The Personal and Political of Black Hair: Urban Bush Women at Carleton

A couple weeks ago, I went to a dance event at Carleton called “Hair & Other Stories” that was put on by the Urban Bush Women as part of the Ward Lucas Lecture Series in the Arts. Urban Bush Women is a dance group founded in 1984 by choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, who sought to “bring the untold and under-told histories and stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance … from a woman-centered perspective and as members of the African Diaspora in order to create a more equitable balance of power in the dance world and beyond.”[1] This group came to Carleton to perform “Hair & Other Stories,” which is a continuation of their multi media performance HairStories, which explores the “concept of nappy hair and its relationship to images of beauty, social position, heritage and self-esteem.”[2]

Throughout the performance “Hair & Other Stories,” there was a combination of dance, spoken word, play performance, audience interactions, and a whole variety of different forms of media. The cast was entirely Black, and female with the exception of one White woman (who made a comment during the performance about being a White woman in the Urban Bush Women), and one Black man. One of the most interesting parts to me about this dynamic was that while there were many pieces with everybody together and many pieces with people in different combinations of the group, the pieces that demonstrated the most intimacy—the pieces in which the women were sitting and doing each other’s hair, touching their hair, and talking about hair, only included the Black women. This relates to Carrie Mae Weems’ photo series, which demonstrates a group of Black women in a home, talking, laughing, and doing each other’s hair. In one photo, a white woman comes in, however, she is not present in the shots that are related to hair, which I also considered the most intimate shots.

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Source: Carrie Mae Weems’ Kitchen Table Series, http://carriemaeweems.net/galleries/kitchen-table.html

Much of this intimacy is wrapped up in the importance of the politicization of Black hair, which is discussed in Kobena Mercer’s article “Black Hair/Style Politics.” Since the Afro become a symbol of Black Pride and Black Power in the 1960s, the Afro has become a deeply political hair-style, since “hair-styles are political in that they articulate responses to the panoply of historical forces which have invested this element of the ethnic signifier with both personal and political ‘meaning’ and significance.” However, “by regarding one’s hair-style as directly ‘expressive’ of one’s political awareness this sort of argument tends to prioritize self over society and ignore the mediated and often contradictory dialectic between the two.”[3] In the Urban Bush Women performance, the women’s hair was deeply political, as demonstrated by the ways in which they portrayed their experiences with their hair, and the intentional sitting out of the white woman in the scenes that discussed hair. While hair is a deeply political concept for these women, it is also deeply personal, intimate, and individualized. The Urban Bush Women demonstrate this paradox between the personal and political through their political performance of a personal interaction and experience, and show that for Black women, even when their choices are personal, they become political because of how their bodies are read, as Black, politicized, and public.

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Angela Davis, September 28, 1972

Source: Getty Images, http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/showing-a-black-power-salute-and-that-now-familiar-gap-news-photo/515410882#showing-a-black-power-salute-and-that-now-familiar-gaptoothed-smile-picture-id515410882

[1] “Urban Bush Women: Mission & Core Values,” http://www.urbanbushwomen.org/about_ubw/mission_values/

[2] Caron Atlas, “The Hair Parties Project Case Study: Urban Bush Women,” Animating Democracy: 1-18, http://animatingdemocracy.org/sites/default/files/documents/labs/urban_bush_women_case_study.pdf.

[3] Kobena Mercer, “Black Hair/Style Politics,” new formations 3 (1987): 37.

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3 thoughts on “The Personal and Political of Black Hair: Urban Bush Women at Carleton

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  1. I too attended the Urban Bush Women performance a few weeks ago. As I watched the performance, I recalled a lecture I attended (and the subsequent conversation I had with my dance professor) a couple of of years ago about a postmodern black choreographer. The woman giving the lecture had spent years studying this particular choreographer, and she discussed how, as a black man making dance in an era after Alvin Ailey had established what it meant to be black and to be onstage, he felt forced to work with, or to alternately disavow, the choreographic and aesthetic practices, and the content, of Ailey’s work in order to complicate the conversation about what it meant to be black and to be onstage. Thus, I want to situate Urban Bush Women’s performance in the context not only of beauty practices and the personal as political, but of the particular definitions of how black bodies should look and move onstage in a dance context that was established in the 1960s. To me, the company seemed to both incorporate and complicate the heritage of “black dance” as established by Ailey; I saw Africanist and diasporic movement in the performance, but also a variety of contemporary and postmodern choreographic techniques (text onstage, costuming, task-based choreography, etc.) Thus, it seemed to me that Urban Bush Women’s work functioned on multiple levels; as addressing constructions of the social black body and of the performative black body, as redefining aesthetics in a general sociopolitical context and in a dance context.

    I also had the opportunity to dance in a master class with Urban Bush Women during their stay at Carleton. As reflected in their performance, the two women who taught the class incorporated the personal and the communal in their structure of the class. We began by voicing words and creating accompanying movement about how our hair felt that day, and allowed that particular feeling to carry us through the rest of the class, regardless of the different phrasework or activities we were doing. This acknowledgement of the physical/beauty-related as significant and central to our experience felt incredibly resonant with the themes of our class, where we accept and embrace that how our hair feels on a particular day is a topic worthy of exploration and reflective of historical, social, and political trends.

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  2. I am interested in how the dancers navigated intimacy in the performance setting. Emilyperlman emphasizes the intimacy between the black women dancers in their connection through hair. As emilyperlman says, this aligns with the intention of the company to represent and provide space for “untold and under-told histories” and the politicization of black hair.[1] And the Urban Bush Women dancers expressed and conveyed many aspects about black hair: intimacy, as well as politicization, commodification, and much more. As a white audience member, in the intimate moments, I definitely felt like an outsider looking in. But it was interesting, because at those moments I was also very aware that my white gaze was on the performance. I wonder if or how my gaze and the audiences’ gaze changed the intimacy? How does the performance aspect of the piece and gaze interact with self-expression and intimacy?
    The moment I was most uncomfortable during the performance was the portion “let’s talk about the n-word” when the dancer kept saying, “let’s just say it.” The n-word in this case turned out to be nappy, but the seeming push towards saying The n-word made me tense. This deliberate blurring of words brings me back to Kobena Mercer’s who says, “Within racism’s bipolar codification of human value, black people’s hair has been historically devalued as the most visible stigma of blackness, second only to skin.”[2] Mercer reveals the deep racial stigma towards black hair, as “second only to skin” in its blackness. Nappy as a descriptor of black hair carries immense historical and emotional weight. And though the weights between this word and The n-word are incomparable, presenting nappy as another heavy word emphasizes its centrality in defining blackness. By intentionally bringing these two n-words into conversation the dancers conveyed the heaviness of the stigma around black hair to the audience.

    [1] “Urban Bush Women: Mission & Core Values,” http://www.urbanbushwomen.org/about_ubw/mission_values/.
    [2] Kobena Mercer, “Black Hair/Style Politics,” new formations Number 3 (Winter 1987), 35.

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  3. The performance by the Urban Bush Women was unique. As a Black woman, I don’t always have the privilege of seeing dynamic representations of myself in film and in the media. The centering of Black hair, a part of myself that I see as so different from my peers, was captivating. At first, I was unsure of the reaction of my white peers, but soon enough I realize this was a place of learning. The dancer’s involvement with the audience, through various activities, was a way of bridging the divide we often face talking about these issues.

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