The untold story of wrestler Andrew Johnson’s dreadlocks How the high school athlete endured his infamous haircut

When Andrew Johnson walked into The Line Up barbershop last April, all eyes focused on him. Since that awful day in December when a referee had forced the 16-year-old Buena Regional High School wrestler to either cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his match, he felt as if the world was constantly watching him, especially in his small New Jersey town. Watching and whispering about things beyond his control.

Yo, that’s that kid who got his locs chopped by the white ref.

Andrew, who goes by Drew, sat down in Mikey Morales’ chair. Morales has tended Drew’s hair since middle school. After a video of Drew’s shearing attracted a massive social media audience last December, Morales had reshaped Drew’s hair into shorter dreadlocks that radiated from his head.

But now Drew had a new problem. The night before, he had grabbed a pair of scissors from the kitchen and hacked at what remained of his dreads, then asked his little sister to finish the job. Drew loved his hair but was tired of it causing so much trouble. Tired of being treated differently and made into something he was not. Tired of looking in the mirror and seeing the referee, Alan Maloney, looking back.

Since the incident last December, support for Andrew Johnson, seen here during a bout on Jan. 5, has poured in from celebrities, pro athletes and the governor of New Jersey. But others, including some of his schoolmates and other residents of his mostly white town, defended referee Alan Maloney as simply enforcing the rules.

ANDREW MILLS/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/BARCROFT MEDIA

Maloney already had a racist incident in his past before telling Drew that his hair was “unnatural” and giving him 90 seconds to cut it. What resulted was far more than a humiliating haircut for one high school student. It became a shared and painful experience for many who see how issues of identity, subjugation, power and freedom are intertwined in African American hair.

Support for Drew poured in from celebrities, pro athletes and the governor of New Jersey. But others, including some of Drew’s schoolmates and other residents of his mostly white town, defended Maloney as simply enforcing the rules. Another local contingent believed that even if Maloney was wrong, Drew should have just shaken it off and moved on.

The shy, quiet teen was trapped in a suffocating bubble. Maybe those kitchen scissors were meant to let in some air.

The barber surveyed the damage and looked at Drew’s father, Charles Johnson III, who goes by his middle name of Sheridan. Sheridan and his three sons come to Morales once a week. Their hairstyles vary, but they always stay crisply edged and trimmed. The Johnsons are not a family who walks around looking jacked up.

The barbers and most of their clientele are Puerto Rican here at The Line Up, which is located in one of the strip malls dotting the South Jersey farmlands between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Drew, too, is more Puerto Rican than anything else, despite being widely portrayed as strictly African American when his haircut entered the viral pantheon of American racial injustice.

During several trips to Buena Vista Township, and while attending several of the wrestling team’s home and away matches, I had in-depth conversations with Drew, his parents and siblings, close friends of the Johnson family and their attorney. I talked to Drew’s schoolmates, coaches, other members of the Buena community, and wrestlers and coaches from around South Jersey. The Johnsons declined to be interviewed on the record. Some of the descriptions of Drew’s emotions come from his attorney; others from people in Buena who interacted with him. Maloney declined an interview request, and his attorney didn’t respond to phone messages.

What I saw in Buena was a close-knit, mixed-race family crushed by our country’s tectonic conflict over racial justice and demographic change. This took place in a small town with a rich wrestling tradition where people say sports brings them together, even as they are further apart than most want to believe.

Watching the video of the match, I saw Maloney give Drew 90 seconds to shatter either a pillar of his identity or his bond with his teammates and his home. Sitting in the barber chair beneath Morales’ buzzing clippers 3½ months later, Drew was still trying to reassemble the pieces of who he used to be.


Hair is Africa’s most enduring marker in America, the phenotype most likely to persist through generations of interracial children. Hair is what black folks look at when trying to determine who is one of us. Many mixed-race people are not permitted to fully determine their own identity because of how the world insists on defining them. That’s when hair can represent a manifesto of self.

Sheridan Johnson is the son of a black father and a Puerto Rican mother. He looks black, grew up with his black grandparents and has always identified himself as black. His hair is cut close but dark on top, with a fade melting into his thick, impeccably groomed beard.

Wrestler Andrew Johnson forced to cut hair before match

Sheridan’s wife, Rosa, has a Puerto Rican father and an Irish mother. Rosa has straight, shoulder-length brown hair and fair skin. She values her Puerto Rican heritage and maiden name of Santiago, but much of the world sees her as a white lady with black kids.

The four Johnson children are Drew, who is now 17, 13-year-old Cami, 15-year-old Nate and 19-year-old Matt. Each of their complexions is a different shade of brown. Their hair, too, varies in texture and degree of curl. Drew has the lightest skin, and freckles. He cultivated his dreadlocks in early 2018 by rubbing his hair nightly with a towel. Cami is the darkest, with caramel-colored skin and hair that, when I saw her, fell past her shoulders in cascading coils. Cami is the only sibling who sort of considers herself black. Her brothers never defined themselves that way. If pressed, the Johnson boys will break themselves down mathematically: 50% Puerto Rican, 25% black and 25% white.

Last December, Drew’s calculated identity went up in smoke. That’s when the world decided he was black.


Long, straight roads slice through the farms and woods of Buena Vista Township, 45 minutes southeast of Philly. Tractors creep through fields of tomatoes, peppers and corn. Farmers from Italy arrived in the mid-1850s because the sandy soil was good for grapes. The area remains heavily working-class Italian: Buena is pronounced “BYOO-nuh” because of how it was said by those from the old country. The census says 75% of the township’s 7,299 residents are white, 13% are Hispanic and 7.5% are black.

On Dec. 19, furrowed empty earth ran right up to the parking lot of Buena Regional High School, where the Johnson family gathered to watch Drew wrestle. It was not a special occasion. Where you see one Johnson, you often see them all.

The meet took place in the Charles Johnson Memorial Gymnasium, which is named after Sheridan’s grandfather, who was a beloved custodian at the school. The opponent was rival Oakcrest High. Buena had beaten Oakcrest eight years in a row, but this meet was expected to be close. They were the top two teams in the Cape Atlantic League’s National Division, so the division title was likely on the line. Every match would be crucial.

Wrestling has been part of the fabric of Buena since the early 1970s, when Mickey Caprese, who owned a greeting card store across from Buena’s junior high school, got a bunch of neighborhood kids together and started a youth program. Buena and wrestling are a good match. They’re both tough but not loud, small but proud. There’s no room for pretty boys. Scarred hands or cauliflowered ears are a mark of pride.

New Jersey’s rules prohibit a wrestler’s hair from falling past his earlobes, shirt collar or eyebrows. But that was not Alan Maloney’s issue with Drew. He cited a rule saying hair must be in its natural state.

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/NEWSCOM

“We’re just a small community with values and work ethic,” said Doug Castellari, one of Caprese’s first recruits. He became an All-American at Temple University in 1984, coached the Buena team for almost three decades and is one of five Buena alumni in the South Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame.

