I Slay: City College students assert their authority during Formation Week

City Paper

“So, City Bloc, is just lit,” 17-year-old Makayla Gilliam-Price says, standing not far from Baltimore City College High School.

Lit, as it happens, is a word I’m in love with. Lit, to me, is goodness. Lit is brilliant. What is lit is what is illuminated, glowing, powerful.

Gilliam-Price, a member of the Baltimore City College student-run political group City Bloc, is describing Formation Week and why City Bloc, conceived of it. Inspired by Beyoncé's spirited anthem ‘Formation,’ Formation Week is like Spirit Week—but more lit. Instead of dressing up in pajamas or like victims of terrible ‘80s fashion to show and prove "school spirit" – City Bloc kids and other students at Baltimore City College did things that reinforced their blackness.

The week started with Mindwrap Monday – a day where students (male or female) were encouraged to wear head wraps.

“In the beginning of the year, we were told that we were no longer allowed to wrap our hair up in scarves,” reads a sheet written and distributed by City Bloc members. “Hair wrapping has been an important part of our culture for centuries. This forced assimilation ignores the rich culture and history of black hair.”

The next day was Traditional Tuesday – where students were asked to wear either traditional African clothing or any articles of clothing that express their blackness.

Wednesday was Women Work Wednesday where students were asked to take some class time to discuss a woman who played an important role in history. Thoughtful Thursday was a time to start conversations about issues that minorities face and Formation Friday was a day that students were asked to be “unapologetically themselves and unhindered by social pressures."

“We are not trying to define or put limits on what it looks like to be black,” Gilliam-Price says. “So it’s like, if you don’t have an African-looking head wrap on, it doesn’t mean that you’re not embracing your blackness. If you’re not able to wear a traditional dashiki for traditional Tuesday and you’re just wearing an unapologetically black t-shirt that’s very representative of black culture today, it doesn’t mean that you’re not representing and embracing your black culture.”

Gilliam-Price says that school administrators would argue that the whole thing is about kids unhappy about the school’s dress code – but it’s deeper than that.

“I think what we still need to work on is having conversations that embrace the fluidity and the large spectrum of our ethnicities and of our cultures and understanding how problematic it is to police those identities,” Gilliam-Price says. “That’s why we called it Formation Week because in her video, Beyoncé was deconstructing respectability politics which put a label on how she should perform her identity and that’s what we’re trying to actively deconstruct.”

School officials allowed the first two days of Formation Week activities, which were planned by students with no involvement from school administrators.

“The uniform is what sparked these conversations on our bodies being policed—not necessarily our language or our politics but our bodies themselves," Gilliam-Price says. "And so we keep saying, like, there’s nothing inherently oppressive about wearing a button down and khakis, but it’s the way that uniform is enforced. I can wear a knee-length skirt but if it’s too tight a male administrator or a male hall monitor comes up to me and tells me that my skirt is too tight whereas a white girl or a girl who’s not as curvy as me can wear the same thing and not get commented on. It perpetuates the hyper-sexualization of my black body. It’s like a micro aggression that they might not be very aware of but just because you didn’t intend to be violent in this space doesn’t mean that you’re not.”

On Tuesday, a letter marked with Baltimore City College letterhead, and posted on City Bloc’s Twitter account, established what school officials would and would not tolerate: "Despite recent print and social media sensationalism about dress code, City College will remain a uniform school. Although there is no change in the dress code, we do support yesterday and today’s cultural attire in the spirit of unity and shared interests.”

The letter stressed that the school provides “an international perspective, global mindset, empathy, and reflection." It ended by saying “with the exception of approved exception days as determined by administration, students must report in uniform attire.”

The letter was signed by school principal Cindy Harcum. City Paper reached out to Harcum for comment but did not get a response.

What felt most powerful about Formation Week, at least the two days that I was there, was that these students—many of whom are not yet old enough to vote or drive a car—wielded their influence so deftly. They knew what they were and were not going to accept. Gilliam-Price said that they’d planned it without adult assitance because adults tend to take over and dilute things.

Another thing about the Formation Week activities: There were boys who took part in Formation Week, but the energy felt more feminine. The girls, dressed in brightly colored dashikis, with their hair wrapped up—glowed. They were energized and self-affirmed by the head wraps and the clothing, they said. They were taking on issues that adult black women like me had just begun to unpack.

What happened on the second day of City Bloc’s Formation Week is what happens so often among gatherings of black girls and women: the conversation turned to hair.

Sixteen-year-old City College junior Legacy Forté was supposed to be telling me about the brilliantly colored dashiki she wore as part of Traditional Tuesday – and she did. She said that she’d always wanted to own a dashiki, and that Formation Week actually prompted her to buy two.

“What about your hair?” I asked. She had a giant dark halo of a ‘fro. I wondered if she’d worn it to go with the dashiki.

“I usually wear a ‘fro, I’ve been natural about two years,” Forté says. “I hang out with a lot of natural people and they were like ‘you should really go natural’ because I was always complaining about how I didn’t have curly hair. But it wasn’t that I never had curly hair, I just had always had permed hair and I had never seen my natural curl pattern so once someone said something about that, they were like ‘you know, maybe you do have curly hair, maybe you should cut your relaxed ends and see how your hair grows back’ and I was like ‘ok, yeah.’ And this happened (gesturing to her fro) and I never went back from that.”

We talked about the process of getting to know and care for our own hair. We talked about the shit you must take from others once you decide to embrace the natural texture of your hair.

She continued: “When you have natural hair you have to learn how to love it because,—"

“I just want to say something because ya’ll were talking about natural hair,” 18-year-old senior MaShawna Peterson interrupted, smiling.

I told her to go ahead.

“The thing that I don’t like is that black girls aren’t taught about their natural hair and that’s the problem and that’s why so many girls are how we are now. It’s like, we didn’t know. And it’s so ironic that we had no idea that ‘oh – my hair is actually really curly,’ ‘Oh, my hair can be straight and then it can curl right up the next day.’”

Forté talked about how some people say that natural hair isn’t for everybody.

“How,” she asked, “is something that grows out of my scalp, not for me?”

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