African-American hairstyles have changed drastically throughout history. Before the 1960s, conking was very popular and accepted. The term “conk” is derived from congolene, a gel like substance made from potato starch, egg protein, and lye. Black males would slick back their hair, making it sit down so it was not as puffy; this made their hair appear more similar to hair of whites of the time. The act of conking was very dangerous and unhealthy for hair. Malcolm X recalls having his hair conked for the first time in his autobiography stating,
“But then my head caught fire. I gritted my teeth and tried to pull the sides of the kitchen table together. The comb felt as if it was raking my skin off. My eyes watered, my nose was running. I couldn’t stand it…” (p. 60)
Experiences similar to this were common since conking involved using lye, a corrosive substance, to make the hair tame. Black women were also expected to make sure their hair was straight and contained. Madam C.J. Walker patented the “hot comb” in the early 1900s and it was used for decades by black women to straighten hair. In the 1960s, George E. Johnson developed chemical straightener, or “relaxer,” which was promoted to black women as a less damaging way to straighten hair.
When Afros began to become very popular, conking and other hairstyles were used at lower rates. Afros were a significant part of the culture during the black power movement as blacks began to realize their self worth. Malcolm X elaborates on this in autobiography when reflecting on having his hair conked declaring,
“This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are “inferior” — and white people “superior” — that they will even violate and mutilate their Godcreated bodies to try to look “pretty” by white standards.” (p. 61-62)
Afros became a huge symbol of Black American Pride as blacks began to embrace their natural hairstyles.
In the video above, there are multiple segments of Malcolm X speaking. The most significant portion is the beginning where he asks, “Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips?” For centuries, blacks had been shamed by whites for their appearance, including their natural hairstyles. Malcolm X, along with other leaders, caused blacks to think deeply about why they practiced things such as straightening hair; this led to many African Americans realizing they did not need to alter their appearance because they were beautiful as they were.
In addition to showing the prominent hairstyles during this time, this video also depicts fashion through clothes and other changes during the Black Power Movement.
Afro-picks became very important during 1965 and continued to be, as it was all most African-Americans would need to fix their hair. Other products they used were combs and “Blow-out” products. Picks could be seen sticking out of many ‘fros and even when it was not seen sticking out, they often had one handy.
Many of the picks during this time also incorporated other symbols of the Black Power Movement, such as the iconic fist that is at the end of this pick. The peace symbol was also very prominent during this time.
Black is Beautiful Movement
Black is Beautiful was a peaceful movement started in the 1960s in order to make African-Americans feel more accepted in their own skin and hair. The phrase “Black is Beautiful” was popularized by Civil Rights activist Stokely Carmichael. Blacks began rejecting notions of assimilation by wearing their hair naturally. Less black individuals felt shame in being told they had “kinky” or “nappy” hair. During this time, other phrases encouraging natural hair became popular, such as “I am quite happy being nappy.” As time went on, many acts of violence were committed, which ultimately made the Afro have bad connotations to members of society. New leaders took over the movement in the 1970s and more extremists were involved with this group, worsening the reputation of the movement. After this association made between afros and violence, individuals began to choose to wear their hair in dreads, cornrows, or braids which also have roots in Afrocentrism. The political motives behind natural hairstyles were heightened after blacks were fired for their natural hairstyles but whites were complimented for imitating the natural hairstyles of African Americans. Blacks were working to defy the fallacy that blacks must “appropriately groom” their hair in order to get ahead in life. Hair spoke for more than aesthetics; it was a statement of cultural, political, and racial identity.
“An activist with straightened hair was a contradiction. A lie. A joke, really. ”
-Gloria Wade Gayles
Banks, Ingrid. Hair matters: beauty, power, and black women’s consciousness. New York: New York U Press, 2000. Print.
Civil Rights and Fashion in the 60’s. Civilrightsdefence.org.nz, 2009. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.
Jaynes, Gerald David. Encyclopedia of African American society. London: SAGE, 2005. Print.
Celinelao. “Malcolm X – Black is beautiful.” YouTube. YouTube, 03 June 2011. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.
Thompson, Cheryl. Black Women and Identity: What’s Hair Got to Do With It? N.p.: n.p., n.d. Https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?cc=mfsfront;c=mfs;c=mfsfront;idno=ark5583.0022.105;rgn=main;view=text;xc=1;g=mfsg. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.
X, Malcolm, Alex Haley, M. S. Handler, and Ossie Davis. The autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine , 2015. Print.
Exhibits are powerful pieces of memory that normally combine the use of artifacts and pictures to create a visual aspect of a memory that helps keep an event or thing in the consciousness of the public.
The “Black Power!” Exhibit at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is located in Harlem, New York and is curated by Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf.