“Wrestling’s not a sport you can just go out there and play,” said Castellari, who is still fit from daily workouts and tanned from running his family’s farm. “You have to put a lot into it just to win one match. You have to get a kid to buy in. You have to dedicate yourself and put in the time.”

Castellari’s son Eric wrestled for his dad and now volunteers with the Buena wrestling team. “Buena is not a participation trophy kind of place,” Eric said. “Other sports, there’s somebody next to you. This is one-on-one. If you mentally break, if you give up, you will be abused. Nobody can save you. There’s no safety over the top.

“Nobody realizes how hard those six minutes are.”


Five minutes and 30 seconds into the December match, blood dripped down Drew’s bottom lip. Cramps wracked both calves. He was losing 2-1 and trapped on his stomach underneath his opponent. The shock of having his dreadlocks cut before the match had given way to the desperation of trying to survive.

Drew is not the most talented wrestler in his family. That would be his younger brother, Nate, who started varsity as a freshman at 113 pounds. Drew didn’t join the varsity until his sophomore year, when his record was 13-12 with six pins. In some of the losses, he hit a mental wall and couldn’t climb over, one of his coaches told me. Drew let himself think he could not win.

Drew had big goals last season, his junior year, in the 120-pound division. It was cool having his brother on the team. Nate wouldn’t have to learn by getting abused on the wrong side of the wall.

Referees are supposed to handle hair and other issues at the pre-meet weigh-ins, but on that day Maloney was late. He conducted the “skin check” about 6:45 p.m., 15 minutes before the 7 p.m. start, according to a statement submitted to the school district by Buena’s head wrestling coach, George Maxwell. Maloney told Drew he needed to shave. After Drew returned from the locker room with no stubble, Maloney said he had “concerns” about Drew’s and Nate’s hair, according to the statement and the Johnson family’s attorney, Dominic A. Speziali.

Drew returned to the locker room to get a cap. Maloney left because the meet was about to begin. In the first match, refereed by Maloney, Nate wrestled without a cap and lost. Drew’s match came second.

When Drew was on the mat about to shake hands with his opponent, Maloney stopped him and said his cap was illegal because it didn’t attach to his headgear. Drew and his team did not have an attachable cap because they didn’t think it was needed. Drew had wrestled earlier that season without one.

New Jersey’s rules prohibit a wrestler’s hair from falling past his earlobes, shirt collar or eyebrows. But that was not Maloney’s issue with Drew. He cited a rule saying hair must be in its natural state.

“It’s unnatural,” Maloney told Drew and his coaches, according to a letter sent by Speziali to the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, which is investigating what happened.

Andrew Johnson (left) wrestles for Buena Regional High School against Cherokee High School’s Andrew Aromando (right) during a match in New Jersey on Jan. 11. Aromando won the match 4-2.

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/NEWSCOM

Rosa and Sheridan sat in the bleachers, unable to hear what was going on.

Maxwell and his assistants argued Drew’s case. After less than two minutes of discussion, Maloney turned his back on them and twirled his finger to start the 90-second injury clock. When it ran out, Drew would forfeit.

It didn’t take Drew long to decide. Wrestlers make immense sacrifices — running in rubber suits to cut weight, starving themselves, vomit-inducing practices. The whole team had suffered to beat Oakcrest. If Drew didn’t wrestle, and win, they could lose the meet and the division title. He did what any Buena wrestler would have done. “I’m going to cry, but cut it,” he told his coach.

As a trainer began to hack off fistfuls of locs with a pair of tape scissors, a wave of anguished noise rolled down from the packed bleachers. Shouts of “Noooo!” can be heard on the video.

Rosa did not run down to the mat. Neither did Sheridan. Later, they would be flamed on social media for not stepping in. But the situation was out of their hands. Would it have been less humiliating for Drew if his parents made him forfeit the match? How much hair would Drew have had left by that point? What could Rosa and Sheridan have done as the clock ticked down to zero?

When about half of Drew’s dreadlocks were gone, Maloney deemed him acceptable. Drew walked onto the mat with tears in his eyes, his face a mask of hurt and anger, breathing so hard his cheeks puffed out from his face.

Oakcrest’s David Flippen bloodied Drew’s lip in the first period. Watching the video, there are moments where Flippen’s hair flops past his eyebrows, which is supposed to be illegal. Drew’s legs convulsed with cramps. With less than a minute to go in the match, Flippen was on top of Drew, leading 2-1. Drew escaped, earning one point to tie the match. He was poised on top of the wall. Sudden-death overtime: The first wrestler to score again would win.

Less than a minute into the overtime, Drew emerged from a tangle of limbs and took Flippen down. Maloney blew his whistle. Drew staggered upright, let Maloney briefly raise his right arm, then yanked it away and stumbled off the mat.

Buena won the meet and at the end of the season won the division with a 6-0 record. Oakcrest finished 5-1.

Forty-five minutes after the match, Drew sat in a hallway, tears streaming down his face. Rosa massaged his trembling legs. He had broken down the wall. But another was rising in its place.


In the days after the video detonated on social media, reporters circled the high school. TV trucks parked outside the Johnsons’ house, right up to Christmas Eve. Sheridan, a cable TV equipment installer, and Rosa, an elementary school teacher in the Buena district, were deluged with comments, ranging from well-intentioned to overbearing to hurtful.

Man, Drew is a trouper. Glad he’s done with all that stuff. … What’s the big deal? … It’s just hair, it’ll grow back. …

Drew sat in his classes in a daze. He walked the halls with his headphones clamped tight. With his new celebrity supporters and fame, he felt yanked from euphoria to anger to depression. One day he left the wrestling room and walked past a basketball game. He felt every eye in the gym on him as he left the building.

Buena’s next match was canceled, with no clear explanation given. The match after that, the referee called the school and said Drew’s hair was still illegal. That match was canceled too. Now the whole team was being penalized. Nobody wants to suffer through making weight for nothing. Drew struggled with whether the canceled matches were his fault, and whether he should quit the team.

He decided against it. He was a varsity starter. The team needed him. Who knows what foolishness Nate would get into in practice without Drew. And if you mess around in practice, the matches will be hell.

Buena’s Andrew Johnson (left) has his 195-pound teammate Sammy Drogo (right) in his ear as they prepare to wrestle against Clayton at the Williamstown Duals in New Jersey on Jan. 5.

ANDREW MILLS/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/BARCROFT MEDIA

Most of all, Drew just wanted to wrestle.

He got pinned in the two matches after his hair was cut, then recovered to win eight in a row at the end of January. He did well enough at the district meet to qualify for regionals but lost in the first round and ended his season with a 19-10 record and eight pins. Nate finished 21-7 with 15 pins.

The Johnson family has made no public comment since a statement six days after the December match.

