The Politics Of Hair, Pt. 1: From Angela Davis To Michelle Obama

January 26, 2017


This is the first part of an ongoing series called "The Politics of Hair." 


Hair says a lot about a person. In terms of fashion and beauty, one’s hairstyle may suggest he or she follows trends (the “lob” haircut, for example) or isn’t afraid to take chances (bleached or rainbow-colored hair, perhaps). Throughout history, hairstyles could even indicate one’s family background or social status.


When viewed through a cultural lens, however, hair is intrinsically political. The strands that grow on our heads can send messages to those around us without even using words.


Take the afro, for instance, which emerged as a powerful symbol of the Civil Rights Movement. As Chime Edwards at Essence notes, during the era of slavery in the United States, most African Americans styled their hair to mimic their oppressors. They felt pressure to fit in with the norms, which meant smoothing their hair to fit in with the European ideal of beauty. Long, silky hair was seen as desirable while kinky or "nappy" hair was seen as unkempt and ugly


According to Lori L. Tharps, author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair, Europeans also shaved the heads of slaves in an attempt to "erase the slaves' culture and alter the relationship between the African and his or her hair.” As the author notes, shaving off a slave's signature hairstyle meant that the “Mandingos, Fulanis, Ibos, and Ashantis entered the New World, just as the Europeans intended, like anonymous chattel.”


Following the abolishment of slavery, many individuals felt the need to relax their hair, often using harsh and painful chemical treatments to do so. (Of course, many people continue to relax or straighten their hair for various reasons, none of which should be shamed.)


Thanks to the afro’s rise in popularity in the 1960s, as Edwards notes, black men and women began seeing themselves and their hair differently. They began embracing the natural texture of their hair and developed a renewed appreciation for the “black aesthetic,” which resulted in the use of the phrase “Black is Beautiful.”


The afro became a symbol of “rebellion, pride and empowerment” for the African American community, Aaryn Lynch, an exhibition producer of the 2013 exhibit “Origins of the Afro Comb” (University of Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum), told the BBC in 2015.


Angela Davis, one of the Civil Rights Movement’s prominent activists, was perhaps one of the most well-known women to sport an afro during that period in history. Many women followed her lead. As Edwards notes in Essence, “A black person wearing a ‘fro was dubbed as militant and threatening,” an idea that was promoted by law enforcement. In simple terms, black people who were loving themselves were intimidating and perhaps confusing to mainstream America.


That same notion emerged again when Barack Obama was in the White House. When his daughter Malia was spotted wearing her hair in twists while in Rome, commenters on the conservative blog Free Republic criticized and attacked her with racist remarks, shaming her for stepping out with her hair unstraightened. Of course, as Malia got older, she began wearing her hair straightened and long.


Some might argue Malia’s decision to straighten her locks was a response to the critics -- her way of pleasing the public by conforming to beauty norms -- but it could just as easily be argued that the teen simply likes wearing her hair long now. There’s also a good chance both factors informed Malia’s decision to relax her hair. But that shouldn’t matter -- it was her choice to make. What does matter is the fact that Malia was criticized for wearing a natural hairstyle in the first place. Her hair became a topic of discussion among those who perhaps just couldn’t relate to it or found it unfit for a first daughter, which reinforced the political nature of natural hair.


Malia's mother, former First Lady Michelle Obama, wore (and continues to wear) her hair straight -- in a way that has been described as “politically correct” -- throughout Barack’s two terms as president. Of course, Michelle may just like keeping her hair relaxed, but as Arizona State English professor Neal A. Lester once told Naturally Curly, “Ms. Obama in locks or cornrows would be a bit too ‘in your face,’ even with her Harvard degree and her attorney status.” (The same could probably said for Barack. If the former POTUS decided to wear his hair in cornrows, or perhaps pigtail twists like Snoop Dogg, during his time in the White House, you can bet it would have sparked some unnecessary controversy.)


In July 2008, The New Yorker released an issue that featured a controversial illustration of the Obamas on the cover. Barack was portrayed as a Muslim, fist bumping with his wife Michelle, who was drawn wearing army fatigues and toting an AK-47. She also had her hair drawn in a large afro -- similar to that of Davis -- which seemingly presented her as an "angry-black-radical-and-revolutionary," as Linda Jones at Naturally Curly writes.



The magazine was criticized for the cover, but stood behind the artist who drew it, Barry Blitt. In a press release, the mag said the illustration "satirizes the use of scare tactics and misinformation in the Presidential election to derail Barack Obama’s campaign.” Still, it was seen as extremely offensive by many.


These days, the afro seems to be gaining momentum among the black community again, thanks in large part to the Natural Hair Movement, which encourages women to not only embrace their natural hair texture, but to also embrace their identity as people of color. The movement also has the support of stars like Solange, Oprah,and Amandla Stenberg. (If you haven't watched her video on cultural appropriation, a topic we'll definitely be discussing in the future here on Untangled, do it now.)

Now, in 2017, it finally seems like society is shifting toward inclusivity and embracing people of all backgrounds, communities and races. However, based on the glaring lack of representation of women (and people, in general) of color and natural hair in everything from politics to media to fashion to Hollywood, it seems clear that certain hairstyles, such as the afro, are still seen as different by a large group of people. In that sense, one could argue that one thing remains the same: the afro, or afro-textured hair remain to be seen as a symbol of "rebellion, pride and empowerment" -- rebellion against the mainstream, pride in being a woman of color and empowerment felt by embracing the history that is tangled within one's natural hair.


(Image of Angela Davis via Wikimedia Commons)




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