“Yet Black Power is one of the least understood movements in the country, its achievements largely dismissed or minimized. Perceived mostly as a violent episode that followed the non-violent civil rights movement, the Black Power has been eclipsed in the general public’s memory by the former, even though it has shaped issues of identity, politics, criminal justice, culture, art, and education for the past half century. And, not to be forgotten, following in the Black Power’s footsteps, American Indian, American Asian, Latino, LGBT, and women groups affirmed themselves and demanded change. To understand African American history, and ultimately American society today, it is imperative to understand the depth and breadth, and the achievements and failures of the Black Power Movement.” – Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf
Harlem is a great place to showcase the exhibit for many reasons. The exhibit is located in Manhattan, New York, which has a major tourist industry so it allows for the possibility of a great number of people to be able to view the exhibit. Harlem is also a great location because it is steeped in the culture of African Americans, specifically during the 1920’s and the 1930’s during the Harlem Renaissance which was a “literary, artistic, and intellectual movement that kindled a new black cultural identity.” African American history pervades the history of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the center serves as a powerful site of memory regarding the Black Power Movement and other movements as well. The center actually played a large role in the Harlem Renaissance and served as a gathering place for many African Americans of different professions like artists, and writers, and even for activists. The “Black Power!” exhibit is located in the main hall which at one point housed the American Negro Theater, a WPA Writers Project, and lecture hall for notable African Americans like W.E.B. DuBois.
“Through the arts, the Black Power Movement was able to spread the word in a nonviolent way, reaching an audience that transcended class and ethnic lines.” -AFineLyne
Like with art, the Black Power movement was an attempt for African Americans to fight for their self-determination. These different artistic elements are incorporated into the exhibit.
“Thorough art Negro life is seizing its first chances for group expression and self-determination.” — Alain Locke in 1926
One of the main purposes of this exhibit was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the movement.
“A host of historic photographs and memorabilia have been assembled for the exhibition, showing the generations-spanning scope the Black Power model, conceptualized in 1966 by Stokley Carmichael and Willie Ricks, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known popularly by its acronym SNCC.” – McCallister
The “Black Power!” exhibit takes the visitor through a chronological history of the Black Power Movement which begins in 1966 and not only includes photos, but videos and written artifacts as well like newspapers and books.
“Exhibits explore the growth of the Movement inside the prison system, and grassroots organizing in poor communities throughout the country, and beyond.” – AFineLyne
The exhibit not only celebrates African American members of the Black Power Movement but features a Black Panther Coalition Flyer that included members of other races and ethnicities like the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the white Young Patriots, the Chinese-American I Work Kuen, and the Inmates Liberation Front. This diverse group of people rallied together behind members of the Black Panther Party who were known as the Panther 21. This subset of the Black Panther Party was arrested and acquitted for suspicion of the plan to place bombs in different sites in New York City. Angela Davis was a powerful ally to the Black Panther Party and a member of The Arab Women’s League of Jordan. Throughout her career Davis has fought for the rights of prisoners across color lines. The exhibit features a letter of support to Davis which shows the unity created from the Black Power movement which spanned across color lines.
“A two-part digital exhibition titled “Black Power 50” started in February 2016, in partnership with Google Cultural Institute. Since then, the Schomburg’s continuing Black Power commemoration has included public programs featuring Black Power movement leaders, such as Kathleen Cleaver, Bobby Seale, and Iris Morales, and Black Arts Movement luminaries Nikki Giovanni, Askia Touré, and Sonia Sanchez. The new exhibition’s catalog Black Power 50 has also been released.” – McCallister
The street where the center and exhibit is located is called “Malcolm X Boulevard”. Malcolm X was an extremely prominent advocate of the Black Power movement, therefore the fact that the “Black Power!” exhibit is located on this street is very powerful.
It is difficult to describe all of the different things that are featured in the exhibit without actually visiting the and to describe it one must rely on the stories and encounters that others have had. Therefore, it is almost impossible to describe what all is forgotten with the “Black Power!” Exhibit in Harlem because without a first-hand experience of the exhibit.
Isissa Komada-John, Exhibitions Manager at the Schomburg Center, speaks about the “Black Power!” Exhibit.
In the video below, Isissa Komada-John argues that the “Black Power!” Exhibit comes at a perfect time because of the current activism that is working through the Black Lives Matter Movement. Komada-John argues that the Black Lives Matter Movement of the 21st Century is a parallel to the Black Power Movement and that each movement is somewhat in relation to violence and brutality by members of law enforcement. The “Black Power!” Exhibit does a great job at looking at almost every aspect of the Black Power Movement, but actually does not really seem to have as much about the future of the movement and the Black Lives Matter Movement but rather more the history of the Black Power Movement.
