Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Hair Up There

If you're ever looking for inspiration on a day off, turn to The Jeffersons.

The adventures of George and Weezie movin' on up the East Side have always been a joy. There's no way I couldn't love a show with fellow Philly native Sherman Hemsley, Mary from 227 and Lenny Kravitz's mom, right?

So there I was, on my off day watching The Jeffersons, stumbled upon this guy and posted this photo to my Instagram. I was fascinated. Because there's nothing like a 1970s balding Afro, the bald-fro.


I wrote next to the photo: “As a balding man myself, maybe it's time I bring this look back? But maybe with full-on Martin Van Buren muttonchops?”

But now I'm thinking about that old rub, hair politics. And, on top of that, blerd hair politics!

Not so familiar with hair politics? Sit right down and I'll tell you a tale.


Nearly everything is up for debate when it comes to black people thanks to that sociocultural bag-of-cats known as race, and hair is no exception. Whether it's dreadlocks, straight hair, weaves, conks, Afros, baldies or shaved heads, black hair has long been seen as an indicator, authenticator, validator, or violator. 

Those aspects of black hair and black hair politics typically come from the white gaze, a racial dominance rooted in a Western Eurocentric view that sees black hair – in its natural state and tendencies – as unruly, unkempt, wild, even ugly. No cornrows or dreads in the corporate office, and a high-top fade is reserved for hip-hop artists and NBA players only.

It could be worse. I could be female. My experience is nothing compared to the haterade bath received when living under the double yoke of racism and sexism. Doesn't matter if she's a news anchor who decides to wear her hair short and natural. Or a platinum-selling pop star going long and blonde. Or a gold medal-winning teenage gymnast wearing her permed hair in a makeshift ponytail. Or the eldest daughter of the leader of the free world.

The hair politics happen inside the race as well as from outside, with talks of “good hair” and “black hair,” on the spectrum from straight to kinky. My mother talked of “training” my hair by brushing and combing constantly, as if it were some wild animal. And the shame that would be bestowed if my hair appeared too nappy. You know, what it does naturally.

Blerds are not immune to hair politics, either. They have their own.

I've almost never had cool hair. Never. As a kid, I had the basic high-and-tight. No parts cut into the hair, no sick fades, no high top, nothing. Wasn't allowed. So, basically, the Carlton and the Urkel.

blerd, black hair

Later on, I could have had cool blerd hair. The bushier the head, the higher in the blerdocracy you could ascend. Spike Lee, Cornel West, Touré, W. Kamau Bell, Larenz Tate in Love Jones, D.L. Hughley, they're all waiting for me up there.

blerd, black hair

If you want to show off as an educated, thoughtful, artistic, sharp-edged black man, grow that shit out. Even Chris Rock has gotten in on the game. (Rock also directed the documentary Good Hair, which explored the subject of black women and their complicated relationship with hair.)

The blerd hair game got me, for a while, during those college years known as the late 1990s, coupled with no budget for frequent haircuts. And then a girl I liked mentioned one day that I would look good with a shaved head, the suddenly awesome trend of the early 2000s. She planted the seed that became a tree, and out came the razor.

I'd dropped 15 pounds, too, and was muscular for the first time in my life. (Thanks, fellow crome-domer Billy Blanks! That Tae Bo was awesome.) The girl I liked? She said I looked sexy. Bam! From blerd to bad with the flick of a Bic.

And so I stayed, leather jackets, ribbed T-shirts and all, for a solid five years or crome-domery. Chances are I looked like a littler, younger Chi McBride. (Go watch Human Target, OK? It lives on in DVD form!) 

blerd, black hair

Turned out that hair, just like youth, was wasted on the young. By the time I wanted hair again at 25, it wasn't growing back so well any more. And I was back to the Carlton high-and-tight. The balding man's best friend.

These days, I hit up the ghetto barbershops like I grew up in, and they can add a little flavor. But it's still the high-and-tight.

I don't lament my hair often, but every once in a while, I see the hair growing fuller, and I think about whether I really want it back. The sides are thick and wooly, and then rise to thin patches up top, unearthing unnatural undulations to my silhouette.

Do I dare to keep going? Do I let it grow, undulations be damned? My bald-fro friend on The Jeffersons stands before me like folicular Everest. He dares me.

The Instagram and Facebook friends, they dare me. My wife, who likes pretty much any look I take on, also is game for a furball-headed husband.

But my bald-fro Jeffersons man dares me to go farther, to do more than he ever tried. Those Martin Van Buren muttonchops are calling me. Take them on, and perhaps I could go back to one of the greatest blerds of all: Frederick Douglass.

blerd, black hair

Douglass, whose brilliance not even slavery and the constant threat of death by abolitionist-hunters could extinguish. Whose unstoppable kinky mane and proud whiskers were both stately and rebellious.

Whose home I once visited as a child. Whose biography I have read a few times. Whose Independence Day speech I've heard passionately read every July 4 by fellow famous blerd and Harvard alumnus, How To Be Black author Baratunde Thurston.

Yes. I could do that. One day.

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