“Wrestling has taught Andrew to be resilient in the face of adversity,” Rosa and Sheridan said in the statement. “As we move forward, we are comforted by both the strength of Andrew’s character and the support he’s received from the community. We will do all that we can to make sure that no student-athlete is forced to endure what Andrew experienced.”


There is a long history of white people trying to legislate and regulate the gravity-defying, shape-shifting glory of black hair. White people may think their rules are neutral, but they come from a mindset that, consciously or not, defines white hair as normal and black hair as deviant. Black hair must be controlled, conform or cut down. Its mere existence is often seen as illegal, from a North Carolina pool banning swimmers with locs to a Texas junior high school coloring in a boy’s part with a Sharpie.

Maloney has a horseshoe of dark hair around the sides of a bald scalp. He is 63 years old, about 5 feet, 7 inches tall, with a paunch and an outsize reputation built on four decades of refereeing in South Jersey. He has held several offices in the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association, or NJWOA.

Maloney is an extremely knowledgeable official but also abrasive, frequently late to matches and a showboat, according to three wrestling coaches I spoke with and other coaches interviewed by NJ Advance Media. What the coaches didn’t need to tell me, because it received statewide media coverage, is that Maloney once called a black referee the N-word. Maloney was briefly suspended, but his punishment was overturned by the NJWOA.

All this history set the context for Maloney calling Drew’s hair “unnatural.”

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) follows the wrestling regulations of the National Federation of State High School Associations. The rulebook says that “the hair, in its natural state, shall not extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back; and on the sides, the hair shall not extend below earlobe level; in the front, the hair shall not extend below the eyebrows.” In a photo of Drew’s hair just before the match, he did not violate any of those restrictions.

The rulebook says that “the hair, in its natural state, shall not extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back; and on the sides, the hair shall not extend below earlobe level; in the front, the hair shall not extend below the eyebrows.” This is a photo of Drew Johnson’s hair just before the match.

SNJ Today via Johnson attorney’s Jan. 9 letter to the state Division on Civil Rights

Amid the postmatch outrage, the NJSIAA and NJWOA agreed not to assign Maloney to any more matches until an investigation was completed. Three weeks later, Roy Dragon, who holds offices with both organizations, sent an email to NJWOA chapters to clarify the hair rules.

Dragon’s email tried to outlaw the hair that Drew still had left. The email, which was obtained by NJ Advance Media, showed examples of what it called illegal hair that required a cap, including this photo.

But the hair in the photograph was actually legal, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Asked by local media about that contradiction, NJSIAA executive director Larry White sent out another email, which included this guidance from the national rules federation:

“There is a wide spectrum of modern hair styles that might give the appearance that they are in violation of the hair rule, but in actuality they are just creative expressions of today’s youth,” the guidance said. It defined hair in its natural state as “how your hair appears when you wake up in the morning.”

But that still leaves room for judgment about what is “natural.” Can you wrestle with hair dyed orange? With gelled hair?

Can the people who run South Jersey wrestling recognize their assumption that everything white is normal and anything else needs to conform or get cut down?


It’s false to say that mixed-race people are caught between two worlds, but it’s a fact that the reaction to Drew’s haircut placed the Johnsons in a bind.

The support Drew received, locally and beyond, helped him and his family get through the experience. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay tweeted, “I don’t just wear locs. They are a part of me … So to watch this young man’s ordeal, wrecked me. The criminalization of what grows from him. The theft of what was his.” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he was “deeply disturbed.”

But many supporters focused their outrage on Drew’s coaches, teammates, trainer, school and neighbors. “Why didn’t people as a group walk out of that room? It speaks to the culture that this is acceptable,” Rachel Green, a member of the civil rights group Action Together New Jersey, said at a public meeting called by the school district. Action Together called for racial bias training for the entire Buena district.

In a passionate Twitter video, four-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs, who grew up 15 minutes from Buena and attended the same high school as Maloney, told Drew: “The fact that the parents and the coaches in that gymnasium allowed for you to be put in that position and didn’t protect you is absolutely shameful.

“The bottom line is this young man, especially a young black man in a traditionally and predominantly Caucasian sport, out there defenseless, you guys gotta help this young man. You gotta protect him,” Burroughs said. He criticized Maloney — “You gotta pay the consequences of your actions” — and later FaceTimed with Drew to offer more support.

Drew’s coaches did argue on his behalf. The trainer reluctantly did what Drew asked her to do. Drew wasn’t thinking about systemic racism when Maloney started that 90-second clock. He was thinking about a division title.

And yet …

Buena can be uncomfortable for people of color. It’s one of 53 New Jersey towns that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 after choosing Barack Obama in 2012. There is prejudice against Mexicans who come for agricultural work. Since Trump was elected president, a few Confederate flags have been spotted flying from pickup trucks at Buena high school football games.

“Buena is no different than most of the communities around here,” said the Rev. David Mallory, the black pastor of First Baptist Church in adjacent Richland. “There are still racial tensions in a lot of areas, but I also see more interracial activity that is favorable.”

Since Drew’s hair was cut, much of Buena has assumed a defensive crouch. Many residents don’t want to acknowledge the role of race in what happened to Drew.

“Ambivalence toward racism is a form of racism in itself,” Speziali told me.

Rosa and Sheridan grew up in Buena and enjoy living there, have meaningful friendships among people of all races and never told me anything negative about their home. But it was clear to me that Buena could become an inhospitable place if they spoke publicly about the toll Drew’s humiliation took on their family.

The uproar over Drew’s hair “upset me because it became a racial issue. Buena is a melting pot,” said one resident who is close to the Johnson family. The woman, who is white, did not want to be named in order to avoid upsetting the Johnsons. “My boys were brought up not to judge people based on color. We have all types of kids staying over at our house. We’re just a little town, as far from racist as possible.”

Well, maybe not that far.

“There’s a few racists, like anywhere else,” she continued. “But we’re family.”


A three-minute drive from The Line Up, inside the Sports Cuts barbershop, owner Frank Baldissero rings up haircuts on a 1950s-era R.C. Allen cash register. A 1932 photograph of Rockefeller Center skyscraper workers eating lunch in midair hangs on the wall. A grease board has customer appointments written into 15-minute time slots. “That’s my computer,” said Baldissero, who has been here 31 years.

The Johnson family, pictured from left to right: Matt, Rosa, Drew, Nate, Cami and Sheridan.

Johnson Family

At Sports Cuts, Maloney is the hero and the Johnsons are villains. “The kid got away with it for some number of matches and finally got a ref who followed the rules,” said Baldissero, whose head matches his name. “They didn’t enforce the rules until that point in time, and that’s it.”

“The media left out that no adults or coaches made him follow the rules,” chimed in Katrina D’Allessandro. Her son Will was getting his hair cut for the prom, a fade with bangs hanging down over the front.

