Penn symposium addresses politics of black women’s hair

Last June, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry addressed the topic of “The Politics of Black Hair” on her eponymous weekend show. Guests, including Anthea Butler, an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Penn, discussed why black hair matters in public life.

“[Black hair] matters because it’s a historical way that we have looked at each other,” Butler told Harris-Perry. “From the time of slavery forward, hair has been a very big deal.”

Intrigued by the topic, Butler is bringing a similar discussion to Penn, and Melissa Harris-Perry, too.

Butler is the lead organizer of “The Politics of Black Women’s Hair Symposium," which runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, March 1, in Claudia Cohen Hall.

“This is a takeoff from when Melissa did the show in June, with all these things in the news, the [Black] weatherwoman who was let go [for responding to a derogatory Facebook comment about her hair], how black women discuss hair with each other, jobs that say we don’t want you to have this style or that, the economics of hair in the African-American community,” Butler says.

Free and open to the public, the forum will bring together scholars, artists, feminists, and the public for a discussion on the social and political statements of black women’s hair.

A morning academic panel, moderated by Harris-Perry, a professor of political science at Tulane University, will include Noliwe Rooks, an associate professor of Africana studies and feminist, gender, sexuality studies at Cornell University; Tiffany M. Gill, an associate professor of history and Black American studies at the University of Delaware; and Tanisha Ford, an assistant professor of women, gender, sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Rooks is the author of “Hair Raising: Beauty Culture, and African-American Women” and Gill penned “Beauty Shop Politics: African-American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry.”

Afternoon panels will feature graduate students from 1 to 2:45 p.m. and hair care professionals from 3 to 5 p.m. Butler will serve as moderator of the hair care panel, which also includes Patrice Grell Yursik, creator of the “AfroBella” beauty and lifestyle blog, and Abenaa Timazee, co-owner of the Brownstone Natural Hair And Barber Studio.

A reception with photographer Glenford Nunez, creator of the “Coiffure Project,” which displays portraits of black women with natural hair, will close the symposium. 

Butler's current hairstyle is reminiscent of scholar and activist Angela Davis's iconic afro, but when she was researching her 2007 book, “Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World,” she writes that her hair was “bone-straight to gain acceptance from women in the denomination."

Had she worn the 1970s retro hairstyle that she sports today, she has doubts that she would have finished the book.

Registration for the symposium is encouraged at Center for Africana Studies website. The event can also be viewed live online.

The Politics of Black Hair