertion to the court that there is a rule on "head wear" or "headgear," there appears to be no rule except for the wearing of hats, and a head-wrap is not a hat.

The school board's own filing with the court on head wear indicates that the board acknowledges that they are different things.

Mr. Blom, Dr. Hickey and Mr. Evans each asserted to the court that the objection to the African head-wrap was not based on the viewpoint Ms. Isaacs expressed by wearing it, or because of a dislike of that viewpoint.

However, the African head-wrap apparently is such a potent expression of Ms. Isaacs' cultural heritage in the minds of these officials that it appears that they embellished the hat rule so that a nonexistent prohibition of head coverings and headgear has been cited to the court to justify the system's unwarranted disruption of the girl's education.

In 1998, Ms. Isaacs has escaped mental slavery by wearing a beautiful African head-wrap and gained the respect of a broad segment of the Howard County community for her willingness to endure for principle.

She will not be the last.

JTC The writer is president of the African American Coalition of Howard County.

Pub Date: 5/10/98

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