Sources for Information, Images, and Quotes:
AFineLyne. “Black Power! on Exhibit at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.” untapped cities. 21 Feb. 2017. Web. 18 Apr. 2017. <http://untappedcities.com/2017/02/21/black-power-on-exhibit-at-the-schomburg-center-for-research-in-black-culture/>.
BRIC TV. “Black Power Exhibition at The Schomburg Center | BK Live.” Youtube. 29 Feb. 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NeTW9IkELL8>.
Cotter, Holland. “In ‘Black Power!,’ Art’s Political Punch and Populist Reach.” The New York Times. 6 Apr. 2017. Web. 18 Apr. 2017. <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/06/arts/design/in-black-power-arts-political-punch-and-populist-reach.html?_r=0>.
Diouf, Sylviane. “Black Power!” New York Public Library. 5 Feb. 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2017. <https://www.nypl.org/blog/2016/02/05/black-power>.
Foner, Eric, and John A Garraty. “Harlem Renaissance.” History. Web. 18 Apr. 2017. <http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/harlem-renaissance>.
McCallister, Jared. “Black Power Exhibit at Schomburg Center in Harlem Allows Visitors to Experience the Impactful Movement.” New York Daily News. 10 Feb. 2017. Web. 18 Apr. 2017. <http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/manhattan/harlem-black-power-exhibit-lets-visitors-experience-movement-article-1.2967946>.
Gil Scott Heron was born on April 1, 1949 in Chicago, Illinois, a city that in little more than a decade would become a hotspot for civil rights activism. It wasn’t in Chicago that Scott-Heron was exposed to the revolutionary culture of the sixties, however: he spent the first 12 years of his life living with his grandmother in Jackson, Tennessee. Under her guidance, Scott-Heron was simultaneously exposed to the discrimination facing the black community in the form of Jim Crow Laws, and the richness and culture of the black identity, culminating in the beginnings of his own passion for revolution. In Jackson, Scott-Heron became one of the first three black students integrated into Tigrett Junior High, and later, after the death of his grandmother and a move back to New York City, one of just five black students to attend the prestigious and private Fieldston School.
It was Scott-Heron’s propensity for the written word that propelled him to these new heights: a teacher at the public (and poor) DeWitt High School Heron attended in New York took note of the young man’s work and offered to help him get into the Fieldston Academy. At DeWitt (nicknamed “Dumb Witt” for their low test scores and graduation rates) Heron was often bored and frustrated at the lack of intellectual stimulation, but was naturally sceptical at such an offer. After two rounds of highly offensive interviews in which the directors of the program, at one point, asked how Heron would cope watching the white teens drive by in limousines while he walked to school from the subway, the young man succeeded in gaining admission (undoubtedly due to the fact that he responded to this particular inquiry by reminding the director that he, also, could not afford a limousine, and was doing just fine). Heron went on to begin his successful career by writing, of all things, detective fiction, publishing his first novel, The Vulture, by the age of 20.
After finishing his secondary education at Fieldston Academy, Heron enrolled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, following in the footsteps of his biggest influence, Langston Hughes. It was during this time from 1970-72 that Scott-Heron became interested in the Black Arts Movement, and his own art was forever changed. After these two years, Heron dropped out to pursue his own music career and publish his second novel, The Nigger Factory, an exploration of a southern university setting in the 70s and the struggle of black students against the institution.
It was in 1970 that Gil Scott-Heron revolutionized the revolution. He met legendary record producer Bob Thiele of Flying Dutchman Records, and together they released his first album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, an experimental debut into spoken word that would be hailed as the beginnings of hip-hop and rap for decades to come.
The album, 14 tracks long, even markets Heron as a poet rather than a singer, and features powerful and solemn spoken-word lyrics against the backdrop of African congas. Despite being received by only a small following, Heron’s debut gained critical acclaim for its scathing social critique and sharp, blunt honesty about the hypocrisy of American life. The standout of this album, and arguably the most well-known work of Heron’s career, is the very first track, entitled: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
In this introduction to the album, Heron holds nothing back, attacking the American people’s apathetic, superficial nature and condemning mainstream television and the minuscule, vain concerns of the 1970s white American.
“Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville Junction will no longer be so god damned relevant, and women will not care if Dick finally screwed Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people. The revolution will not go better with Coke. The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath. The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.
The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.”
With these lyrics, Heron single-handedly coined what became an early slogan for the Black Power Movement: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” became a warning to Americans everywhere hiding behind Saturday night reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies and luxuriating in a society glorifying the white image. The song urges Americans to wake up and realize that the time for change had come, and that no one would be able to remain safe and ignorant behind a television set. This fight was going to take place in the homes and streets of the American people, and there would be no avoiding it or denying it any longer.
