White Girl Does (Tries to Do) Black Hair

After appearing in the 1968 London production of “Hair,” Marsha Hunt and the image of her large Afro became an international icon of black beauty. Photo: Evening Standard / Stringer via Getty Images

In 1965, when I was 13 and mired, by my parents, in the socially noxious American South (Miami), I was so incensed by the aesthetic discrimination brought to bear in racist assaults on Black identities, images, and persons–discrimination that flew in the face of all evidence to the contrary–that made it quite clear to my perception as a diminutive very White girl in a blistering sun–that Black persons were so much more adapted, fit, and suited to the environment–to the world as it was, at least, for me in the sub-tropics with its overabundance of light and heat–so much more beautiful–that I cut off all of my butt-length hair close to the skull, got a perm, and sported what I considered to be Black hair in protest.

Afros did exist by that point, having entered the socio-cultural realm as a part of the Black Pride/Black is Beautiful movement, but I wasn’t aware of it. I thought I was acting independently, having made an autonomous decision about the twisted absurdity of perceptions subject to racist ideology and wanting to subvert the pattern by whatever means possible, using my body as a canvas, in what may have been my first act of guerilla street performance art. Having been infuriated and galvanized by the unjust unfairness and idiocy of it all and the general toxic state of things in South Florida and the American South generally, I had to contribute my fledgling voice to the struggle. (I became a vegetarian in this period also, but that, like the ‘Fro, was short-lived.)

Aesthetic condemnation of Black images and identities, especially female ones, was vicious, visceral and intimate. It traded on the manufacturing of disgust and abjection, in use by racists and misogynists and pressed in to service in Hate campaigns since the classical writers created their earliest antifeminist satires or their arch dismissals of any who were not White, male, a property-owning free-holder and an Athenian Greek. Like the witch hunters of the Inquisition across medieval, Renaissance, early modern, and Enlightenment Europe, the condemnations focused on ‘transgressive’ feminine physiology. Like the humanist satirist, Boccaccio, during the Renaissance of arts and letters, marginalized females’ most personal attributes were mocked and pilloried. From hair, to skin shade, to noses, lips, breasts, buttocks, to intellects–all were invaded, defamed and made mock of.

Another vestige of my protest was a huge painting I created around this time; it portrayed an Ashanti king and queen next to each other in robes and regalia of state, as they are portrayed in traditional African bronzes, but with the addition of an adolescent daughter, whom–I realize now–I’d painted at around the same age I was then. She was resentful and pissed off, and regarded the viewer seriously, from under lowered lids. She looked dangerous, and I liked her very much. In fact, I realize now, she was the focal point of the painting, the real subject, and she was beautiful. She commanded the scene, while her royal parents stood proudly by. The painting was on a huge signboard my father was storing in the garage I seconded to my task, and was rendered in a realist European style. I put it onto my large aluminum easel in the middle of the living room. (My parents would let me do anything if I was painting.) I put it on top of a drop cloth out of consideration for the carpets (plus, I was always very neat), positioned the tall aluminum ladder in front of it from which to reach all parts of my ‘canvas,’ and got started.

As the figures took shape within the frame, my parents and brothers would glance over from time to time from the television-viewing area and make comments (wisecracks, for the most part) on the subjects’ obvious physical beauty and prowess and their modest but lightly clad (by Western standards) ceremonial attire. Having no authentic 18th-century Ashanti kings, queens or princesses to model for me, I’d posed for all the figures in my bedroom mirror, and applied the sketches to the surface. The king had closely cut, tightly coiled hair, the queen had a mass of beaded braids like an ancient Egyptian wig, and the princess wore her curly hair long and lustrous.

The figural grouping had majesty and a regal grace, as well as power and authority, and that is what I had wanted to show. It must have worked because, years later, my then sister and brother-in-law, to whom I’d given the painting, had a Black couple over for dinner, they fell in love with the painting, and so Mary and Bruce presented it to them for their own living room. News of the ultimate destination of the painting made me very happy.

