On Sunday, Colin Kaepernick took another defiant knee on the football field, continuing his protest against police brutality and racism against black Americans in a now-familiar ritual. The image of him on game day has grown comforting to me—a respectful but resolute kneel, stoic eyes and that head of hair crowning his efforts.
I hadn’t paid much attention to the quarterback’s Instagram and Twitter accounts over the past year—they are flooded with retweets, videos, quotes and memes revealing his evolution into activist—so his protest took me by surprise. It wasn’t that I doubted his sincerity, but I did wonder about his commitment to the cause.
A football season is long and a life clued into the history and continued plights of black Americans is even longer. Would he last? Would he continue taking a knee as endorsements slip away and misguided critics try to undermine his actions? As his safety is compromised?
Cliché as it may sound, I realized, “oh, Kaepernick is in this,” when I saw a photo of him speaking at a preseason press conference, dressed in black, with his dark hair reaching towards the sky—an obvious shift from the close, cropped style he’d worn for years.
Our hair often means something. It means something because we have adapted to the insistence by white people that it mean something. For most who are not black, there is nothing inherently political about wearing your hair the way it grows out of your head. For black people, it can seem that any style we choose—be it locs or braids or wigs—is meant to send some sort of message to the world, whether we want it to or not.
As Kaepernick’s notoriety and the vitriol against him grows, so does his hair. His afro is now large and unavoidable in the way black hair so beautifully takes up space.
Some might call it branding—and, indeed, it is a straightforward way to align himself with the somewhat stereotypical perception of a black activist. I would turn, however, to something less cynical and suggest he’s giving us The Nod via his hair. Kaepernick is saying to me and to black people: “I see you.”
“I see you” and its cousin, “I feel you” are classics in the black lexicon. “I see you” can be a jubilant affirmation: “Oh girl, I see you in that new dress!” It can also be a measured recognition—acknowledging an understanding of the meaning beyond what’s being said.
The Natural Hair Movement—born in the early 2000s through online communities geared towards education, product suggestions and tutorials—found primarily black women (though black men participate as well) encouraging and supporting each other to wear our hair in its natural state. I remember discovering the natural hair blogger Curly Nikki in 2006 and leaning on her work as my sole source of reference as I slowly figured out how to wear my hair in a less manipulated state.
I went natural for practical reasons, like saving time and money. I imagine I also did it because of some innate acceptance that this is my hair and it ain’t going to change.
Politics aside, natural hair is of course beautiful and stylish—so stylish, in fact, that white people are now wearing the exact same styles for which we have been deemed militant or hood or nappy. I’ve watched girlfriends and relatives and celebrities go natural over the past decade and while there is some degree of trendiness involved, it is also a proclamation to the world that This is what we look like. Get used to it.
Of course, teasing one’s hair into an afro does not make one more black or more “woke,” but the term does denote a singularly black hairstyle. Afros are just one of the many hairstyles for which black people have lost jobs, been kicked out of school or publicly demeaned—experiences a white person with a full head of hair who has a hard time finding the right products will never encounter.
There is a deliberateness to the afro because an afro does not, in fact, appear on a black person’s head without some effort. It is shaped and teased and specific. With his afro, Colin Kaepernick nods to the Angelas and the Hueys and our parents who grew their hair and styled it in the name of self-possession and identity.
On “Don’t Touch My Hair,” standout track from Solange’s masterpiece new album of black expression and selfhood, she sings about her hair—hair that exists within both the political and the deeply intimate: Don’t touch my crown/ They say the vision I’ve found.
Black hair is an inextricable part of the black body and an extension of our vision—a vision to live freely as anyone else in any legal way that freedom manifests itself. And as he’s been saying all along, this is the exact vision Colin Kaepernick is fighting for.