When Don Imus called the Rutgers University basketball team a bunch of "nappy-headed ho's" he brought to the fore the degree to which black women's hair has served as a visible marker of our political and social marginalization.
Nappy, a historically derogatory term used to describe hair that is short and tightly coiled, is a preeminent example of how social and cultural ideas are transmitted through bodies. Since African women first arrived on American shores, the bends and twists of our hair have became markers of our subhuman status and convenient rationales for denying us our rightful claims to citizenship. Establishing the upper and lower limits of humanity was of particular interest to Enlightenment era thinkers, who struggled to balance the ideals of the French Revolution and the Declaration of Independence with the fact of slavery. The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen did not discriminate on the basis of race or sex and had the potential to be applied universally. It was precisely because an appeal to natural rights could only be countered by proof of natural inequality that hair texture, one of the most obvious indicators of physical differences between the races, was seized upon.
Nappy hair was demonstrable proof of the fact that neither human physiology nor human nature was uniform and, therefore, that social inequalities could be justified. Saartjie Baartman, a South African "bushwoman," was exhibited like a circus freak in the Shows of London between 1810 and 1815. The leading French anatomist of the day, George Cuvier, speculated that Baartman might be the "missing link" between the human and animal worlds because of her "peculiar features" including her "enormous buttocks" and "short, curling hair." In "Notes on the State of Virginia," Thomas Jefferson reflected on why it would be impossible to incorporate blacks into the body politic after emancipation. He concluded it was because of the differences "both physical and moral," chief among them the absence of long, flowing hair.
For a runaway slave, the kink in her hair could mean the difference between freedom in the North and enslavement or worse if she were to be caught and returned to her master. Miscegenation meant that some slaves had skin as light as whites and the rule of thumb was that hair was a more reliable indicator than skin of a person's racial heritage. Thus, runaway slaves often shaved their heads in order to get rid of any evidence of their ancestry and posters advertising for fugitive slaves often warned slave catchers to be on the lookout for runaways with shaved heads : "They might pass for white."
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In the late 1960s, after the FBI declared Angela Davis one of the country's 10 most wanted criminals, thousands of other law-abiding, Afro-wearing African-American women became targets of state repression -- accosted, harassed, and arrested by police, the FBI, and immigration agents. The "wanted" posters that featured Davis, her huge Afro framing her face like a halo, appeared in post offices and government buildings all over America, not to mention on television and in Life magazine. Her "nappy hair" served not only to structure popular opinions about her as a dangerous criminal, but also made it possible to deny the rights of due process and habeas corpus to any young black woman, simply on the basis of her hairstyle.
For African-American women, the personal has always been political. What grows out of our head can mean the difference between being a citizen and being a subject; being enslaved or free; alive or dead. As Don Imus found out this week, 300 years of a tangled and painful racial history cannot be washed away with a simple apology.
Zine Magubane is an associate professor of sociology and African diaspora studies at Boston College.
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