James E. Ford
When it Comes to Black People, Hair is Always Political!
So long as whiteness is the standard, natural Black hairstyles and features will always be seen as out of compliance.
“The Negro race ... is marked by black complexion, crisped or woolly hair, compressed cranium and a flat nose. The projection of the lower parts of the face, and the thick lips, evidently approximate it to the monkey tribe: the hordes of which it consists have always remained in the most complete state of barbarism”
- Georges Cuvier (1833)
“I had to defend you, before I even knew you!” These were the words of a Black female teacher, as she excitedly introduced herself to me in 2014 during one of my first speaking events after being named North Carolina Teacher of the Year. Confused, I asked for clarification. She explained when the official announcement was made, a post with my image was shared on Facebook. She then witnessed a parent of one of her students comment below, “Great! First, we have Muslim in the White House. Now, we have freakin’ Rastafarian (an obvious reference to my locs) as NC Teacher of the Year”. The clapback was immediate, as she assured me she had to put the woman in her place. Still, this sobering confession has stayed with me. Hair is political, whether we like it or not. But this was NOT the first, and likely won’t be the last time I’ve been confronted with such prejudice.
By now you’ve likely seen it. The haunting video of Andrew Johnson, a teenage boy in Atlantic City, NJ faced with the unnecessary ultimatum of cutting his dreadlocks or forfeiting a wrestling match. The grimace on his face alone elicits nausea, as his coaches and teammates watch on and offer “encouragement”. He eventually decides to comply with the request by the white referee. The sight of a young woman hastily taking shears to his locs has gone viral. He went on to win the match, but the question of what he lost in the process remains open.
For Black people and other historically marginalized ethnic groups, this is no small thing. Just this year we’ve witnessed a little boy in Florida be turned away on his first day of school and a Black girl in Louisiana be sent home both because their hair allegedly violated school rules. While these are just two incidences from recent memory, history is fraught with the policing of Blackness as a function of the system of white supremacy. No one knows this better than Black women and girls, who must endure having both their features and physique unduly scrutinized due to sexism and racism. In American society, pounding the proverbial “square-peg into a round-hole” is justified, even if it means forcefully breaking off the edges to make it fit. But, make no mistake. The damage done is real.
I started growing my locs during my junior year of high school in 1997. There was no natural hair movement or locticians to speak of where I grew up. In truth, it was a cultural taboo in my hometown, even amongst other Black folks. I decided to grow them as a statement of pride in my heritage. A physical recognition of the fact that as a descendant of enslaved Africans in America, my hair naturally grew in knotty spirals that coiled and locked almost without effort. Rather than alter things to conform to European-dominated norms of beauty, I endeavored to define myself -- wonderfully made in God’s image. My parents raised us with knowledge of self and our connection to the African continent. So, they didn’t have a problem with me boldly wearing my ancestry. What did give them pause was how I’d be received by the rest of the world. “I just hope you don’t get pulled over by police”, my mother exclaimed, all too familiar with the machinery of systemic racism. “Just be ready for everything that comes with it”, my dad said. Not only were their concerns well-founded, but confirmed by a life full of experiences during the 20+ years I’ve had locs.
I started to loc my hair while working at a regional Midwestern hardware franchise. One day a member of the family whose name the store bears, showed up to do a surprise walk-through of the newly-opened location at which I worked. My co-workers and I stood in position in the Floor Covering Department as he slowly made his way through the store, evaluating the condition of the building and displays. I don’t remember even making eye-contact with him, but apparently he noticed me since, he sent word to my department manager that I needed to cut my hair immediately. This was news to me, as I had read the employee handbook regarding hair prior to ever deciding to loc it. It only spoke to hair length and meeting some standard of neatness. But none of that mattered, the boss demanded it, so I was expected to comply. At the advisement of my parents, I refused. I instead invited him to fire me, so long as he put the reasoning in writing. They ultimately balked and I kept my job, but the message had been sent, “I didn’t fit in”.
Perhaps, the incident of greatest consequence for me happened while job searching years prior to teaching. I had been laid off and out of work for close to half a year. I worked odd jobs to string together a few bucks just to feel useful. With a wife, mortgage and young child, however, I reached a point of desperation and needed to find full-time work. I completed the final stage of the interview process for a assistant manager position at a car rental agency. Things looked promising. The hiring manager sat me down, told me he liked my people skills, was confident I’d be great and was ready to offer me the position, on one condition -- I had to cut my hair. When asked why, he alluded to some arbitrary notions of “professionalism”. I requested time to think about it and get back to him.
What could I do? I needed work. I had a family and financial obligations. The pressures of a white-normed society put me in a position where I was forced to make a choice, your hair or your livelihood. With the support of my wife, I decided against it, assured that I’d find a job that didn’t force me to compromise my personhood.
Consider my reception when assuming the helm for the first time in an urban classroom. My hair was again the subject of questioning, but by students. In this context it sounded like, “Aye Mr. Ford, how long you had your dreads?”, “Who twists your hair?”, “Man, you got that drop (length)! How I get mine started?” The very thing used to malign me held value in the eyes of my nearly all Black students. An interesting contrast.
I think about these moments when watching the video of young Andrew Johnson, backed into a corner by the racial biased whims of a referee with a history of discrimination. It conjures up hurtful emotions that plague the conscious with salient reminders of how much anti-blackness is still the unspoken standard. At a moments notice, it can be deployed from a position of power and force Black subjects into compliance. In this way, it is a form of violence. A bloodless coup, overthrowing our personal agency.
The facts are, Andrew never should have been forced to make that decision. He deserved to be affirmed. He was more than enough before he stepped on the mat. My radical hope is that we build a society where Black boys and girls aren't expected to "take one for the team", but are able to be their sovereign selves. Where they do not need to “lose”, in order for the dominant culture to feel like they've “won”. Where the adults (not the youth) are forced to wrestle with their biases, and matches are determined by ability, not by bigotry. One can hope, right?