“It was upsetting to a lot of people at school,” Will said. “Buena isn’t a racist school. We’re all diverse, we have different views. We’re all human. It’s just a matter of rules, I guess. The rules are that hair has to be a certain length. You can’t really have dreads.”

“The parents and the kid, they should step up and say this isn’t about race, it’s about rules. The kid didn’t follow the rules,” said Baldissero.

“The media is way out of whack,” the barber continued. “They turned it into a racial thing. It got to be a racial thing based on what the ref did years ago. People change. I’m sure he’s not the same person he was back then.”

What Maloney did “years ago” happened in 2016, during an informal gathering of referees after they worked a Jersey Shore tournament. During a disagreement about homemade wine, Maloney poked a black referee named Preston Hamilton in the chest and called him the N-word. Hamilton, a former wrestler, responded by body-slamming Maloney.

The NJWOA was asked to discipline Maloney, who was NJWOA membership chairman and training supervisor at the time. He apologized to Hamilton and volunteered to take alcohol awareness and sensitivity courses. The NJWOA ethics committee decided that Maloney should be suspended from refereeing for one year. The committee also suspended Hamilton for “assault.”

Both men appealed. Ethics appeals are handled by NJWOA officers, several of whom had been friends with Maloney for decades. They voted to rescind both suspensions, outraging a swath of the South Jersey wrestling community. Numerous schools told the NJWOA not to assign Maloney to their meets.

Maloney wasn’t interested in public contrition. “I really don’t think this should go any further than it’s gone anyhow. … It was two men, a group of guys, having fun and it was just a slip-up. If you can’t see past that, then I don’t know what to say. I made a mistake and I apologized for it,” he told the Courier-Post newspaper.

It was not his first mistake. In 2012, Maloney told a 6-year-old wrestler that he couldn’t compete with dreadlocks because “hair doesn’t naturally look like that,” according to a statement by a parent who came forward to state civil rights investigators after Drew’s haircut. Finally, “a younger referee, who was a person of color, told him that my son’s hair was natural and he was able to wrestle with it,” according to the statement, which was obtained by NJ Advance Media. Maloney also was accused of kicking an 11-year-old mixed-race wrestler after he wandered onto the mat during a match.

Maloney owns an auto repair garage in West Berlin, about 30 minutes north of Buena. I stopped by one afternoon in May and walked around the gray building with three car bays. A police car was up on one lift. I asked a mechanic if Maloney was around, and he went to get him.

I waited in the garage’s tiny office. Several NJWOA awards hung on the wall. “Presented in recognition for your outstanding achievements, leadership and contributions to New Jersey Scholastic Wrestling,” read one faded plaque. Nearby was a framed newspaper article from Maloney’s 1989 induction into the South Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame. The pinnacle of his competitive career was finishing fourth in the state in 1974. He started reffing two years later.

A short white man with a cigar jammed into his mouth entered the office. He was not Maloney. “Who’s calling?” the man asked. I told him.

“You have to leave,” the man said, and pointed at the door.

Maloney has filed a legal notice preserving his right to sue the Buena school district and 11 other possible defendants, not including the Johnson family. He is claiming defamation of character and emotional distress.


Mikey Morales spun Drew around in his barber chair and went to work on what was left of Drew’s dreadlocks. Hair fell to the floor, just like on the mat four months earlier. Only this time, Drew was reclaiming his identity as a mixed-race, bighearted athlete in a small town that doesn’t fully understand what it means to be Drew Johnson.

Drew had played baseball as a sophomore but decided not to go out for the team this past spring. He did go to the prom. He got an after-school job busing tables. Last summer, he worked on a farm during tomato harvest and received an all-expenses-paid scholarship to attend Burroughs’ wrestling camp in Nebraska. Nate went to the camp too. Drew is looking forward to wrestling his senior year with Nate. Their bond is closer than ever.

The civil rights division of the state attorney general’s office is investigating the incident, along with the NJSIAA. Their findings will determine whether Maloney will referee again.

Thanks to the publicity over Drew’s hair, other dreadlocks will thrive. California just banned employers and schools from discriminating against people based on their hair. A similar bill is pending in New Jersey.

Maloney saw Drew as another black boy who should have followed the rules. Now rules are changing because of Drew.

Morales snapped off his clippers. Drew looked at himself in the mirror. The sides of his hair were faded close to his scalp. A low carpet of hair lay on top. From the crown grew one last dreadlock, uncut, in its natural state, with inseparable strands of Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the United States of America.

Hair care pioneer Joan Johnson made ‘Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen cosmetics’ a feature of black identity Her company sold an uplifting version of black hair care — by any product necessary

When I learned that Joan Johnson had died a few days ago at 89, I felt an instant pang.

Johnson was the co-founder of Johnson Products, which in 1971 became the first black-owned company listed on the American Stock Exchange. She was from the South Side of Chicago, where I spent half of my childhood. (She was married to my mother-in-law’s first cousin.) And it was her company that, among other staples of black grooming products, gave us Ultra Sheen.

I’m not sure anything gets blacker than this, and if I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’.

Johnson Products sponsored the syndicated dance program, Soul Train.

Recently, the news has been full of reports of white teachers, counselors and coaches aggressively policing black hair. My thinking is that if you don’t know that Ultra Sheen is still just $1.21 in grocery stores, then you have no business opening your mouth.

Truth be told, I’ve had a hard time finding those small jars of hair grease for several years. Consolidation in the industry and the move of white-owned firms into the black market led to Johnson Products being sold several times, starting in 1993. It was eventually acquired by Procter & Gamble and later sold to a group of black investment firms. When I’d luck out and spot it on the shelves of some beauty supply store, I’d hoard two or three jars out of both nostalgia and need.

It was the product itself, the not-too-heavy blue grease (or green if you needed the extra dry formula) that had one job — to manage (lay down, wave up, detangle and shine) black hair — it always did what it was supposed to do. It became baked into the daily grooming rituals of my childhood in a way that made it a totem for an era. A pre-gentrification, get-your-education, no-frills time when black people needed neatness, at a minimum, at an accessible price point. It was a tool, rather than a status product, which distinguished it from the fancier, more self-important black hair care lines that followed — especially when white companies moved into the lucrative black hair care market they’d long ignored.

In 1971, Joan Johnson’s Johnson Products became the first black-owned company listed on the American Stock Exchange.

Courtesy of the Johnson family

Long before hair tutorials on YouTube, I raised my daughters using Ultra Sheen and a spray bottle of water to provide the foundation for every hairstyle known to black girlhood. I once finished off my own $200 haircut and color with a palm full of Ultra Sheen my stylist jokingly called “European de frissant.”

George “Pete” Johnson II, my husband’s second cousin, grew up hearing the story of how his father, a production chemist for black-owned soap and cosmetics manufacturer Fuller Products, couldn’t get a business loan. But he got a $250 vacation loan that he and his wife, Joan, used to help start Johnson Products in 1954. They created, packaged and distributed hair care products from their basement before opening a production plant on the South Side in the mid-1960s that employed around 500 people at its height. According to Black Enterprise magazine, the company controlled roughly a third of the black hair care market by the late 1970s.

