Online media company NowThis turned heads at the top of 2018 with the launch of Mane, a web series focusing on the intersection between hair and culture. On Tuesday, Mane kicked off its second season with a closer look at how the presentation of naturally textured black hair has evolved on-screen, tracing the current impact made by the plethora of natural hairstyles featured in film and television hits like Black Panther and Insecure back to the middle of the last century, when Afros were rarely worn on-screen.
One notable moment in history that the segment covers was the stance taken by New York City’s WABC-TV anchor and reporter Melba Tolliver in 1971, who found her career temporarily sidelined after eschewing relaxers and wigs in favor of her own natural hair while covering the wedding of then-first daughter Tricia Nixon. Recalling the incident, Tolliver told the New York Times in 1973:
The day before I was supposed to cover Tricia Nixon’s wedding at the White House, I got my hair changed to a natural—previously, I’d been having it straightened—and can you believe they actually told me I couldn’t appear live in the studio unless I changed my hair back to the way it used to look? They said I looked less attractive—less feminine. But it was their standard of femininity, not mine.
Coincidentally, my mother was also an anchor and reporter at ABC affiliates in Minneapolis and Chicago during the 1970s and faced her own challenges when attempting to wear her natural hair before the cameras.
“I didn’t want my hair to be a distraction,” she said, noting that on television, anything that’s not customary is a visual distraction. Her solution was to swap what was then considered a “nappy” natural for a more acceptable relaxed and roller-set curly ’fro style.
To be fair, both my mother and Tolliver were reporting in an era when their very presence was a distraction; there were only a few women on the air, and even fewer black women (my mother recalls being called “Mary Tyler Moore” when covering stories at the time and was only allowed to anchor the local early-morning news).
But nearly 50 years later, even with the advancement of black women into evening-news anchor seats and a 36.6 percent drop in relaxer sales between 2012 and 2017, as a rule, we still don’t see black female newscasters wearing natural hairstyles.
But we have witnessed a rise in the popularity and visibility of natural hair on film and television, including bona fide hits like Black-ish, Grown-ish, Insecure, Queen Sugar and Black Panther. In fact, in Mane’s segment, Black-ish stars Tracee Ellis Ross and Yara Shahidi are lauded for helping to mainstream the beauty of natural hair, though host Elise Peterson aptly noted:
But I feel like the texture of Yara’s hair is what we consider to be acceptable and what many women strive for when we’re talking about natural hair. So is it fair to say that it’s almost easy for her to wear her natural hair on camera?
Her panel of three black women agreed that it is, as do we. As panelist and hairstylist Renée Haldeman (whose braided hairstyle is the stuff dreams are made of) said, “We’re still hiding the [textural] 4s and trying to deliver the 3s. ... It’s still more palatable.”
For natural-hair and beauty blogger McKenzie Dawkins (better known on YouTube as Kenzie Kenz), who has a mane of enviable purple-tipped natural curls, it’s Insecure creator and star Issa Rae who is shifting the paradigm, by demonstrating the versatility and beauty of kinkier textures both on-screen and on the red carpet.
And obviously, Black Panther was a landmark moment for the natural-hair movement, as literally every character was given a natural hairstyle (albeit with the help of wigs and extensions). It was a groundbreaking moment for cinema, but as Dawkins pointed out:
Black Panther was such a moment, because it was like, “This is for us” ... There might be a couple nonblack characters, but they’re peripheral, right? ... But it’s also like, do we see that 4c in a show where it’s not for us, explicitly?
Host Peterson considered it an issue of ignorance, coupled with a lack of curiosity.
“It’s about changing who’s in front of the camera and changing who’s behind the camera and also who’s making the decisions for both,” she said.
Her words eerily echoed the sentiment Melba Tolliver shared with the New York Times 45 years ago:
When all of that happened with my hair, there wouldn’t have been a problem if there had been a black in authority at the station. That’s why it’s important to have blacks behind the scenes, not just someone in front of the camera who doesn’t murder the English language. Those executives had no idea what it meant to me to wear my hair natural or what a stigma it had been for black women in the past to have kinky hair. They interpret news about blacks and minorities through their own perspective, as if no other perspective exists.