No, You Cannot Have an Afro

A few months ago, the #TwitpicYourCheveuxCrepus hashtag went viral in both France and the US. It was a reaction to the French magazine Public saying Solange Knowles’ hair resembled armpit hair. Those tweeting in response instead decided to showcase the many different and beautiful styles Black hair has to offer.

Last week, on the opposite end of the spectrum from hatred of afros, Allure magazine decided to publish a tutorial on how to get the “afro” look with straight hair under the title “You (Yes, You) Can Have an Afro, Even If You Have Straight Hair” complete with a picture of a smiling White woman with her hair in tight afro-like curls.

I’m going to just go ahead and refute this right now and tell you that no, you most certainly cannot have an afro if you have straight hair.

Many will try and argue that an afro is just a hairstyle, and therefore should be something that anyone can wear. Those people are wrong. They fail to understand that afros in all of their various curl patterns are literally the natural way that hair physically grows on the heads of African-descended people.

Angela Davis (left) and another woman with afros in 1969 at UCLA. (Photo Credit: George Louis via Wikimedia)

Angela Davis (left) and another woman, both with large afros, in 1969 at UCLA. (Photo Credit: George Louis via Wikimedia)

And for well over two hundred years, it has often been considered taboo for Black people to show their hair in its natural state in public.

In Louisiana, in the late 1700s, tignon laws were established that required Black women to cover their hair. The idea of Black and mixed race women of African Ancestry having pride in their natural appearance was such a threat to Louisiana society because it gave the appearance that Black people could be of a higher stature than was permitted for them at the time. It was also believed that the hairstyles were luring White men into interracial relationships, and could potentially strengthen Black influence in New Orleans. The tignon laws were put in place to stop that influence and to essentially keep Black people relegated to a lower class.

That may seem extreme or an archaic example, but even today natural Black hair is considered inappropriate for everyday situations. In 2013, Tiana Parker was sent home from her school in Oklahoma because her dreadlocks were not considered a “presentable hairstyle.” The school even went so far as to say that dreadlocks, afros and braids were considered “faddish hairstyles” and therefore not allowed. Again in 2013, a school in Ohio tried to ban afro-puffs and twisted braids, which for Black girls is as standard a hairstyle as pigtails are for people with naturally straight hair.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, the idea of a “makeup tax” was explored. The author talks about how women in general spend a lot of money and time on makeup and beauty products in order to be considered presentable to a male-dominated workplace. If the makeup tax is this much of a financial commitment for White women, imagine then what it must be like for Black women having to spend money not just on makeup but altering their hair in order for it to be considered neat and clean by White standards. Clearly Black women’s money has a significant effect on the haircare industry, since the natural hair push has caused many companies to create products for Black hair and even buy up businesses like Shea Moisture to cover that part of the market.

You cannot erase this context to make an Afro “just a hairstyle” (full story➚). The fact that our hair is considered either “unpresentable” or a fad clearly shows the disconnect that many people have with Black hair. It is especially insulting that with the amount of work and money that Black women have had to sacrifice over the years in order for our hair to be considered “presentable,” White women especially have recently been latching onto our hairstyles and are called innovative for doing so.

Our hair is not a fad, it is the natural way our hair grows on our heads, and we have the right to say no when people try to appropriate it.

AFD Micron #5

Systemic racism doesn’t mean white men in suits having secret meetings to decide how racism happens. The murder of Sam DuBose was clearly unpremeditated and spontaneous. It’s also clearly related to the overwhelming dehumanization of black people throughout American history, the normalization of immediately using violence to deal with them, police forces that are willing to cover for each other, and so on; snap decisions made with the weight of enough racist psychology behind them don’t demand conspiracy theories.

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We Care

Last week, two articles came out on this site about Black women. One of them was about Nicki Minaj and the way media tried to force a “beef” between her and Taylor Swift. The other was a reflection on the death of Sandra Bland. On the latest Arsenal for Democracy radio show, Maria (the writer of the Sandra Bland article) and I tried to articulate how these two things are connected in terms of the lives of Black women. (You can listen to a clip here before reading the rest below.)

Still, I feel the need to make this important point: Black people are allowed to care about both.