“My mom was the backbone in all of this,” Pete Johnson said. “She was the woman that, along with my father, envisioned the company.”

She was always good with money and initially did all the accounting and acted as the company’s de facto comptroller. She gave to local causes even before they had much to give. She later became a trustee at Spelman College. “My mom really felt the need to empower not only us as a culture, but black women,” Johnson says. We needed an identity “of us being just as elegant, just as gracious and beautiful as anybody else.”

It’s an ethos that showed up in the stylish clothes, hair and makeup she wore every time she walked out of her front door. When you left home, “you better be completely groomed, clean and smelling good,” said Pete Johnson. She always told us to strive for perfection “and it starts with how you look, how you present yourself.”

“My mom was the backbone in all of this. She was the woman that, along with my father, envisioned the company.” — Pete Johnson

It was a way she thought black people could change self-perceptions, and white perceptions of the race, that much of the culture has since moved past but was considered gospel in its day.

Johnson also believed that graciousness translated into how you treated people. “I saw that firsthand as a little boy,” said Pete Johnson. “We had a place in Endeavor, Wisconsin [a small town near the Wisconsin Dells] and we’d get some of the Native Americans coming to our house asking for food.” When his two older brothers ran around behind them making mock Indian noises, “My mom snatched them boys up so quick,” Pete Johnson recalled. “She didn’t play that. You had to respect everybody.”

The company’s product line also included other hair care and grooming products. Johnson Products sponsored the syndicated dance program, Soul Train, and a huge swath of black America will remember the line, “makers of Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen Cosmetics,” voiced by Soul Train host Don Cornelius, for the rest of our lives.

In a Facebook post, educator Cassandra Smith of Prince George’s County, Maryland, remembered how the yellow creme satin press specifically enabled her Sunday church press and curls. Karen Parker, a Washington event curator and producer, calls both the blue and green Ultra Sheen part of hair washing day in her Afro-Caribbean childhood, and the product of choice for greasing her grandmother’s scalp.

And of course Afro Sheen made Afros shine.

“I also remember the joy of putting the sheen on your Afro,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, who is likely the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution to have ever voiced that particular recollection. He met Joan and George Johnson when he was president of the Chicago Historical Society, and they talked about the power of those weekly Soul Train plugs. “In a way, the Johnsons captured the tenor of the time and used that desire to express one’s blackness as a key to their marketing strategy,” he said. “Whenever I think about the commercials, I smile and recall a time when we were all discovering our blackness.”

Beginning in the late 1970s, the models on the boxes of Johnson Products’ Gentle Treatment relaxers became their own form of black celebrity. (I once worked with a reporter who’d won the vaunted Johnson Products Gentle Treatment model search.) Before the natural hair care revolution of the last decade helped us move beyond the white gaze, they represented an aspirational version of black respectability that saw black womanhood as beautiful and cultured in a way that corresponded with hair that should always be worn appropriately straight.

Joan Johnson wanted to “lift us up” as a people, Pete Johnson said. The message from white culture, “I believe, back then, was that we were less than, but we weren’t.”

Step one in proving that was looking good. It’s something Joan Johnson believed black people could accomplish, by any product necessary.

Jay-Z’s billionaire status adds up to a lot more than what’s in his bank account Like Madam C.J. Walker and John H. Johnson before him, Jay-Z’s rise to business mogul is testament to the power of the black dollar

Jay-Z gathered his thoughts as he sat behind a desk at Roc-A-Fella Records’ headquarters in New York. In a rarely seen 1997 interview, the Brooklyn MC gave a striking answer to a question about what percentage of rappers he believed would still be viable artists a decade later.

“A rapper’s life is like three albums … unless you gon’ endure during the times,” Jay-Z said. “That’s a special case. It’s like 3 to 5% of artists who have a successful career. Crazy, right?”

Jay-Z’s rise to become hip-hop’s first billionaire is important beyond the fact of it.

Jay-Z, at the time, was only a few years removed from drug-dealing as a self-described “Marcy Projects hallway loiterer.” A product of post-civil rights movement America (I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died, he’d later rhyme) who came of age during the war on drugs, Jay-Z by 1997 was an independent businessman with a critically acclaimed rap debut in 1996’s Reasonable Doubt. But it’s likely that not even the notoriously confident Jay-Z saw this coming: Two decades after that interview, Jay-Z is hip-hop’s first billionaire.

On Monday, Forbes released a review of the Brooklyn MC’s financial portfolio that concluded Jay-Z’s empire had surpassed the 10-figure plateau. His fortune is spread across a variety of endeavors, including real estate, liquor, music, the streaming platform TIDAL, entertainment company Roc Nation, his art collection and more. The confirmation is both unsurprising — along with Diddy and Dr. Dre, he has long been near the apex of hip-hop’s top earners — and awe-inspiring.

“Here we had this hip-hop industry that everybody sort of wanted to dismiss and thought that it would go away,” said Angel Rich, author of History of the Black Dollar. “It has now turned into the fabric of American society. It’s weaved into every portion of business. We have [another] symbol of that success and what it means in Jay-Z becoming a billionaire.”

At the start of the 20th century, Madam C.J. Walker made a fortune through black hair. In the middle of the century, John H. Johnson became a mogul with lifestyle publications such as Ebony and Jet. And at the end of the century came the start of Jay-Z’s financial success rooted in black music. All cultivated in America. All tapped into the core of America’s spine, black culture, which has alternately been ignored, chastised and co-opted. All understood the power of the black dollar. These foremothers and forefathers of black wealth in white America were prophytes in The Blueprint MC’s real-life blueprint.

John H. Johnson was the successful head of Johnson Publications Inc., a multimillion-dollar corporation, with publications that included Ebony and Jet.

Bettmann / Contributor

Jay-Z’s original (legal) revenue stream puts the moment in perspective. In a career notable for lyrics as literature and congressional honors, one of Jay-Z’s most recognizable lines is his declaration on Kanye West’s “Diamonds (Remix)”: I’m not a businessman/ I’m a business, man. The potency is rivaled only by its accuracy. The accumulation of wealth has been a constant narrative in his career. “You know n—as die for equal pay right? You know when I work I ain’t your slave right?he rhymed in 2015. “You know I ain’t shucking and jiving and high-fiving/ You know this ain’t back in the days right?”

On 2017’s stellar 4:44, he referenced the history of black wealth and abandonment in “The Story of O.J.” and concluded with the poignant “Legacy.” With daughter Blue Ivy’s innocent inquiry, “Daddy, what’s a will?” Shawn Carter, the patriarch, launches into his explanation while sampling Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.”

