By MURPHY BROWNE
On March 27, 1972 Angela Yvonne Davis made her opening defense statement in the Santa Clara County Superior Courthouse, California. Davis, at the time a 28-year-old (born January 26, 1944) African-American former assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) was on trial, accused of criminal conspiracy, kidnapping and homicide.
Superior court judge Richard E. Arnason presided and the prosecutor was Assistant Attorney General Albert W. Harris Jr. Harris had earlier outlined his case to the all-White jury promising them evidence to prove that Davis was involved in a criminal conspiracy and that the weapons used in an alleged courthouse shootout and attempted kidnapping in Marin County, California two years before (August 7, 1970) had been purchased by Davis.
Davis did not deny that she owned several guns but shared that it was a holdover from her childhood growing up in “Dynamite Hill” (Fountain Heights, a neighbourhood in Birmingham, Alabama that earned its dubious moniker due to several firebombing in the 1950s and 1960s).
“My father had to keep guns because he was afraid that he would be the next target of racial violence,” said Davis.
In her one hour and 20 minutes defense statement she argued that the case was based on “a network of false assumptions”. During the two months (August 16 – October 13, 1970) that Davis was being hunted as a fugitive she was also placed on the list of Ten Most Wanted Fugitives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI.) During the months of incarceration and eventual trial Davis became an international symbol of resistance.
She was seen as a proud, radical African-American woman under political siege in the USA. With the image of Davis’ fist clenched defiantly, raised above her six inch Afro, her story captured international attention and a movement to free Angela Davis. By the time she was acquitted of all charges on June 4, 1972, the Afro was a bona fide symbol of being radical and Black and Proud.
Almost four decades later the image of Angela Davis’ Afro remains a powerful symbol. So much so that when the New Yorker attempted to scare White voters away from even considering electing the country’s first African president, the image they selected included an Angela Davis type Afro-topping Michelle Obama. It was a blatant attempt to portray Michelle Obama as an angry radical African-American harkening back to the days of Afro-wearing African-Americans being “Black and Proud” and White discomfort with that symbol.
Davis’ trial had not only garnered international attention to the race question in America but it also made the Afro an international symbol of African-American resistance to the White supremacist culture. Since the 1960s the Afro had become a powerful image for many African-Americans as a symbol of liberation.
The Afro offered an alternative image of African femininity for women who wanted to return to a natural hairstyle rather than the Eurocentric beauty standard of straight hair. The ordeal of Davis’ trial and her triumphant acquittal throughout which she proudly wore her towering Afro made the slogan “Black is Beautiful” meaningful and popular, not just to African Americans but also to other Africans in the Diaspora.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and early 1970s led to the Black Power Movement. Through these movements the creation of African-American political and cultural institutions began to flourish focusing on promoting and advancing African American collective interests, values and culture. The images of the members of the Black Panther Party and other Black Nationalist organizations proudly wearing their hair in its natural state during this era is a symbol of freedom from trying to imitate the appearance of the oppressor.
The Afro was so much a part of African American culture in the 1970s that it was prominently featured in the movies of the time with actresses including Pam Grier (as Coffy and Foxy Brown in 1973 and as Sheba Baby in 1975) and Tamara Dobson (as Cleopatra Jones in 1973) portraying a new generation of African-American women. Maybe some of those defiant take charge Afro-wearing women were patterned after Angela Davis. The Afro worn by Angela Davis, Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson became more than just a hairstyle; it became a symbol of African beauty, feminism, liberation and cultural revolution.
The quintessential African American magazines of the 1970s, Ebony and Jet, featured African-Americans from all walks of life proudly wearing Afros. The teenaged daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the members of the Jackson Five, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, poet Nikki Giovanni, and singers Aretha Franklin, Miriam Makeba and Roberta Flack are some of the African-Americans whose images graced the cover of Ebony and Jet magazines sporting Afros.
Unfortunately, the 1980s saw a decline in Africans willing to proudly wear their natural hair. It seemed we had moved up, moved on and moved away from the days of wearing our natural hair.
Dr. Althea Prince’s book, The Politics of Black Women’s Hair, published in 2009 and Chris Rock’s movie, Good Hair, released in 2009 both address the politics of African women wearing their natural hair.
Wearing our natural hair for many African women is a political statement as much as it was in the 1970s when Davis and others wore their towering Afros. African women who choose to wear their hair locked or in other natural hairstyles are resisting the White supremacist society’s pressure to conform to a White standard of beauty.
In their quest to acquire “good” hair, many African women spend inordinate amounts of money in stores owned by people who are not members of our community. I recently accompanied a younger member of my family (I am the only adult female in my family who chooses to wear my natural hair) to a hair store where even though members of the staff were young African women, the owners were not African.
The prices for the wigs made of human hair (supposedly from South Asian women) were outrageously expensive. The chemicals that are used to accomplish the straight texture that some African women seek can be dangerous to their health. I was especially alarmed to see products advertised for bleaching of African skin. Some of the labels on the containers listed the chemical hydroquinone which is dangerous to our skin.
In 2010, 38 years after what many considered the trial of the century, Dr. Angela Davis, now Professor Emeritus, University of California-Santa Cruz, continues to wear her natural albeit not the towering Afro she wore in the 1970s, and speaks out as passionately as she did almost 40 years ago.