The third thing would be the politics of the public experience of black hair. To me, the most significant modern-day moment is the introduction of the Afro as both a beauty style and as a reclamation of a very specific political and social choice. It wasn’t about African-Americans having the politics of our hair forced upon us from outside groups, it was about this idea, generated from within the community, that choosing a particular hairstyle has a social and political meaning.
Consider the manhunt for Angela Davis. My favorite part of that story is that at the point at which she was on the run, one of the things she did was tie her own hair down and wear a perm-styled wig over it. She was invisible to the police as long as she didn’t have her Afro. It was as though they were incapable of recognizing her features or what she actually looked like without the hair. She walked into a whole variety of spaces where she should have been caught but wasn’t. That is so indicative of how all-consuming and overpowering our hair can be in certain styles, particularly for white audiences who literally can’t see past our hair.
So, hair is a big deal because it’s not just about aesthetics, it’s about politics. There is an assumption, sometimes right and sometimes wrong, that hairstyle choices must also carry with them political and social meaning. White folks are still so baffled by the black experience, they are constantly trying to read the signs and symbols to figure out if we plan to do them harm or start a revolution or something. So hair becomes one of the ways they identify good and bad Negroes.
When my show started on MSNBC in 2012, my decision on how to wear my hair goes back to my point about Angela Davis. The fact that she became invisible once she pulled down her Afro is indicative of the fact that if I were on air one week with one kind of hair and another week with another kind of hair, I might actually be confusing to viewers. So, I made the decision that whatever hair I launched the show with, I needed to be prepared to wear for the duration. At that point I had already cut off all of the perm, so it was “Am I going to back away from being natural and relax it again, or am I going to go on with a teeny-weeny Afro, or am I going to wear the extensions?” I made the decision to wear the extensions for three reasons: One, I haven’t had a natural head of hair since I was a teenager so I really didn’t know what it would do. Two, I was not prepared to go back to a relaxer. I go running every single day, and a relaxer is almost impossible for me to cope with. And three, for consistency, my lifestyle, and my travel schedule, what made the most sense was braid extensions and twists.
Amazingly, no one at MSNBC has ever said anything to me about my hair. Not one word. But the audience has a lot to say. I can’t go on air without letters and comments and tweets and emails from viewers. Everything from “Where do you get your hair done?” and “I love your hair” to “Why would you show up looking like that on air?” It comes from white folks and black folks. It would be impossible to go through the amount of responses the first year on air caused about my hair. And that’s part of the reason why we did the episode about black hair in America on Melissa Harris-Perry. We figured, if people are having this kind of reaction to my hair, let’s just go ahead and do something on it. We decided it was worth going there, and I think it is still the show that people most frequently speak to me about when I’m out connecting with viewers.
Sometimes I wonder if we are making progress in this arena. And I consider that I’m raising a 12-year-old daughter who seems profoundly unconcerned about what is happening on the top of her head. My kid wears a big ol’ natural hairstyle and sometimes she wears two-strand twists, sometimes a ’fro with braids, sometimes it’s pressed and curled, and sometimes she has braided extensions. It seems to have much more to do with whether she’s swimming or if she’s going to have a sleepover than it has anything to do with the aesthetics of it or whether people will think she looks beautiful. And to the extent that I have hope, it is mostly that. This kid can feel perfectly grand about herself regardless of what is happening on her head. And that feels like more progress than “I only feel good about myself when my natural hair or my permed hair or my weave hair or my extended hair is neat and perfect.” She is way more mature than I am on the hair front.
This essay is the foreword to Hair Story: Untangling The Roots of Black Hair in America, by Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps, The new edition of Hair Story: Untangling The Roots of Black Hair in America is out this week from St. Martin’s Press.