Friday, September 23, 2011

The Afro-American wars

The latest firefight in the social and cultural war on African American identity took place on Monday in the Atlanta airport. NBC Dallas Fort Worth reported this on Tuesday:

Dallas resident Isis Brantley said she was stopped on Monday at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta after she went through security ...

Brantley said an agent asked her if someone had checked her hair. She said no one had and continued on her way. She then heard someone yelling as she went down the escalator to catch her flight.

"I just heard these voices saying, 'Hey you, hey you, ma'am, stop. Stop -- the lady with the hair, you," she said.

Two TSA agents told her she could not go any further until they checked her hair for explosives, Brantley said.

She said she reluctantly allowed them to do it. The agents patted her hair down right there instead of asking to return to a private area for screening.

"And so she started patting my hair, and I was in tears at that point," Brantley said. "And she was digging in my scalp."

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This of course followed the Battle of Nivea, waged last month, a conflict started when the personal products company by that name published an in various magazines that cast the Afro hairstyle in an ugly, backward light. In the ad, a clean-cut brother, groomed to the nines, stands about to hurl a severed head (presumably an earlier incarnation of his own) literally out of his life.

The head bears a beard and an Afro. The ad copy reads: “LOOK LIKE YOU GIVE A DAMN” and calls on black men to “RE-CIVILIZE YOURSELF.”

The blowback was immediate and considerable. Proud Afro wearer Questlove of The Roots took umbrage online (“#fucknivea”), and African American thought and style leaders weighed in, justifiably pushing back against the Afro=barbarian theme.

Chastened, Nivea issued an apology via Facebook:

“This ad was inappropriate and offensive,” the company said. “It was never our intention to offend anyone, and for this we are deeply sorry. This ad will never be used again. Diversity and equal opportunity are crucial values of our company."

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It all points to the persistence of one of the things that America has never been comfortable with: black hair. Few things distill the singularity of the African American experience quite like this mess on our heads. Dyed, fried, laid to the side, jheri-curled, relaxed, weaved, bone straight, cornrowed and natural, black hair is the antennae that transmits an essence, maybe the essence, of who and what we are.

That foundational aspect of black experience has unsettled the marketeers of American business. They don’t know what to do with it. The cultural component of black hair and its maintenance has always been a private thing, a relationship between customer and stylist that goes beyond pleasantries.

When black men gather at the barbershop or black women meet at the beauty salon, there’s a camaraderie and repartee borne of common ancestry and common experience — the kind of boisterous, freewheeling thing that wouldn’t go over too well at Fantastic Sam’s.

Simply put, the black-hair experience is a thing apart from much of the mainstream of American society. And what that mainstream can’t understand, it tends to ostracize, marginalize, demonize … even un-civilize. That’s why Isis Brantley got a follicle strip-search in Atlanta on Monday.

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Over the last ten-twenty years, black men have tried to circumvent the marginalization the whole hair issue has created by taking the more extreme route: Go bald. It became a fashion statement all its own, as athletes, musicians and actors cut it all off. The rationale was straightforward and entirely credible: The thinking went that being bald was a Statement; it reflected a cooler, cleaner, more polished look that dovetailed with the esthetic of lean efficiency and professionalism in the workplace (and its novelty at that time gave you a leg up with the ladies).

Fast forward a decade or so: every third African American man you pass on the street has cut hair out of his life, or cut it so severely, so close-cropped that it might as well not even be there. And even though the original rationale may still be in force, you can’t but think that this anonymizing, scorched-earth practice toward one of the defining things about black men has taken a toll — on black neighborhood commerce; on the special kinship conversation of the barbershop; and on some part of our identity.

Not collectively but in sizable numbers just the same, black men sense as though that avenue of hirsute expression is proscribed by the wider culture. Questlove and fellow Afro maverick Cornel West get major props for their tonsorial daring, of course, but in the main, black men have long suspected that majority society always quietly believed what that Nivea ad had the dumb nerve to say out loud.

So, many of them go the bald route and, in the process, by coincidence or by design, neutralize another aspect of what makes them singular as black men. In an American demographic that has historically used hair as a touchstone for its own beleaguered history, the act of totally cutting one’s hair off negates some measure of individuality.

Which is to be expected: When everyone’s making a Statement, no one’s making a Statement.

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The war between individuality and conformity goes on, for black men and women alike. So does the parallel cultural war reflected in a TSA grope at an airport in the Deep South, and in an ad for face scrub and shaving cream that paints a black male hairstyle as nothing less than a throwback.

Two broadsides from the other side — the side that’d have us believe it stands for nothing less than Western civilization. But we fire back. The blogosphere calls for a boycott of Nivea’s goods. Questlove lights ‘em up with a hashtag.

And somewhere, a black American man decides to let that ancestral legacy on his head get a little bit longer, a little more defiantly self-evident day by week by month. Just because. It’s obstinance, it’s human nature. But it’s also certainly a matter of survival:

When something pushes you, you damn well push back.

Image credits: Brantley: Scott Gordon, Bro with 'fro: via Long cornrows: Hokuto lover via Wikipedia (public domain)

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