High school senior Jelani Masozi was forced by a Gibbs High School 9th grade assistant principal, Mrs. Holcombe, who was accompanied by cop, Grace Womack, to remove her headwrap on Thursday, August 25th, 2016.
The intimidating presence of the police, armed to the teeth with a gun, taser, and pepper spray—identical to the police that murder us in the streets—caused Jelani to feel like she had no other option but to remove her headwrap.
This humiliating, demoralizing request caused her to call the African National Women’s Organization (ANWO) who directed her to put her headwrap back on.
The next day, Jelani would not be alone. Another Gibbs High School senior, Liu Kwayera, went to school in an African headwrap, to show support and stand in unity with Jelani.
In the weeks following the initial incident, African students have joined the struggle to challenge the dress code at the school by wearing headwraps and dashikis every Wednesday until the dress code is changed to allow African students the freedom to express themselves culturally. We have also called on others to support by sharing information via our hashtag, #blackgirlswrapwednesday.
Gibbs High School was a black school in its conception. In recent years, this school abandoned the education of African students and invested a majority of the resources into the performing arts magnet program that would come to exclude the majority of African students through discriminatory criteria and policies.
African students at Gibbs have been under attack for many years now; the student dress code policy being among those attacks. Strategically targeting African people through means of which we dress, our clothes being one of the few things we can tie to the reclamation of our identities, are criminalized and enforced by high school administrators and so called “resource” officers.
This is not an isolated incident
As more and more young Africans embrace our cultural identity, we seek ways to display our pride but anti-African sentiment disguised as policy often make our cultural expression a punishable offense.
In February of this year, a high school student was threatened with suspension for wearing an African headwrap to school in Durham, North Carolina.
Just like Gibbs, this school cited the dress code policy as the reason they would put this African girl out of school. Other students and parents rallied in her support and the policy was changed.
Also in February, Tayjha Deleveaux, a high school student in Nassau, Bahamas, was suspended for wearing her hair in an afropuff style. The school administrator said that Tayjha’s hair represented an “uncombed and unkempt” style.
On an island country where 90.6 percent of the population are African, using descriptors like those are indicative of a colonial nature of policies that squelch all vestiges of Africa from our people.
After Tayjha’s mother took to social media with the story, women from all over the world rallied in support with the hashtag #supportthepuff.
In June, New Yorker June Rivas, was told that she couldn’t wear her cultural headwrap to work any longer. The company previously didn’t have a dress code policy but created one specifically to target Rivas.
Rivas responded by cosplaying—dressing up as fantasy characters—every day to show the ridiculousness of the policy, which will allow her to wear capes and face masks, but not an African headwrap.
Also, while Jelani was being threatened by school officials at Gibbs, African girls in a Pretoria South African prep school were being ordered to straighten their hair to comply with the strict rules on appearance which details the specifics of acceptable hair, such as cornrows without designs and undyed, unshaved hair—basically dictating the style choices even when they are off campus.
The headwrap struggle is a struggle for power
What these examples prove is that the State manifests itself in different ways. The State is the school system, it’s our employers, it’s the average white citizen and petty bourgeois Negro who report to their bosses, just in case we happen slip by their observation.
Unlike the other cases, however, the struggle against Gibbs and the Pinellas County school dress codes make demands for power such as black community control of the schools and the police, removal of the police from school campuses, change of the dress code policy to reflect and culturally affirm the 99 percent African students that attend Gibbs and for an ANWO chapter be established on campus to address the concerns of African students.
It’s not enough to be upset, we have to struggle for control over our own lives. We must move toward self-determination. If we leave it up to the whims of the State to determine what we can and cannot do––we have not won. They can easily create another policy that could have damaging effects on African people.
The power of the people must be utilized to send a message to the school board that our cultural identity is not up for debate.
Join the struggle for Self-Determination
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