There is a quiet suffering that is expected especially from Black women the moment tragedy hits our communities. With every case of a Black man’s death at the hands of police or racist vigilantes, after the gruesome videos of death that are becoming more and more common since last year, there has then been a video of a grieving mother, sister, wife, or daughter who — when asked over and over again about the death of their family member — is expected to give calm and even-voiced answers. If ever they stray away from that restrained grief, if ever they show anger towards the person who murdered their family, their emotions are considered too aggressive. When Eric Garner’s widow refused to accept the condolences of the man who killed her husband, it was a shock for some to see her react so negatively at a press conference.

The same attitude is used against Black people as a whole. This week, after the death of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe, outraged protesters gathered at the office of the dentist who killed him. On the internet, Black people began to compare the outrage over Cecil’s death with the lack of outrage shown over the deaths of so many Black people at the hands of police over the past year. It wasn’t long before people began to accuse Black people online of not caring about Cecil’s death and accusing us of being myopic in our fight for justice.

While I cannot and will never claim to speak for all Black people, I can say this for sure: we are capable of caring about two things at once. Despite stereotypes about our ignorance, Black people have long been able to deal with the oppression of systemic racism and also other issues as the same time.

It is not our responsibility to forgive those that are killing us. Nor is it our “place” to ignore when our lives aren’t treated with the same dignity as the lives of anything else, including wildlife. Not only that but we also have a right to take a break from dealing with systemic oppressions day in and day out. We are people, just like you, and because of that we’re not only capable of focusing on multiple issues, we’re also capable of taking a break from that when the weight of the world is too much for us.

We can care — and talk — about several things at once. Stop telling us which ones to focus on.

July 29, 2015 – Arsenal For Democracy 136

Posted by Bill on behalf of the team.

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Topics: Nicki Minaj, Sandra Bland, Misogynoir; No Child Left Behind, Illegal Immigration, Prison Reform. People: Bill, Kelley, De Ana, and Guest Maria. Produced: July 26th, 2015.

Discussion Points:

– Why it’s ok to talk about both Nicki Minaj and Sandra Bland in the same week (and how the two stories relate to each other).
– What Pres. Obama is doing on prison reform. Can Congress find a compromise on No Child Left Behind? Texas isn’t handling illegal immigration very well.

Episode 136 (52 min):
AFD 136

Related Links

AFD: De Ana: Policing Black Women’s Emotions and Opinions
AFD: Maria: What Happened to Sandra Bland?
AFD: Bill: Utah’s Homicide by Police Epidemic
AFD: Kelley: President Obama stands up for second chances
AFD: Kelley: 8 years late, Congress ready to revisit No Child Left Behind
AFD: Kelley: 3 Dem Senators say NCLB reforms don’t go far enough
AFD: Kelley: Texas abandons the 14th Amendment
AFD: Kelley: Mass graves of immigrants in Texas elicit little response

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And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video blog of our announcer, Justin.

What Happened to Sandra Bland?

Sandra Bland’s life ended when she met a wall of misogynistic racism centuries in the making. Guest post by Maria Jackson.

Sandra Bland was making her way through Texas, having just accepted a position at her Alma Mater, Prairie View A&M University, when she was pulled over, supposedly for changing lanes without signaling. Detecting that she was less than pleased, Trooper Encinia asked Bland what was “wrong”. After Bland responded in a very clear manner, Encinia described Bland as “combative and uncooperative”.

As if Bland should have greeted his traffic stop with smiles and handshakes. As if being irritable and not prostrate is a crime. When she declined to extinguish her cigarette and leave her vehicle, Encinia threatened to pull her out of the car and “light [her] up” with his taser.
After making a phone call and eventually being able to post bail, Bland was found dead in her cell.

What happened to Sandra Bland is something that has been happening for a long time, continues to happen, and will happen again.

However, this is more than a matter of the long history of suspicious deaths and sketchy police stops. There’s another context that makes it easy to get away with doing those things — especially to Black women in America.

It takes bricks to build a wall. Dozens and dozens of hardened clay pieces fitting together precisely. These bricks don’t mean much independently, but when affixed to another the walls they build can protect, defend, or deter. These walls can stand — impenetrable — for multiple generations, through hundreds of years, in near permanence.

