I could have told you John Ray wouldn't win the mayoral primary. I felt it the first time I saw his face.
It was a pleasant face, an intelligent face, a handsome face, even. But something seemed, well, vaguely unsettling about it, politically speaking. Then I figured it out and knew why this guy would never be mayor.
No Facial Hair.
Facial hair may be the kiss of death for white politicians -- Dewey is said to have lost the presidency because his mustache hinted of Hitler. But most black men who win black folks' hearts, minds -- and elections -- have beards or mustaches. Most black men, period, have them. John Ray, alas, does not.
Think of the guys who do or did have facial hair: Martin Luther King Jr., Adam Clayton Powell, Marion Barry (most of the time), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ronald Dellums, Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, Arsenio Hall. Chicago mayor Harold Washington's trademark was his thick, graying mustache; La-La Land Mayor Tom Bradley is cleanshaven today but had a slim stretch of hair above his upper lip when he first won election 17 years ago. Doug Wilder, of course, shaved his mustache immediately after winning the governorship, and has been behaving oddly ever since.
Now think about those who don't have it: Bryant Gumbel. Colin Powell. Michael Jackson. Bill Cosby. Edward Brooke. Byron Allen. These guys can make all the right moves -- Gumbel exposes mainstream audiences to African heads of state and urban hip-hoppers; the Cos places Essence magazine on the Huxtable coffee table and lectures Theo about the March on Washington; Powell seems solidly in control in an out-of-control Mideast situation. But some blacks view each of these men with slight suspicion; they like but don't love them, admire but don't embrace them.
Most white American men are cleanshaven. Most African American men are not. Check it out on the street, in your office, on MTV, at the construction site down the street. So for a white guy, growing a mustache or beard makes a statement of sorts, since it's not what most white guys do. It's the opposite for black men -- when brothers take the extra time and energy to shave off an adornment most black men prefer, they're saying something.
In my experience, some seem to be saying, consciously or otherwise: Accept me, white America. It seems to be something they do to get over, to succeed. Entirely understandable, perhaps. When I was a fashion writer, black actors and models often told me they had smooth faces because they got more jobs that way. And politicians?
"John Ray just seemed too ... accommodating," said a friend of mine as she explained her feeling, near the campaign's end, that Ray -- though smart and capable and an upright brother -- wasn't the person for the job.
Historically, shaving somebody's hair has been a weakening act, a stripping of individuality. When guys join the Marines, the hair's the first to go. When black guys pledge in fraternities, big brothers immediately shave their heads and faces. In the late '60s, when black athletes demonstrated their cultural and fashion consciousness through long sideburns and fat 'Fros, several college and professional basketball teams instituted "no facial hair" policies. And remember Sampson?
Acts of political emasculation, so to speak. So what does it mean when a black man does it to himself?
When Marion Barry returned from New York in September 1988 -- he'd just come back from one of his "cleansings," and was mending political fences -- there was a wide, smooth area above his beaming smile that hadn't been there before. Commented a prominent national (black) politico: "He was his own Delilah."
I'll admit some black guys just like how they look cleanshaven. Others simply can't grow a decent mustache. It's impossible to discount the many virile, positively black men whose upper lips are as barren as the Sahara: Bo Jackson, Andy Young, Maynard Jackson, Sugar Ray Leonard never have worn facial hair. Then there are those mega-men, Michael Jordan and Nelson Mandela, who are so damn bad -- that's good bad, squares -- in their respective fields that they barely need faces. And of course, I'd never suggest somebody would get votes only because he sported facial hair -- a full Rip van Winkle beard wouldn't have obscured Walter Fauntroy's weaknesses.
But that was yesterday. Now Sharon Pratt Dixon -- whom I would advise to remain clean-faced -- will battle mustachioed Maurice Turner for mayor. Since the facial hair issue seems moot, on what detail will the vote hinge?
Their shoes. You heard it here first.