Brian, Joanne, and Nathan explore the many ways that hair can act as a marker of identity — and what it means when others step in to police your hair.
NATHAN: So I really love that exchange, Brian, with A’lelia Bundles. And I got to share with you all this quote that I found that really does speak to this in Madam CJ Walker’s own terms. This is actually taken from the annual convention of National Negro Businesses in 1912.
BRIAN: No fair doing research, Nathan.
NATHAN: She says, quote, “Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face.” And she’s talking about the door being closed by black businessmen. “I feel that I am in a business that is a credit to the womanhood of our race. I went into a business that is despised, that is criticized and talked about by everybody, the business of growing hair. I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. I was promoted there to the washtub, then I was promoted to the cook kitchen, and from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations.” Unquote.
Talking about getting out of the most menial forms of labor that are available to black women at that time and providing a kind of elevation for herself and so many other women, really, hair as access. And it just made me think, again, how many other ways can we think about the value of hair as obviously an expression, but also as something as kicking down doors to new political conversations and new opportunities?
JOANNE: That’s an amazing quote on so many levels, because obviously it’s about race, but it’s also about gender and it’s also about class, right?
JOANNE: It’s about all of those things. And certainly, I think that if you look way back to early America and think about hair and markers and power, certainly there were certain ways of wearing your hair that would have been seen as assertions of power in one way or another.
And, you know, it’s sort of the same thing when you think about what people wore in the 18th century, particularly men, and they had the sort of white, frilly cuffs. The reason why wealthy people wore those is because they were the ones who could keep that clean, right? So if you had them, it was a marker that you were wealthy and you were showing it, literally, on your sleeves. And I think there was a–
NATHAN: I can’t even keep my shirt clean.
JOANNE: Yeah, I know.
NATHAN: That’s funny.
JOANNE: Yeah, I’m not referring to myself at all in any way, but that was a statement and I think hair as well in that period. Powdered hair, if you powdered your hair, was an assertion that you were wealthy enough to have that. That you had enough leisure time to worry about that. And that, you know, basically your appearance advertised to the world that you were of a certain ilk, and if you didn’t have that, the assumption was that you were not. I mean, I think it was kind of clear to people.
There’s a famous spy story during the Revolution of John Andre, who’s a British spy who was in on Benedict Arnold’s plot to deliver West Point to the British, and one of the ways in which Andre is found out is that although he’s disguised himself as John Anderson, average guy, the hair ribbon that he’s wearing has a little powder on it. And someone who sees that ribbon says, wait a minute. You’re a gentleman. So those were powerful markers. And although that’s not necessarily banging down doors, that’s certainly keeping doors closed.
NATHAN: Right. Well, hair is dangerous. And obviously, for people like Madam CJ Walker and those who she was representing, the meaning of black women’s hair was certainly different than that of the kind of powdered man of the 19th century. But there still, right? I mean, there is an idea that you can sum up the meaning of an entire group of people based on how they basically [INAUDIBLE]. I mean, the notion of the mammy, as the black woman whose hair is tied in a bandanna. That’s meant to show that she is not the person who can afford the grooming supplies. She’s not meant to look beautiful, even, in some cases, to be a woman in public.
BRIAN: Yeah, Nathan, that quote is so compelling because it’s all about control, which of course, African-Americans were struggling for, well, forever. But they have, or are at least gaining, a bit more control over their lives, certainly compared to slavery. And it’s important to remember that this is a woman who ends up employing 40,000 agents, right? She sets up what we might call the Facebook of her time by going from church to church and recruiting all of these church women to be her agents to sell these hair products.
And it strikes me also on the personal level that hair is virtually the only part of our bodies that we actually can control, that we can do something with, that we can use to show something about ourselves. I mean, maybe it’s just because I’m a six foot five bowlegged guy with a very large nose, none of which I can control and always have wanted to, that hair is one of the few things that I actually can exercise some control over. And I think that’s why it’s been so important.
JOANNE: But, you know, I want to pipe in for a moment here as a woman. We’re talking about race and class.
BRIAN: I don’t see gender, Joanne.
NATHAN: We’ll give him a pass on that one.
JOANNE: I’m not going to go there. But what I wanted to talk about for a moment is I’ve seen and read about the fact that men are capable of dressing neutrally, so that you can wear a certain kind of pair of pants and you can wear basically a nice, tidy shirt and you’re not making a statement really. And I think for women, that’s much harder to do with clothing and I think it’s equally hard to do with hair, because I think no matter what you do with your hair, you’re making a statement, to a degree. That’s not true if you’re just a guy with short hair. So if I wear my hair up, it says something. If I wear my hair down, it says something. If I cut it short, it says something.
You know, I mean, no matter what I do with my hair, and I think this is true of most women, you realize that you’re making a statement and there have been times when I’ve gotten up and spoken to the public and had my hair tied back. I gave a lecture, I finished the lecture. Someone came up to me afterwards, a guy, and said, you know, you should wear your hair down. It would be much more attractive that way.
NATHAN: Oh my God, you’re kidding.
JOANNE: Why? Why was it tied back? No, I’m not kidding.
NATHAN: And what did you say?
JOANNE: I actually said, that’s why I wear it up. I don’t think he got what I was saying. I don’t think he understood I was saying, yeah, so that you wouldn’t be thinking just what you’re thinking, but, yeah.
JOANNE: I would venture to say, guys, that probably neither one of you has stood up and given some kind of a public lecture and had someone come up to you afterwards and commented on your hair.
NATHAN: Yeah, no, never.
BRIAN: Never happened.
NATHAN: Well, no, I mean, it’s so interesting because you think about, you give these talks and the first thing you do is you kind of debrief about how it went in your own mind and I think if anybody came up and put my own appearance on the table again for one more thing to be worried about, I don’t know if I could take it.
JOANNE: Right, well, right. But I do think, and it’s related to everything that we’re saying here, hair is such a charged thing, generally, for women, I think.
BRIAN: Joanne, I want to complicate this a little bit.
JOANNE: Uh oh.
BRIAN: You guys know I have three African-American kids and I will tell you that, especially when they were young, of course, this is when I was always with them, when I would know best, when we were out in public, it was not unusual for complete strangers to come up and just start feeling their hair.
NATHAN: I think what’s interesting about the problem of touching the head of black children, because I too have three African-American children, and you actually have to be on guard about policing strangers touching your children’s heads.
BRIAN: So Nathan, I’m assuming this happens to your kids. We’ve never really talked about that.
NATHAN: It absolutely does, but I think it’s also true that my girls are already bearing the burden that Joanne is describing and so far is their hair always has a different kind of meaning than our boy, right? And our boy goes out with his hair kind of like matted up and my wife will not let the girls leave the house without it being brushed in a particular way. I mean, it’s actually kind of strange. I’ve never thought about it in this way until just now, but you know, with three children, two girls and a boy, the girls get a touch-up every day.
The boy’s just kind of left to kind of be wild and mangled and then it’s like, oh, he’s so edgy, right? It’s kind of like a positive value judgment on the fact that we don’t, but I think it is absolutely necessary to think about this dynamic where women in public are always going to have to consider their hair as a site of some kind of political commentary or meaning.
JOANNE: Right, absolutely.