The history of the moral, ethical, spiritual and aesthetic movement represented by the phrases ‘Black Pride’ or ‘Black is Beautiful’ represents a remarkable cultural revolution within a hostile, overtly White Supremacist, insistently Eurocentric ideological environment. The following is culled and paraphrased by a 2019 article by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture:

‘The phrase “black is beautiful” referred to a broad embrace of black culture and identity. It represented a cultural revolution and called for an appreciation of the black past as a worthy legacy, inspiring cultural pride in contemporary black achievements. In its philosophy, “Black is beautiful” also focused on emotional and psychological well-being, affirming natural hairstyles like the “Afro” and the variety of skin colors, hair textures, and physical characteristics found in the African American community. Black Americans donned styles connected to African heritage. Using a grooming tool like an Afro pick customized with a black fist was a way to proudly assert political and cultural allegiance to the Black Power movement. “Black is beautiful” also manifested itself in the arts and scholarship. Black writers used their creativity to support a black cultural revolution and scholars urged black Americans to regain connections to the African continent. Some studied Swahili, a language spoken in Kenya, Tanzania and the southeastern regions of Africa.

‘Icons of the Black Arts Movement included artists, writers, play writers, filmmakers, dance companies, and arts organizations. The beginnings of the Black Arts Movement solidified around the arts-activism of Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) in the mid-1960s. A poet, playwright and publisher, Baraka was a founder of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem and Spirit House in Newark, N.J., his hometown. Baraka’s initiatives on the East Coast were paralleled by black arts organizations in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Orleans and San Francisco, leading to a national movement.’

In March, 2022, MSNBC featured an article on their news site titled, ‘Crown Act is the bill we need to end discrimination against Black natural hair: Wearing one’s hair in its natural state shouldn’t be a punishable offense.’ The author, Symone D. Sanders, states: “We need the Senate to send the message that a woman who wears her hair as I wear mine shouldn’t be presumed to be unskilled or unprofessional and that, contrary to Representative Jordan’s dismissive remarks, this is an issue that Americans face and that Americans want addressed.” She opens the article by describing her own experience as a professional Black woman:

‘As a Black woman who chooses to wear her hair natural and closely shaved, I am no stranger to the discrimination that often rears its ugly head. A mentor once told me I should think about “growing some hair” and getting rid of “the nails” so I would be taken seriously. Then there was that agent from a prominent talent agency who told me I was not palatable enough for a cable television audience. Did the agent mean I was too big and too Black for TV? Or too bald? A mentor told me I should think about “growing some hair” and getting rid of “the nails” so I would be taken seriously.’

Sanders cited several recent cases of discrimination against natural Black hair in her article, stating: “It is not just Black women who face such discrimination. So do Black men and Black schoolchildren:”

In 2017, school officials in Massachusetts sentenced twin Black girls to detention after saying their braids violated school policy.

In 2018, A Black New Jersey teenager was forced to cut his locs by a white referee in order to continue participating in his school’s wrestling match.

In 2020, a student at Barbers Hill High School was suspended for the length of his dreadlocks.

In 2021, a Black San Diego man sued an event planning company after reportedly being told he needed to first trim his locs if he wanted to be hired.

Sanders points out that, in 2022: “Despite ample evidence of the problem, during the Feb. 28 vote, when the Democrats needed the support of two-thirds of the chamber, only 15 Republicans supported the Crown Act. Friday, when only a majority vote was needed for passage, not a single Republican voted for it.” She concludes, so obviously rightly: “Wearing one’s hair in its natural state shouldn’t be a punishable offense, but in 2022 if you are Black in America it can be. The House has done its part to address this. It’s now up to an evenly divided Senate to follow suit.”

Fifty-seven years after I gave myself a ‘Fro and created my artistic homage to African beauty and pride, the issue of Black hair is still being discussed, still being found controversial, and still being litigated.

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I'm a writer/researcher/arts educator on Vancouver Island and all round global citizen who loves humans even though we're such a phenomenal pain-in-the-ass.

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Yvonne Owens, PhD

Yvonne Owens, PhD

I'm a writer/researcher/arts educator on Vancouver Island and all round global citizen who loves humans even though we're such a phenomenal pain-in-the-ass.

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