Take those monies and spread ‘cross families/ My sisters, Hattie and Lou, the nephews, cousins and TT/ Eric, the rest to B for whatever she wants to do/ She might start an institute, she might put poor kids through school.

Jay-Z then turned to his oldest daughter’s future: My stake in Roc Nation should go to you/ Leave a piece for your siblings to give to their children too.

Success has led to both praise and criticism as well as detailed examinations of his practice of both capitalism and philanthropy. Jay-Z’s financial rise occurred as the income gap between the robustly rich and all other classes has steadily increased over the past 30 years. The word “billionaire” is increasingly viewed as a piece of derogatory lexicon in some circles — even by actual billionaires. But Jay-Z’s black path to entrepreneur and billionaire status distinguishes it from most of his fellow moguls and emphasizes his kinship with his predecessors Walker and Johnson.

Madam C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove) was the first female self-made millionaire in the world. She is shown here posing for a portrait, circa 1914.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

For the better part of the decade, Jay-Z, now 49, has taken on the most socially conscious role of his career. And his monetary boasts have evolved. He’ll never apologize for how he amassed his fortune — he never entered the business to stay a starving artist. I ain’t got a billion streams, got a billion dollars, he said on Meek Mill’s “What’s Free. The 10-figure threshold is a topic of discussion in the Carter household too. We gon’ reach a billi first, he hypothesized on “Family Feud,” also found on 4:44. Generational wealth is a decades-long theme in Jay-Z’s arsenal, dating to 1996’s “Feelin’ It”: If every n—a in your clique is rich, you clique is rugged/ Nobody will fall ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches.

This largesse has been displayed on a variety of fronts: Paying a considerable chunk of Meek Mill’s legal fees and Lil Wayne’s back taxes. Securing legal representation for 21 Savage’s deportation proceedings. Getting Jabari Talbot’s case dropped; the 11-year-old had refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and was subsequently arrested. Covering the cost of college tuition, with Beyoncé, for 11 high school seniors through $100,000 scholarships during the domestic leg of their On The Run II Tour.

A man who doesn’t take care of his family can’t be rich, Jay-Z lamented on “Feud,” paraphrasing The Godfather. That notion gets reinforced in “Legacy.” Generational wealth, that’s the key, he noted. My parents ain’t have s—, so that shift started with me. Given where he started, reaching a billion dollars is an objectively resounding accomplishment and testament to his business acumen. But “Legacy” hits differently given who is touched by Jay-Z’s message and the fruits of his labor. TIDAL, the champagne, D’USSE, I’d like to see/ A nice peace-fund ideas from people who look like we/ We gon’ start a society within a society/ That’s major, just like the Negro League.

Jay-Z (left) and Nipsey Hussle (right) are shown here at the PUMA x Nipsey Hussle 2019 Grammy Nomination Party at the Peppermint Club in Los Angeles on Jan. 16.

Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for PUMA

Jay-Z’s rise to become hip-hop’s first billionaire is important beyond the fact of it. His story is also the story of the black dollar in America. How it was used to build this country, and how it was manipulated — and worse, destroyed — because of the power and independence it carries.

Looking at Jay-Z today, it’s hard not to think about the young MC who sat in Roc-A-Fella’s offices discussing his plans in an industry often described as cutthroat and soul-draining. A billion dollars isn’t immune to lost friendships along the way — or evidence that he made the right decision every time.

“The genius thing that we did was we didn’t give up,” Jay-Z said years ago.

Some of hip-hop’s most promising thought leaders were murdered on the cusp of their fiscal, creative and business primes. The deaths of B.I.G., Tupac Shakur (his frequent yet spiritual partners in rap’s mythical “greatest of all time” debate) and just recently Nipsey Hussle, with whom Jay-Z shared a particularly close brotherhood that expanded far beyond music, is hauntingly painful.

He is the destiny their fate denied them. That’s why the moment matters far more than the actual figure in Jay-Z’s checking account. A billion-dollar industry that began in the boroughs of New York has been monetized, criticized and immortalized the world over. And now that industry has a billionaire of its own.

‘The Sun Is Also a Star’ can’t figure out which world to represent Yara Shahidi and Charles Melton are beautiful together, but the plot isn’t so pretty

After seeing film adaptations of two Nicola Yoon novels, first Everything, Everything and now The Sun Is Also a Star, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s Yoon or the writers adapting her novels who think teenagers are idiots.

Both films rely on obvious, contrived obstacles to give their teen protagonists something to overcome. In 2017’s Everything, Everything, an overprotective mother invents an illness to keep her daughter, played by Amandla Stenberg, confined to the walls of their home, lest she step outside and die. In The Sun Is Also a Star, which opens Friday, a deportation order threatens to separate Natasha Kingsley (Yara Shahidi) and Daniel Bae (Charles Melton), but not before they spend a day gallivanting around New York and falling in love.

Yara Shahidi (left) and Charles Melton (right) have chemistry on screen, but it’s difficult for the audience to invest in their characters’ story.

Atsushi Nishijima

In The Sun Is Also a Star, the president is the unnamed villain whose immigration policy is behind the deportation order that puts a deadline on Natasha and Daniel’s new relationship. When Natasha meets Daniel, she’s in pursuit of a miracle (or at least a court order) that will postpone or cancel the deportation order for her family.

Jamaican-born Natasha is a science-worshipping high school junior and love skeptic who quotes Carl Sagan. But she speaks with an American accent, and like many children of immigrant parents, she handles her family’s interactions with the government. What’s odd is that her parents speak perfect English, which means the language barrier that often forces immigrant kids to become translators simply doesn’t exist. But somehow Natasha is best equipped to handle the maze of legal documents and strange, seemingly illogical requests that make navigating the U.S. immigration, citizenship and naturalization process a nightmare for many. This would maybe make more sense if Natasha were, say, a legal savant, but she’s into astronomy.

Then there’s Daniel, the dutiful younger son who is determined to attend Dartmouth, become a doctor and not disappoint his Korean immigrant parents the way his less ambitious, tattooed older brother already has. Daniel’s a romantic who loves writing poetry, and after saving Natasha from getting hit by a car, he’s convinced he’s found the perfect girl to proselytize about the magic of love.

There are two problems:
1. Natasha’s family is being deported in 24 hours.
2. Natasha is, for most of the movie, stubbornly resistant to revealing this piece of information to Daniel.

The second problem is especially frustrating, given that so much of the does-she-like-me-or-not angst that Daniel experiences could be alleviated with … a conversation.

After their car crash meet-cute and a few lucky coincidences, Natasha and Daniel spend the day together, hopping from Caffe Reggio in Greenwich Village to Daniel’s parents’ beauty supply store in Harlem, to a planetarium, to a karaoke bar, before falling asleep in a park overnight and then dashing back to the attorney whom Natasha has persuaded to take on her family’s case.

