The Afro & American Discomfort
by Cherise "Reese" Charleswell
Locs, twists, braid-outs, twist-outs, bantu knots, cornrows, and afros seem to abound. Some are referring to it as a natural hair revolution, while others are offended by those who consider the move for women of African descent to embrace their varying natural textures as something that is nothing more than a trend. For many it is a lifestyle change, and one that forces them to deal with deep-seated psychological and social issues. Whether it is their former beliefs on what “will work for them” and what is considered beautiful, or having to deal with the criticism of relatives and the harsh reality that many Black people view their natural curly-kinky hair as a complete abomination.
In the midst of all of these personal issues and those within their community, Black women who opt to wear their natural hair are face with a greater burden, and that is the American discomfort with the Afro. Within American cultural and social institutions, the Afro is both an iconic symbol and source of great discomfort. Afros are associated with those who are radicals and Afro-wearing Black women are believed to be militants. Images of Kathleen Cleaver and Angela Davis, with their fists raised in the air, and aerodynamic afros, are those that helped to shape America’s anxiety about Black women’s natural hair.
In 2008, when Michelle Obama was being criticized for being some what unpatriotic, the New Yorker magazine, released a cover, where Mrs Obama was depicted with a voluminous afro, instead of her relaxed locs, wearing military fatigue, and holding automatic weaponry. The messages were clear, a Black woman who alludes to this nation’s troubled history, who points out past and continued injustices, and who dares to wear unprocessed hair, simply must be viewed as an enemy combatant; who harbors hopes of attacking or destroying the United States.
For some reason, the open expression of African heritage is viewed negatively, yet other cultures and ethnicities are allowed to embrace, celebrate, and work towards the preservation of their cultural and ethnic ties. Asian Americans are not criticized when they create Chinatowns, Little Tokyo, etc. that help to assimilate newly arriving Asian immigrants, serve as places to access traditional foods and products.
Likewise, Jewish Americans, are free to openly wear the yamuka, and are praised for their celebration of their heritage. Polish Americans, Italian Americans, and the more recently arriving Armenian Americans, as well as other groups; are all able to openly embrace their individual heritage. Taking their children to ethnic schools, as many Armenians, Persians, and other cultures do, is not considered a militant action. It just seems that these actions are deemed to be so, when carried out by people of African descent, and of course a sign of the most militant are those with thick, voluminous, untamed afros.
Some how, the simple act of self-acceptance and embracing the hair texture that naturally springs forth from one’s scalp is deemed to be a radical act, carried out by separatist. In other words, Black women reveling in their own unique beauty, who have grown tired of the cost and time investment associated with processing their hair, and who are openly celebrating their African heritage, are viewed as a threat to America, or is it just a threat to the notion of the American standard of beauty? You know, pale skin, light eyes, and straight glossy hair. It seems as if America has a problem with Black women rejecting this notion.
The recent controversial firing of meteorologist Rhonda Lee, who responded to gross remarks made about her physical appearance, and most notably afro, helps to show how threatened America is by a Black woman who is comfortable wearing her hair in its natural state. Rhonda Lee provided a concise and straight-forward response to her attacker, yet she was terminated and viewed as the aggressor. Surely, rocking that afro, and having a “sassy” retort makes her the fictional militant Black woman that hates America.
However just before, newscaster ___ was applauded and supported for giving a response to a viewer who attacked her weight. She was not terminated over the act. Furthermore, the question could be asked, if Rhonda Lee had publicly come “out of the closet” instead of out from under processed hair and hair weaves, would she not have been applauded as well, and called courageous?
In the end, the afro, in all of its kinky-curly-coily glory stand as a reminder of African roots, and as a reminder of the atrocities committed against Africans brought to, and who continue to live in America. The discomfort is not just with the afro, but with the full breadth of the American historical past and the dismantling of the notions of superiority; particularly standards of beauty.