New York’s incoming first family says it all with their hair

Bill de Blasio’s liberal policies aren’t the only thing on display as he moves onto the national stage as New York’s mayor-elect. His family’s hair is also front and center. For those just tuning in:

Wife Chirlane McCray’s long dreadlocks are often pulled into a smart, flowing ponytail. Son Dante’s famously large Afro stands triumphant. His daughter, Chiara, wears her loose, kinky locks framed with a band of roses.

For a rare instant in the nation’s electoral history, the African American hair politic is on full display.

The hair aesthetic of de Blasio’s family speaks to the political moment and the culture of New York, says Brooklyn-based writer and image activist Michaela Angela Davis, who calls Dante’s Afro his father’s “most interesting surrogate.”

It’s “the optics,” she says. “This family probably understands the diversity of New York in a way we haven’t seen before.”

The family could have made more conservative choices for its appearance at Tuesday night’s victory party. Dante, 16, could have cut down his Afro. Chiara, 18, could have nixed the crown of flowers. But the family is self-expressive, and that comes across.

Davis calls them “typically Park Slope,” describing the Brooklyn neighborhood known for its progressive politics, architectural history and multiculturalism.

“This one family has these three hairstyles,” Davis says. “They kind of help explain the bouquet of who we are.”

The family’s hair story has been a line in de Blasio’s campaign and is guaranteed to be imprinted onto American consciousness during the mayor’s term. New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, used heavily to detain black and Hispanic boys and men, was a pivotal issue in the Democratic primary, and his son’s Afro — which identifies him as black at a glance — marked the future mayor as a stakeholder in the debate. It made clear that in navigating the hair politics in his own house, de Blasio has an intimacy with black culture that most white politicians don’t.

That Jim Kelly-style towering silhouette got a great deal of play this summer in a well-received advertisement in which Dante vouched for his dad’s credibility. De Blasio began to rise in the polls soon afterward. John Del Cecato, a longtime Democratic strategist who refers to himself as “follicly challenged,” created the ad. He said in an e-mail Wednesday that “the image of such a well-coifed family” evokes youthfulness, “while also inspiring me about New York’s future.”

De Blasio’s campaign also referred to a summer interview Dante gave to DNAInfo.com.

“Honestly, for years my hair was really just for me. I didn’t think people would love it so much,” Dante told the Web site about his Afro, which he’s been growing since the third grade. It was, in part, inspired by Huey Freeman, the black nationalist main character in “The Boondocks” comic strip and TV show.

Political women understand the potential of hair not just as an expression of personal style, but a way to telegraph meaning. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s headbands, bobs and smart, no-
nonsense short cuts were all discussed during her tenure as first lady and a U.S. senator. “Pay attention to your hair because everyone else will,” she famously said. And in 2008, her campaign produced brochures showing her hair in all its incarnations through the years, which staffers passed out to beauty salons in an appeal to female voters.

After Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection, which fell around the time Michelle Obama turned 49, the president joked that her fresh-cut bangs were “the most significant event” of the inaugural weekend. The haircut added interest to the family’s look, which the nation had grown familiar with after the Obamas’ four years in the White House.

Several members of Congress wear their hair in short natural cuts or braids — Sheila Jackson Lee and Donna Edwards come to mind — but the prominence of New York’s soon-to-be first family adds a fresh dimension.

Commentary on the hair of de Blasio’s family has ventured into new territory. When Dante said he washed his hair only about once a week — normal for black hair, which can become brittle and dry from over-washing — a reporter cheekily tweeted that perhaps his parents should encourage him to shampoo more often. His mom tweeted back: The reporter “obviously knows little, if anything, about African American hair.”

The nation is about to get a primer.

Hair has been a proxy for respectability and standards. Rare is the corporate executive with pop-star hair. For African Americans, whose hair, by definition, is countercultural, the negotiations between self-expression and mainstream acceptance have been particularly fraught.

Natural black hairstyles — first politicized in the 1960s — have been enjoying a renaissance recently. For women, hair products for all textures have made straightening hair chemically less a convenience than a choice.

“It is still an affirmation of black is beautiful, but I don’t think people view it as a militant choice,” says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, where she studies black politics.

Within de Blasio’s family, there’s a range: His wife wears longer locks, which signifies a longtime commitment. Chiara is more bohemian with her piercings, loose locks and flowers in her hair. She’s also worn braids and an Afro.

So if Gracie Mansion is about to be home to natural hairstyles, is 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. ready?

While endorsing de Blasio for mayor this summer, the president complimented Dante’s Afro, saying the teen has “the same hairdo I had back in 1978. Although, I have to confess, my Afro was never that good.”

The first lady wears her hair in more traditionally straight styles, but her daughters have at various times worn cornrows, twists and curly styles, especially for the summer. However, their hair is often straightened for special occasions.

Ultimately, “it wouldn’t have mattered” whether the de Blasios straightened their hair or not, Gillespie says. “The fact that this is an interracial family is going to be notable in politics.”

Interracial families remain relatively rare on the political scene, she says, and the fact that themayor-elect wears his graying hair in a traditional close-cut manner, while his family is more unconventional, is politically singular.

Although it’s unclear whether the nation as a whole is ready to embrace kinky hair, Davis sees the de Blasios’ look as perhaps a baby step toward a new political and cultural era. “We’re going to have locks on the national stage. That’s awesome, right?”

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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