Brian, Joanne, and Nathan mull over the stories we heard on this episode, and ask: what does our hair tell us about ourselves?
JOANNE: Over the past weeks, our listeners have been sending us stories that tell the meaning behind their hair. Here are a few more of those voices.
DIANA HARPER: This is Diana. It’s hard to summarize the entire weight of something like having dreadlocks, but starting dreadlocks when I was 17 in a very white and rural part of America was the first true action of bodily autonomy that I engaged in. And it was something that allowed me to claim blackness as a mixed-race person in a way that wasn’t available to me otherwise. Now, they’re just part of who I am. They also continue to represent agency and autonomy, and I love them for it.
DEBBIE SELIGSON: Hi, my name is Debbie Seligson, and I’ve had a purple streak in my hair for about seven years. I didn’t know how it would go over, but I’ve even testified in front of a congressional committee with my purple hair. I never really loved my own curly hair until I added the purple. It really has become my brand.
TJ GREGORY: Hey, this is TJ from Virginia with my facial hair story. I had wanted a beard for a while. Unfortunately, I was riding out my time on a contract with some pretty strict rules about that, to the point I was supposed to be shaving even on my time away from work. Nevertheless, I skipped it enough on weekends and leave to get a glimpse of how I’d look, and I liked it.
Anyway, when I finally separated from the service and moved on to grad school, I think it got to about eight months of growth before trimming back. It was bliss. My fellow redheads out there will understand this. Now, instead of being the guy who looks like Opie, Axl Rose, Archie, et cetera, I’m the guy with the beard. I’m OK with that.
PETER ONUF: Hello. My name’s Peter Onuf, retiree, former history professor, and before that, a journalist. And it was when I was a journalist that hair was a big thing. We’re talking about 1969. It was a hot button issue, and I had a lot of it. I was working on the New Britain Herald in New Britain, Connecticut, but I never planned to stay there, because I was a young man with great ambitions. But before I went, I was going to hitchhike across the country, I recognized the need to cut my hair in order to get rides. And the paper decided to cover my haircut, and so a colleague of mine came to the barbershop and watched me get my haircut.
There’s a picture of me and it was written up as an item in the news. Onuf gets his hair cut. What a magnificent moment. Can you imagine that now? Well, being a trimmer, as they say in the business, I let it be trimmed and, well, I’ve been fairly respectable ever since. And now don’t need to much anymore because it’s getting thinner and thinner, big bald spots, and that’s all there is.
JOANNE: Those are the voices of Diana Harper, Debbie Seligson, TJ Gregory, and for all of you who have missed him lately, BackStory’s founding host Peter Onuf. Thanks to all the listeners who reached out with their stories. I’ll be chatting with Peter on next week’s show as we celebrate our 200th episode.
BRIAN: Nathan, Joanne, I did want to come back to one of our listeners’ comments from a few minutes ago. Diana talked about growing out dreadlocks and the way that gave her a sense of bodily autonomy. And to me, that kind of tied one of the central themes of the show together, and that’s the sense that hair is something that can represent us in our real selves, like it’s an authentic representation of us, at least when we get it right.
JOANNE: Well, right, sometimes. Let’s talk a little bit about early America, because of course, I think in most people’s minds when they think about early America, what do they think about? They think about wigs, right, guys running around in wigs. And the fact of the matter is that’s, again, in a sense in league with everything else that we’re talking about in this show. Not to be taken for granted, because although we see them as normal for early America, the fact of the matter is that, go way back into the 17th century and some people really thought that wigs were upsetting the natural order of things. You know, that they were making–
BRIAN: Oh, come on.
JOANNE: Well, you know, they made men maybe look like women. They made old people look young. Somehow or other in a wig, you’re hiding something or you’re pretending to be something that you’re not. It was upsetting categories, and just for that reason, was upsetting to some people. Now, of course really the larger point here is that autonomy and authenticity maybe are in the eye of the beholder.
NATHAN: Right. You know, something else that I thought was so powerful about the callers’ remarks, Diana’s, is that as she’s describing her choice to wear dreadlocks in, say, middle America, she’s actually making a claim not just for autonomy but for community, right? I mean she’s actually attempting to claim an identity that gives her a certain kind of collective meaning and I think that’s really powerful. And again, if you talk about gentlemen’s wigs in the colonial era, I mean, so much of the power of the wig was to locate somebody within a social stratum that had, again, peers, had power associated with that particular class of society.
And if you think about the meaning of hair across the 20th century, it’s clearly about marking you as belonging to a particular kind of collective, whether that be afros in the black power period, conks in the 1940s, or something else in an earlier era. I mean, I think it’s actually pretty profound to think about hair as something that’s not just about marking authenticity or kind of a quote unquote “natural”, but really about an active self-fashioning as a kind of expression that’s both individualized, certainly, but also very collective in its meaning.
BRIAN: And Nathan, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying that in Diana’s case, that community transcends her immediate physical community most likely.
NATHAN: Absolutely. And it connects her to Ethiopia or it connects her back to the Bible, right? In the case of dreadlocks, and the Nazarenes going way back to even before colonial America in this case, right?
JOANNE: You know, I will confess that when I learned that we were doing a show about hair, I thought this was going to be a rather light episode, meaning, la, la, la, we’re going to tell some good stories, but in this case, what Nathan, what you just said about hair being a way to claim community, and I think if you bind that up with some of what we heard– Oh, that was a pun. I didn’t even intend. With some of the callers and the obvious deep meaning that their hair has for them. Both of those things, I didn’t expect to find those in this show and I find both of those things really fascinating.
NATHAN: I guess it’s proof positive yet again that sometimes the most kind of an innocuous or seemingly harmless aspects of American culture can really be full of great meaning.
JOANNE: And contain the most of our humanity.
That’s going to do it for today, but you could keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode or ask us your questions about American history. You’ll find us at backstoryradio.org or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter at BackStory Radio and if you like the show, feel free to review it in Apple Podcasts. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
NATHAN: This episode of BackStory was produced by Andrew Parsons, Bridget McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Emily Gadek, and Ramona Martinez. Jamal Milner is our technical director, Diana Williams is our digital editor, and Joey Thompson is our researcher.
JOANNE: Additional help came from Emma Greg, Courtney Sponya, and Robin Blue.
NATHAN: Our theme song was written by Nick Thorburn. Other music came from Podington Bear, Ketza, and Jizar. And as always, thanks to the Johns Hopkins University Studio in Baltimore.
BRIAN: BackStory’s produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. We’re a proud member of the Panoply Podcast Network. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the provost’s office at the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of history at the University of Virginia and the Dorothy Compton professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is Professor of the humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is Professor of history and American studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams associate professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.