Hair is political, but Black hair is uber-political! We need only consider the myriad incidents in media that garner our attention to note Black hair still matters in American society. Don Imus’ “nappy-headed hos” remark about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team (CBS News..., 2009), or the criticism of the various hairstyles worn by then-First Lady Michelle Obama (Desmond-Harris, 2009), the school policies forbidding Black children to wear their hair in natural styles such as, cornrows or locs, because they are seen as a “distraction,” (Quinn, 2016) or, even the recent social media celebration when Miss Jamaica shocked the world by “wearing an afro hairstyle” during the 2017 Miss Universe pageant (Kratofil, 2017) all serve as examples of the politicized nature of Black hair.
In a society fraught with exploring identity politics, the value that Black hair has in the African-American community makes it a worthy topic for examination through popular culture and media. Black hair and by extension the Black body has historically embodied material consequences for the Black community and provided us with rich capital about understanding one’s ethnic identity, economics/class, sexuality, ability, power and politics. Banks (2000) writes, in fact, “Hair has emerged as socially and culturally significant” (p. 5). And for African Americans that is often rendered highly visible in the images of Black hair in media. To that end, we recognize the very notion of Black hair (or how it is adorned) as a complex and controversial subject that often grapples with ideologies of “good (hair) versus bad (hair)” or occupies spaces that “revel and revile” Black hair (Spellers and Moffitt, 2010, p. 11). This tension exists because of conflicted views American society has of Black hair. While it is fascinated by the perceived uniqueness and innovation of Black hair and its various styles, it is historically perturbed and disturbed by it as well. The very existence of hair growing from one’s scalp in such a “different” (read: odd) manner creates cognitive dissonance and seemingly can only be resolved as comedian Paul Mooney proclaims, “If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed.”
These incidents speak to the saliency of the continued need to question how these images are defined and displayed in mediated contexts. The postings of this theme week confirm for us that Black hair, indeed, still matters and the ways in which it is represented often impacts the bodies wearing it.