BHM: Black Hair and Political Statements

The idea that Black hair, in its natural state, is considered "revolutionary" is a very odd one, indeed. But in the context of our history in America, it makes perfect sense. When the first generation of African slaves landed in America, they'd been accustomed to carefully treating their hair with herbs, creating elaborate conrowed styles and grooming their kinks with carved wooden combs (thought to be weapons, they were discarded on the slave ships). On American soil, unable to care for their hair the same way, women began wearing rags to cover head sores and bald spots. Their kinks became a source of shame. And as young slave women began giving birth to half-white babies, their longer-haired offspring were considered better, prettier, more civilized. The idea that "white is right" was so embedded in the country's DNA that, by the time the Black is Beautiful movement hit in the 60s--and women proudly rocked afros and braids--the simple act of embracing the hair that grows out of our heads was considered a revolutionary statement. These days, we'd like to think that the decision to relax our hair, wear it natural, or weave it up is about the freedom of choice, not a political statement. But when dreadlocks can still prevent women from reaching the top of certain industries, we can't help but think we've still got a long way to go. In celebration of Black History Month, lets take a look back at some notable moments in the history of revolutionary hair.
ESSENCE.COM Feb, 03, 2010

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While touring on the lecture circuit with the American Anti-Slavery Society, poet Frances Harper wore her hair in cornrows instead of mimicking white styles—a dramatic political statement at the time.

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In 1963, actress Cicely Tyson made Black hair history when she appeared on the CBS drama “East Side/West Side” wearing magnificent cornrows.

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By ‘68, the “Black is Beautiful” movement had become so pervasive that even the era’s top glamour girls, the Supremes, rocked afros on the cover of their album, “Love Child.”

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On the cover of Maxine Williams and Pamela Newman’s feminist essay collection, “Black Women’s Liberation,” the authors flaunt their fro’s, daring you to question their power.

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Melba Tolliver, the first Black network TV anchor, was suspended for wearing an afro while reporting from First Daughter Tricia Nixon’s White House wedding.

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The grand dame of revolutionary hair, activist Angela Davis holds up the “black power” fist at a rally in Bulgaria during her 1972 tour of Communist countries.

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Tired of straightening her fro, model Pat Evans shaved her head and became a star. In ’74, she told ESSENCE that the industry needed more “Black-owned agencies and Black-owned minds.” Powerful!

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A vintage Afro Sheen ad celebrates a very “don’t even think about messing with us”-looking black family.

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In January ’77, the Roots miniseries shattered records and sparked a renewed interest in Africana—especially hairstyles. Here, Kunta Kinte and Fanta get cozy on their wedding day.

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In ‘81, Rita Marley released her second album after her her husband Bob’s death. On the cover, she celebrates Rastafarian culture with her “freedom hair:” glorious, bouncy dreadlocks.

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Model/singer/actress Grace Jones made a powerful statement about race and gender by pairing her short, boyish natural with a long, flowing, platinum blonde ponytail.

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When Whoopi Goldberg debuted her one-woman “Spook Show,” she challenged America’s standards of beauty by going makeup-less, shaving off her brows, and wearing her hair in dreadlocks.

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In ’99, Fugees lead singer Lauryn Hill became a huge superstar—and a dreadlocked beauty icon—with the release of her award-winning album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.”

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Erykah Badu, always the style revolutionary, promotes black power on the cover of Great Britain’s “Trace” magazine.

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In 2005, natural-haired singer India Arie dropped “I Am Not My Hair,” which included lyrics like “Good hair means waves/Bad hair means you look like a slave/It’s time to redefine who we be.”

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In ‘09, The New Yorker ran a cover featuring Michelle Obama as an angry black terrorist in an afro and military boots. Critics felt that America wasn’t sophisticated enough to get the joke.

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Today, Jada Pinkett Smith marries three “revolutionary” hairstyles—cornrows, natural texture, and the mohawk—to create a new style, one that’s more about fashion than a political statement.

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At the 2011 Grammy Awards ceremony, Best New Artist winner Esperanza Spalding flaunted a long, full, picked-out afro instead of the usual weave, wig, or straightened styles.

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