McKinney's Hair and Affair

By Jabari Asim
Monday, April 10, 2006; 12:30 PM

WASHINGTON -- First of all, I like Cynthia McKinney's hair. Not just the new "do," but the old "do" too.

In fact, I've always preferred the Georgia Democrat's personal style to her shoot-from-the lip congressional style. Her look is a tough act to follow and harder still to ignore. Amid the lacquered plasticity of Capitol Hill, McKinney's trademark braids and flowing, African-influenced attire seemed both regal and reassuring.

Some observers have compared her wrap-around braids to a schoolgirl's look, but I couldn't disagree more. Unlike the artificial looking, yarn-like locks favored by some African-American notables such as Susan Taylor, the legendary former editor of Essence magazine, or the bead-bedecked extensions once worn by Venus and Serena Williams, McKinney's simple plaits indicated a woman at ease with her natural self. They also recalled the glorious 1970s, when a new kind of woman appeared on Capitol Hill. That was the decade when black women who'd cut their teeth on the civil rights movement brought their unpretentious, brilliant personalities into the corridors of power -- women like Eleanor Holmes Norton and Marian Wright Edelman. These women's styles made it clear that they'd be no one's brown-skinned Betty Crocker. To my young eyes, they reminded me of my plain-spoken mother, who went natural in 1967 and never looked back.

McKinney's latest hairstyle, featuring twists instead of braids, seems a natural evolution. It often adorns the heads of the dazzling young women I see on my commuter train everyday. They are proud, natural and, as the saying goes, happy to be nappy.

I don't believe, however, that McKinney's change led to her recent dust-up with a Capitol Hill policeman, nor do I believe that much of the ignorant rancor -- in blogs and on talk radio shows -- surrounding her haircut is racist. Ignorance and racism are often connected but they're not the same thing. Besides, any politician's hair is fair game, regardless of skin color or political affiliation. Remember Hillary's headbands? And Trent Lott's lacquered helmet has also inspired a punch line or two.

When she was stopped by the officer on Capitol Hill, McKinney was not wearing the lapel pin that identifies her as a member of Congress. That obligation doesn't seem unduly burdensome. Still, I understand McKinney's pique. The incident at first made me think of a similar one involving a prominent black woman on the opposite side of the political fence: Condoleezza Rice. In 1990, as a member of the first President Bush's foreign policy team, she clashed with an overzealous Secret Service agent on the tarmac at San Francisco International Airport. While Rice was waiting in a reception line to say goodbye to departing Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, the agent ordered her to move off the tarmac and get behind the security blockades. When she refused, the agent blocked and shoved with her both hands.

There are several significant distinctions. One, Rice was wearing the required pin identifying her as a White House official. Two, unlike McKinney, who reportedly hit the Capitol Hill officer with her cell phone, Rice simply got the agent's name and reported him to his superiors. Three, although Rice was the only black member of the presidential delegation, she didn't make a racial issue of it. And she was as ticked off as McKinney was. "I didn't like his attitude," Rice later told a reporter. "He was right in my face in a confrontational way, and that provokes a confrontational attitude from me."

There are times and places to identify and denounce racism, such as the time in 2002 when Rep. Cass Ballenger, a white Republican from North Carolina, called McKinney "a bitch" and acknowledged that she provoked in him "a little bit of a segregationist feeling." McKinney's altercation on Capitol Hill -- with a policeman doing what he is paid to do -- was not one of them.

McKinney has since seen the error of her ways and apologized for her behavior. Now that she has relinquished the spotlight, relieved Democrats can resume trying to take advantage of Republican vulnerability. Presumably they'll do this by unveiling a new and invigorating agenda aimed at securing a House majority in November. Speaking of which, this is as good a moment as any to pause for a message from the Democratic Party:

Still waiting? Don't worry, and don't flip your wigs. November's a long way off.

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