Director Ry Russo-Young gives the story of two children of immigrants falling in love a gorgeous look, with hopeful sweeps across the New York skyline. Her flashbacks to the story of how Natasha’s parents met, or a brief explainer of how Koreans came to dominate the black hair care and wig market, provide delicious visual treats that segue away from the main story. Shahidi and Melton are charming and utterly watchable together. They’re both absurdly attractive and skilled actors, but whatever magic exists between them is limited by Tracy Oliver’s script.

Complete investment in Natasha and Daniel is hampered by a cheesiness that prompted repeated laughs from the audience at my screening during moments that were supposed to be solemn or romantic. Daniel’s sexy rendition of “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells netted nervous titters alongside full-on guffaws. So did another moment, when Daniel exclaims to Natasha, “The universe wants us to be together!”

With so much cruelty directly impacting the Kingsley family, the naivete of both characters, but especially Daniel, comes across as tone-deaf. These kids were raised in New York in the wake of 9/11, in an America that can’t seem to do anything to stem school shootings. It doesn’t hurt the story to acknowledge how that influences the way Natasha and Daniel experience the world. Instead, The Sun Is Also a Star goes back and forth between using the cruelty of modern America as a backdrop and then expecting its audience to pivot to forgetting about it entirely, which makes it impossible to fully invest in either aspect of the story. Instead of recalling the psychedelic longing of first love, The Sun Is Also a Star inflicts something more like whiplash.

In ‘Jezebel,’ director Numa Perrier recalls the early days of internet sex work Co-founder of Black and Sexy TV premiered her first film at SXSW

When Jezebel writer-director Numa Perrier moved to Las Vegas in 1998, a young woman could make good money taking her clothes off and simulating sex on the internet — about $15 to $20 per hour at a time when the federally mandated minimum wage was $5.15.

It was also a time of incredible personal upheaval for her: Perrier’s adoptive mother died, and she and her siblings were left to figure out how to pay for the burial. Perrier had to grow up, and quick. But Perrier’s first foray into adult independence, and the relative financial success of online “camming,” allowed her to eventually move to Los Angeles and pursue her dream of becoming an artist.

Nearly 20 years later, Perrier was back in Las Vegas and once again juggling a big life transition. This time, though, she was in charge, as writer, director and producer of her own story.

Over the course of 2016 and 2017, Perrier had split from her romantic and business partner of eight years, Dennis Dortch. Together, they’d founded Black & Sexy TV, a production company and network that makes web series. Early collaborators included Issa Rae, Lena Waithe and Ashley Blaine Featherson. (Rae acted in a series called The Couple; Waithe and Featherson co-created another series, Hello Cupid, which starred Featherson.) Dortch and Perrier enjoyed successes, including a development deal with HBO, collaborations with BET and the introduction of a paid streaming service model. They had a daughter, Rockwelle, who is now 7. But their personal relationship was disintegrating, and an opportunity emerged for both parties to try working on their own. In 2017, Dortch briefly went to South Africa to work with BET. Perrier headed to Las Vegas to shoot her feature directorial debut Jezebel, a semi-autobiographical film she wrote about her introduction to online sex work.

Jezebel director and actress Numa Perrier.

House of Numa

The film premiered earlier this month at South by Southwest, marking Perrier’s biggest solo accomplishment of her career. She and her crew were instantly identifiable around the festival: Perrier kitted everyone out in matching satin jackets like the Pink Ladies of Grease. Perrier is currently entertaining offers for distribution.

In Jezebel, Perrier plays Sabrina, a character based on Perrier’s older sister. She cast newcomer Tiffany Tenille to play herself at 19. The two sisters share a small one-bedroom weekly rental with Sabrina’s boyfriend, David (Bobby Field), their brother Dominic (Stephen Barrington) and Sabrina’s daughter (played by Perrier’s real-life daughter). The film takes its name from the most luxurious item Sabrina owns: a wig of long, curly black hair that Tiffany nicknames “Jezebel.” Money is tight, no one has enough privacy and the siblings’ mother is dying of a chronic illness.

Facing pressure to find a job and get her own place, Tiffany takes the wig Sabrina has given her and, at Sabrina’s urging, answers an ad to be a “cam girl” for an internet company owned and operated by a white brother and sister. She names her online alter ego “Jezebel.” Tenille exists fluidly in the gray area between girl and woman in the role; the first time Jezebel appears on camera on the internet, she’s wearing a dowdy white bra. Her own hair, under her wig, is pulled into a ponytail with a scrunchie.

“I saw [Tenille] in a short film,” Perrier said. “She didn’t even have any lines, but I knew immediately — just the sensuality, her face, that mix of innocence and naughtiness — she just kind of lives in that intersection. I knew that’s what the role required, and she seemed brave.”

Jezebel never panders to its audience by glossing over the stress-inducing artifice of serving others that sex work so often requires. But it does take delight in exposing the naive silliness that often characterized the early days of internet porn. There were no high-def cameras, and the customers were connected via dial-up modem. The images were slow, silent and choppy, and cam girls had to type on a keyboard to talk to their clients. The word for the job, “cam girl,” wasn’t even a common part of the lexicon yet. Tiffany is the company’s only black employee, which later becomes an issue when a client begins spewing racist insults at her and her employer fails to see the need to meaningfully intervene.

The film’s portrayal of sex work doesn’t fall into overused tropes of exploitation or victimization, but it doesn’t make the world more glamorous than it is either. The most remarkable thing about Perrier’s vision of sex work is that it’s just that — work. It’s one of the few cases where the story of a black woman engaged in sex work is shown with a frank, matter-of-fact quality without shame, titillation or unchallenged acceptance of race fetishes.

Perrier’s acuity for depicting the unadorned banalities of being broke is reminiscent of Sean Baker’s work in Tangerine or The Florida Project. But then, she was acutely close to the subject. Perrier shot Jezebel in the same Las Vegas weekly rental complex where she lived when she moved there as a teen. To save money on production costs, she and Rockwelle slept on set, and Perrier put the rest of the crew up in a hotel.

The most remarkable thing about Perrier’s vision of sex work is that it’s just that — work.

The experience of leading a crew and calling the shots on her own was exhilarating but also painful. Revisiting the site of so much economic insecurity was like triggering post-traumatic stress disorder. The memories of the pressure of making weekly rent payments and bickering over meals of ramen and Pop-Tarts came right back. The location was so small, her camera crew wondered how they would compose shots without their equipment getting in the way. The place even smelled the same, she said.

“In Vegas, outside of the Strip, nothing really changes,” Perrier said. “It’s like entering a time warp.”

Still, the choice to revisit Las Vegas, where Perrier filmed most of the movie, paid off. The past year has been explosive for Perrier’s career. She raised the money to complete Jezebel with a successful crowdfunding campaign. She landed a role on Frankie Shaw’s Showtime comedy Smilf. (Showtime recently canceled the show when Shaw was accused of misconduct on set. Perrier said she could not elaborate on the circumstances.) And after enjoying a warm reception and critical notice at SXSW, Perrier headed to New Orleans, where’s she part of Ava DuVernay’s sorority of female directors filming the fourth season of Queen Sugar.