Sandra Bland was, in part, the victim of a culture that, brick by brick, had assembled stereotypes of Black women as angry, aggressive, threatening — something to be contained forcibly. It is that wall, part of the foundation underlying Anti-Blackness, that continues to dominate our daily lives — and daily deaths.

Each week, in the news, even in “pop culture,” you can see the bricks being laid and the wall growing ever higher, even in a supposedly post-racial society.

When actress Amandla Stenberg was accused of “attacking” Kylie Jenner and being an “angry black woman”, that was a recent brick. Another brick was set in place when Nicki Minaj correctly called out the racist preferences of MTV and the VMAs but various media outlets instead depicted her as an angry, ungrateful, attacking bully (see AFD essay➚).

There are so many bricks being produced to support American racism and misogynoir against Black women, that there are even some left over to hurl. Like all stonings, those bricks are meant to silence. Ever since Sandra Bland’s murder, the same old bricks have been thrown at her corpse, attempting to bruise and sully her name to make her humanity unrecognizable.

Yesterday, Bland’s death was ruled ‘suicide by hanging’. The announcement of these findings were coupled with toxicology reports of marijuana found in her blood. However, without results that speak to how long ago Bland smoked or ingested the drug, Warren Diepraam, the first assistant district attorney of Waller County, felt free to hypothesize (rather implausibly) that it was “possible that it could have been smoked in the jail.”

Brick, flung.

Like me, Bland was searching for meaning. Like me, Bland had reportedly suffered from joblessness. Like me, Bland was was sick and tired institutional and systemic racism. Like me, Bland was a Black American Millennial. She was connected to a community of like minds who support #BlackLivesMatter. Bland made videos expressing her frustration with racism and gave voice to the movement.

The bricks that build the walls that divide us, crush us. Bland and I used the same hashtags and technology to talk about the sorrow and rage felt at the deaths of black men and women at the hands of those (supposedly) sworn to serve and protect. No one wakes up expecting to become a hashtag at the end of the day, but now we #SayHerName too: Sandra Bland.

Guest essayist Maria Jackson is a thirty-something, 4th generation Georgia Peach who writes for Shakefire.com and can be heard trading opinions and laughter on the Nerdgasm Noire podcast, with Arsenal For Democracy columnist De Ana and others. Co-owner and full time fatshionista for luvfattax.com.

Policing Black Women’s Emotions and Opinions

The bigger picture framing Nicki Minaj’s frustrated tweets about the VMAs.

Nicki Minaj at the 2010 VMAs. (Photo Credit: Philip Nelson / flickr)

Nicki Minaj at the 2010 VMAs. (Photo Credit: Philip Nelson / flickr)

I’ve said before that there is an unwritten code of conduct that Black women must adhere to in order to be taken seriously, listened to, or even allowed to live.

Most other people will quickly claim it’s the attitudes of Black women that causes us to be dehumanized, but that is untrue. Even when we’re being polite, any disagreement from Black women is treated as aggression. So where and when are we allowed to speak up if we’re being mistreated, when everything we say is considered an attack?

On Tuesday, rapper Nicki Minaj took to Twitter to vent about the VMA nominations. Nicki is by far the most popular female rapper out there right now. She has found major pop success as well. But she has always been very vocal about how Black women in the music industry often don’t get the recognition they deserve for their work.

She’s no stranger to the way the public sees her (and other Black women) either, so in her tweets on Tuesday, Nicki Minaj states plainly her disappointment at her record breaking video for Anaconda being snubbed for Video of the Year. Nicki points out that although her video was a viral success, broke Vevo records, and was even parodied on the Ellen DeGeneres show, her video did not receive a nomination. She also points out that her video was a celebration of women’s bodies, but it seemed that this type of celebration was only acceptable on thinner artists.

Then this happened.

Within the hour, articles popped up all over the internet about a “feud” between the two women, stating that Nicki Minaj had attacked Taylor in her tweets, even though Taylor Swift’s name wasn’t mentioned once, nor had Nicki been malicious towards other artists.

