Why a Hairstyle Made Headlines

The way she was: Rep. Cynthia McKinney presenting a Bronze Star in 2002, and at a news conference in 1997.
The way she was: Rep. Cynthia McKinney presenting a Bronze Star in 2002, and at a news conference in 1997. (By Erik S. Lesser -- Getty Images)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2006

When Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) summoned the media to Howard University last week to tell her side of the story in an altercation with a Capitol Police officer, she assumed the traditional news conference position behind a podium and a bank of microphones.

She stood there wearing a coral-colored jacket and dangling earrings and raising the serious issue of racial injustice. But it was impossible not to stare at her hair. As your plainspoken mother might say, it appeared to be standing all over her head.

McKinney, perspiring lightly, talked about having been stopped, touched and disrespected by the officer. The congresswoman, who is African American, suggested that the police officer, who is white, had engaged in racial profiling. He has alleged that she struck him with her cellphone.

The incident evolved into a hullabaloo. By yesterday she had apologized on the House floor, expressing her "sincere regret" over the incident. She still may be prosecuted for her part in the dispute.

Aesthetically speaking, it was not one of McKinney's better moments. Her hair, which she had for years worn in thick braids, seemed to be in a limbo between a polished Afro and a head of funky twists. Had the humidity gotten to it?

In an investigation into her personal styling techniques, a call went out to her Washington office. McKinney started wearing her hair loose in January, according to spokesman Coz Carson. When asked whether the new style had been done by a professional or by the congresswoman herself, Carson shouted, "That's a woman's question!" Which is to say, he did not know the answer, nor did he respond to a subsequent e-mail assuring him that the question was asked in all seriousness.

McKinney at a Martin Luther King service in January.
McKinney at a Martin Luther King service in January.( - AP)
Hairstylist Christine Kendrick, who does not work with McKinney, provided a few general insights. As far as she could tell, McKinney's new style is a "twist-out." "You can keep the look for about three days," says Kendrick, who owns Artistic Expressions Natural Hair Salon in Camp Springs.

"But if it gets wet, it's just all over. . . . And when it hits the elements, it dries out." At the news conference, it looked as though McKinney's twist-out had passed its expiration date.

In January, at a commemoration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta, McKinney was at the pulpit in Ebenezer Baptist Church. Her hair was loose and a flattering shade of brown. It spiraled out and away from her head in a mane of tight coils. It was an example of the kind of controlled chaos that defines a fresh twist-out. It looked good.

Everyone has a bad hair day, whether it is straight hair that goes limp, curls that turn frizzy or kinky hair that becomes unruly. So it would be reasonable to think that McKinney's hairdo should not have elicited anything more than a shrug or a knowing and sympathetic whisper among black women, "Girrrl, did you see her head?"

Instead, talk turned ugly on blogs about her news-conference hair. It became the impetus for all sorts of racially driven insults about her locks and their natural texture. A black woman's hair is an easy, timeworn source of racist mockery. It has become an exhausting cliche of self-loathing whether it is kinky, hot-combed, braided, locked or chemically relaxed. (Indeed, plenty of black folks see all kinds of dire race-traitor undertones in Condoleezza Rice's smooth, controlled cap of hair.) A black woman's hair is a bottomless source of inspiration for essays, books and documentaries.

But for McKinney, hair is part of her politics.

Iin 1997, her little-girl braids were so remarkable that without them, she no longer looked like herself.
Iin 1997, her little-girl braids were so remarkable that without them, she no longer looked like herself.
And dismissing queries about it seems a bit disingenuous, since so much of her public persona, from the moment she arrived in Congress in 1992, has been based on her hair. Up until this year, she wore it in two thick braids wrapped around her head -- often held together by a large bow -- despite suggestions from her own advisers to change it. It was a hairstyle sometimes seen on elementary school girls, but rarely on professional women. The braids made her look as though she should be hiking up the Alps wearing a gingham dress and carrying two milk pails.

Most women tend to choose a hairstyle based on some combination of its flattering effects and ease of maintenance. Susan Taylor, editorial director of Essence, for instance, wears braids that suggest sophistication and polish. McKinney's agenda seemed to combine ease with something else entirely. The style seemed calculated to portray her as the underdog. It was purposefully out of fashion. Aggressively not slick. Ostentatiously humble.

Anyone who has the smarts and the tenacity to be the first black woman elected to Congress from Georgia clearly understands the visual politics of wearing milkmaid braids and gold tennis shoes into the corridors of power. Her choices drive home the point that she is exceptional. She rolls hair, clothes and race into a tight ball. And it becomes impossible to talk about one without getting tangled up in the others.

Among the many talking points repeated over the past week was the suggestion that the police officer did not recognize McKinney because she had swapped her signature braids for a loose -- and much more flattering -- style. She countered that even though her hairstyle was different, her face was still the same.

"Katherine Harris, Nancy Pelosi changed their hair. The thing that doesn't change is the shape of your nose, your eyes, your forehead," Carson said.

It doesn't require much of a leap to think that the police didn't see the details of McKinney's face. To think that they saw only blackness and braids. Without the braids, the "blackness" didn't belong; it wasn't familiar. It was undistinguished and suspicious.

But McKinney also made her hairstyle into such a symbol that it was hard to see the person behind it. Who could notice the cheekbones, the nose and the smile with the loaded distractions of that washerwoman crown of braids?

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