Acceptance of Natural Hairstyles a Continuing Front in Civil Rights StruggleRoundup
tags: civil rights, African American history, fashion, hair
Jasmine Nichole Cobb is professor of African & African American Studies and of Art, Art History and Visual Studies at Duke University. She is the author of Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century, and New Growth: The Art and Texture of Black Hair. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @jasminecobbphd.
Martha’s Vineyard in the summertime just got better with a celebration of Black beauty during the SOulFully Textured natural hair festival at Waban Park in Oak Bluffs. Such gatherings — including CurlFest in Brooklyn, Taliah Waajid’s natural hair event in Atlanta, Natural Hair Academy in Paris, and Nappywood in Los Angeles — have convened throughout the 21st century, with diverse groups of Black people honoring the beauty of Afro-textured hair, while destigmatizing naturally tight curls.
In July, Massachusetts Gov. Charles Baker signed The CROWN Act (“Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”), a law prohibiting discrimination based on natural and protective hairstyles. The law banned discrimination against such hairstyles as Afros, cornrows, or tightly coiled twists in the workplace and at school.
The law was created in part as a response to the treatment of Deanna and Mya Cook, punished for wearing extensions at school in 2017. The Cook sisters experienced prejudice like many African Americans nationwide, ostracized at school and work for wearing kinky, curly, and coily Afro-textured hair. One group of Black women attorneys was discouraged from wearing natural hair to a presentation on corporate attire; a student-athlete was forced to cut his hair at a New Jersey wrestling match; a Texas teen could not participate in his high school graduation ceremony; and a 4-year-old was removed from preschool in February simply for wearing her hair the way it grows out of her head.
These discriminatory instances connect to a longer history of racism, as hair has been entangled in the Black struggle for freedom and protection. In the 1960s, student-activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) prepared to have their hair pulled by the police and White counterprotestors when they engaged in peaceful demonstrations.
Photographs document SNCC’s direct-action, passive resistance training, where they prepared for hair-grabbing and physical attacks. During a 1963 lunch counter sit-in in Jackson, Mississippi, White supremacists poured condiments on the heads of Prof. John Salter, and Tougaloo College student-activists Joan Trumpauer and Anne Moody.
Black hair also figured into laws about controlling Black people held in bondage. As early as 1670, the Virginia General Assembly required fugitives from slavery to have their hair “cut close” upon recapture, using forcibly cropped hair to signal “slave status” to the public.
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