Nicki, in her own words, was pointing out where she saw how misogyny played a part in who was considered worthy of accolades and who was looked over. She was pointing out a complex problem in the most direct way possible. But it seemed that the media wanted to skip over her entire point and instead focus on a non-existent feud between the her and Taylor Swift.

Taylor Swift’s tweets did more than just derail a real and important point that Nicki Minaj was trying to make. Aside from being the most obvious case of a hit dog hollering, Taylor’s tweet demonstrated a huge issue that mainstream White Feminism has when it comes to dealing with Black women and other People of Color.

They don’t get that our experiences are different from theirs and often try an chastise us for perceived slights against them, while ignoring the real ones we face. Although Nicki Minaj’s tweets are a criticism of the VMAs, Taylor tries to make it seem as if Nicki is “pit[ting] women against women” for simply speaking about her experience as a thick and Black woman in the music industry.

Instead of understanding that Nicki’s experience as a woman is different from what her own might be, Taylor instead falls back to a very narrow — and White — view of what life is like as a woman.
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My Stormtrooper is Black, Just Like My President

Why John Boyega’s starring role in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will be so important.

It was announced a couple of years ago, shortly after Lucasfilm was officially sold to Disney, that there were going to be new Star Wars films on the way. As the months passed, actors, writers, and directors were announced. While we were all excited about the return of Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca and everyone’s favorite ‘droids — R2D2 and C3PO — not everyone was entirely on board with J.J. Abrams being brought on to the project. At the time, the movie seemed like it was a long ways away, and something that we shouldn’t get excited for just yet.

Then, in November 2014, on the day after Thanksgiving, a teaser trailer was released. In the trailer we see the usual trappings of a Star Wars film, as well as as new characters, and even a little round and rolling ‘droid by the name of BB-8. The trailer brought a lot of excitement to some, but a certain segment of people were upset. Why? Because of the appearance of actor John Boyega in a Stormtrooper costume. Apparently, they believed very fervently that Stormtroopers are supposed to be White.

John Boyega in Stormtrooper armor in the November 2014 trailer for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

John Boyega in Stormtrooper armor in the November 2014 trailer for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

(Editor’s nerdly note: Canonically, within the movies, Stormtroopers do not have a defined skin color or origin and are never seen without their helmets on. There is no reason to believe they were all White. Their predecessors in the clone troopers of the Grand Army of the Republic were all clones of Jango Fett, played in the films by part-Maori actor Temuera Morrison.)

On April 16th, the second teaser trailer for the movie was released, and John Boyega is again seen in the Stormtrooper armor, as well as in regular clothing and looks to be one of the lead characters in the film. It is still unknown whether or not his character is actually a Stormtrooper or in some kind of disguise (like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in the original “Star Wars” film from 1977).

Why is this exciting? Because the Star Wars films, despite being diverse in their supporting or background casting, have yet to show as much diversity in casting their main characters. Although characters like Mace Windu and Lando Calrissian are iconic and have interesting backstories on their own (if you have time to read all of those books), none of the Star Wars films can even pass the first rule of the Racial Bechdel test. That test being: It has to have two People of Color in it, who talk to each other, not about White people.

While casting John Boyega as a main character alone doesn’t fix the issue automatically, it is a great starting point. Main characters in movies have character growth, personal histories, and, most importantly, storylines that are about them. Those backgrounds generally also imply other People of Color, who can potentially be introduced as well. John Boyega’s character therefore likely means interaction with other POC side-characters, who potentially focus on something other than the usual white protagonists you see so often in films. Especially in Sci-Fi.

This also isn’t the first time this specific actor has starred in a sci-fi role. Many people will remember John Boyega as the critically-acclaimed breakout star of the 2011 film Attack the Block.

That film was much less Space Opera than the Star Wars franchise and instead deals with a group of teenagers from the slums fighting off an alien invasion. That film also has not one but three main characters of color, and a diverse enough background cast that it passes the Racial Bechdel test on multiple occasions with flying colors. Aside from that, John Boyega’s performance as that main character Moses is compelling. He’s the type of anti-hero that many other gritty movies hope to portray.
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