However, Heron had very specific and adament views on how the revolution should be executed. In the third track, “Brother,” he uses the term derogatorily to condemn the “would-be” black revolutionaries he sees on the street in African clothing for their hypocrisy, as they spew criticisms and judgments against other black men who may dress differently or are trying to get their degree, with lyrics such as:
“I think it was a little too easy for you to forget that you were a negro before Malcolm. You drove your white girl through the village every Friday night, while the grass roots stared in envy and drank wine.
Do you remember?”
However, Gil Scott-Heron is nothing if not an activist for equality, and he goes on to condemn superficial white “activists” in the very next track, titled simply “Comment #1.”
“Comment #1” is the track in which Heron presents his most radical views on the Black Power revolution: in the introduction, he begins by pushing back against the growing idea of the Rainbow Coalition:
“Comment #1 is the one we decided to use here this evening because it makes a comment if you listen closely on what is now being advertised in East Harlem as the “Rainbow Conspiracy” – a combination of The Students For A Democratic Society, The Black Panthers, and the Young Lords –
And this is my particular comment about that conspiracy.”
The Rainbow Coalition, as you’ll see from the article linked above, was an organization seeking to unite many different kinds of minority groups in the ongoing fight for equality, but Heron himself seems deeply mistrustful of this idea, going so far as to call it a conspiracy. His other lyrics, as he says, form his comment on why he believes uniting all races in the Black Power revolution is a bad idea, and can truly never work:
“The irony of it all, of course is when a pale face SDS motherfucker dares look hurt when I tell him to go find his own revolution.
He wonders why I tell him that America’s revolution will not be the melting pot but the toilet bowl. He is fighting for legalized smoke, or lower voting age; less lip from his generation gap and fucking in the street. Where is my parallel to that?
All I want is a good home and a wife and a children, and some food to feed them every night.
I say you silly chipe motherfucker, your great grandfather tied a ball and chain to my balls and bounced me through a cotton field while I lived in an unflushable toilet bowl. And now you want me to help you overthrow what?”
With such blunt and powerful lyrics, Heron’s anger toward young white liberals like those in the SDS, or Students for a Democratic Society, a popular activist group in the 70s, becomes obvious: he feels that white people can never truly understand the African American fight, and that young students are only taking a “four-year interest” in something that is a long-standing and deep-rooted issue for the black community. Heron mocks these white “revolutionaries” who see protesting as something fun to do on the weekend, and white “revolutions” that call for unimportant things such as the legal use of drugs or looser sexual laws, while African Americans are still fighting to simply live in peace and be able to provide for their families. This stark disparity in priorities is shown clearest when Scott-Heron graphically and violently reminds the audience of just how recent slavery actually was, and his indignation at the idea that flippant white boys looking for a cause want to take up the Black Power Revolution is vehement.
Later in this piece, Heron also brings up the idea of cultural appropriation by white people of Malcolm X and Cleaver, calling for so-called white “activists” to leave them be and stop appropriating them as general symbols of revolution. Scott-Heron maintains that these men are central, important figures to the black cause, fighting a specific battle, and to generalize them as singular symbols of rebellion is to diminish the significance of their work for the black community. This is part of the “melting pot” effect that Heron speaks out against in this piece, insisting that the revolution cannot be a melting pot, as that would ensure the complete and final dissolution of black culture and history. Rather, Gil Scott-Heron tells the world that the revolution must resemble a toilet bowl: it must be brown.
Heron’s “Comment #1” leaves us with one question, drawn from an important influence: “Who will survive in America?” This is a direct reference to Amiri Baraka’s 1970 spoken-word poetry collection, It’s Nation’s Time, for which Baraka was highly criticized, based on his assault of other minority groups. Like Heron, Baraka believed that the black revolution should remain in the hands of the black community, that African Americans were called to a higher destiny, and that other minorities and white people could never understand their trial– a radical and controversial standpoint that undoubtedly influenced Gil Scott-Heron and his work.
Check out the rest of Gil Scott-Heron’s revolutionary debut album here:
Gil Scott-Heron was a pioneer of poetry during the Black Power movement; he quite literally revolutionized the music industry and became a founding father of the rap we know today, and his legacy is still very much alive. Famous and controversial rapper Kanye West sampled Heron’s “Comment #1” on his 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, titling it after Amiri Baraka’s Who Will Survive in America, andmaking it the very last track to wrap up the album. A decade prior, popular hip-hop artist Mos Def also sampled Heron’s work on the track “Mr. Nigga,” off the album Black on Both Sides.
Though he passed away in 2011, Gil Scott Heron’s legacy is very much alive and well, in keeping with his own personal philosophy on revolutions:
“Revolution isn’t an overnight thing. Like some people jumped up in the sixties and said: ‘Revolution,’ and then in the next three or four years when it didn’t happen, everybody said: ‘Naa, there aint no revolution.’ Revolution is a constantly building process, a constantly developing process. Black people, all Black people, are always in a revolutionary frame of mind.”