We spoke in Perrier’s hotel room in Austin, Texas, when Perrier blew off the after-party of the SXSW awards. Perrier was spent. The journey to SXSW, as a solo director, had tested her confidence. She was re-evaluating her sense of self and who she was without her longtime creative partner.

“That’s why I’m proud of this movie and not giving up on it,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if anyone would want to work with me or be associated with me now that I’m not with Black & Sexy. I was really insecure about that. I know it sounds weird, but it became my identity too, and I thought it was going to be my legacy. I was like, Oh, we’re gonna build this thing forever and it’s going to grow into all these different — I had such big visions for Black & Sexy. And now I’m like, OK, I’m going to pivot that another way.”

Besides writing, acting and directing, Perrier is a visual artist. With the financial cushion provided by Smilf and Queen Sugar, Perrier is planning her next projects: another movie (a thriller inspired by the story of her adoption) and an art installation project of oversize, customized, black blowup dolls.

“I’m going to be able to provide for myself and my daughter and be creative,” Perrier said. “Do the things I love, tell the stories I want to tell. I can see it all. I’m OK. I’m OK.”

From the Met Gala to ‘Insecure’ and ‘Atlanta,’ what happens when the nuances of black women’s hair care are celebrated? Women in nighttime bonnets and scarves and do-rags have been mostly invisible in pop culture — until now

Rainbow Johnson, portrayed by Tracee Ellis Ross on ABCs popular black-ish, frequently wears a head wrap to bed. So do Rainbow’s precocious daughter Diane, played by Marsai Martin; Rainbow’s meddling mother-in-law Ruby Johnson, played by Jenifer Lewis; and her older daughter Chloe Johnson, played by Yara Shahidi, who has gone off to grown-ish college and taken her head wrap with her. For context: Clair Huxtable didn’t wear a head wrap or bonnet to bed. In real life, Phylicia Rashad probably did. But when we saw Clair, the pristine mother Rashad played on The Cosby Show, in her pajamas or lying in bed, her bouncy hair was always out and perfectly coiffed.

Head wraps, bonnets and silk scarves have never been completely absent from popular culture, but the ones black women use to protect and preserve their hair at night haven’t been as public or as prevalent — until now. Solange just wore a do-rag to the Met Gala, and she was praised far and wide. For many black girls, tying your hair up at night with some sort of head covering is akin to brushing your teeth. There’s no formal ceremony or ritual behind the act, it’s just something you have to do to maintain whatever style you’re wearing at the moment.

Instagram Photo

In grade school, that might be cornrows or individual braids, adorned with a cacophony of plastic beads or barrettes, that require a cotton, silk or satin piece of fabric to keep your edges neat and to ward off the inevitable frizziness. If it’s relaxed hair, then a thin cotton scarf, stocking cap or do-rag likely holds your wrap or doobie in place and keeps your hair straight. For weaves, and for natural hair, satin bonnets usually do the trick, protecting your mane (or bundles) from cotton pillowcases or sheets that can dry out hair and cause breakage. And while satin bonnets and do-rags are plentiful at beauty shops in black neighborhoods, most of my headscarves were sourced from my mother’s dresser.

“The headscarf is a rite of passage for black girls that starts you on your own hair journey,” said Kairo Courts, who was costume designer for the first season of FX’s Atlanta. “I remember asking Zazie [Beetz] early on if she was a bonnet girl or a head wrap girl. She likes head wraps, and we started to talking about having to re-tie them at night because they come off. Everyone has a different recipe for their hair.”


The inclusion of head wraps in the show Dear White People immediately conveys that this show is content made for us, by us.

Netflix

I started to notice head wraps and bonnets on Instagram via Snoop Dogg selfies that turn into single mother memes. There are also the raw yet endearing Cardi B dispatches. And then these artifacts of black culture began to make deliberate appearances on a handful of black, millennial-leaning shows, including HBO’s Insecure, Atlanta and Fox’s Empire. Until I watched Issa wake up next to Lawrence with a scarf tied around her head, or Diane protect her pigtails with a printed scarf at night, I hadn’t even realized that such a foundational part of my black girl existence was missing from the television shows — Sister, Sister; Moesha; The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — that taught me about myself and my identity.

“Black women have begun to embrace their natural hair,” said Tia Tyree, a communications professor at Howard University. “In the past, the Afro or the scarf in media meant a woman was pro-black or militant. She wasn’t an everyday black woman. She has to be resistant, even if she is just wearing it to bed. I think we’ve reclaimed that representation and we aren’t going to be ashamed about tying a scarf around our heads to maintain our hair. It’s a reality, and if you want me to tell my real story, it means I have a headscarf on.”

The sea change became even more apparent in the promotional images for season two of Dear White People, which debuted on Netflix on May 4. To mark the show’s return, Dear White People creator Justin Simien, his showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser and their team sent out press materials that included an image of three black girls sitting on a bed wearing some type of head covering. The character of Coco Conners is in a leopard print bonnet, and the character Joelle Brooks is in a printed silk headscarf. This picture currently sits atop stories in Vanity Fair, Newsweek and Thrillist, and while the image might appear inconsequential, the inclusion of the head wraps immediately conveys that this show is content made for us, by us.

Instagram Photo

But, as illustrated by ’90s favorites such as The Cosby Show, Martin and Living Single, having black executive producers, showrunners and writers on staff hasn’t always meant the authentic portrayal of the facets of our lives. Michelle Cole, the costume designer for grown-ish and black-ish whose oeuvre includes Martin and In Living Color, couldn’t recall if either Tichina Arnold or Tisha Campbell-Martin wore a headscarf on Martin. I recall many “horse hair” and “beady beads” jokes lodged at Pam from Martin, but no head wraps on screen.

Cole does remember receiving a call from executives when she was working on The Bernie Mac Show, which debuted in 2001 and was created by Larry Wilmore (who executive produces black-ish), informing her that there should be no “scarves on the head” for the show. Cole says that now, almost 20 years later, things are different, and the actors on black-ish and grown-ish usually request headscarves to wear in particular scenes.

Often, taking something off means freedom, but for black women, putting on a bonnet or head wrap means you are in a safe space and able to exist as you are.

“It wasn’t like we sat down and had this big discussion about head wraps,” said Cole. “It’s just that we are black women and this is what we do. We go to bed with our head wrap. I don’t think the decision to not allow headscarves on Bernie had to do with race. I just don’t think [the executives] were aware of how much it’s a staple in black women’s lives.”


Issa Rae as Issa in Insecure. These days, head wraps are subtle signifiers of black womanhood and its multiplicities.

HBO

The head wrap has usually been associated with black mammy stereotypes such as the Mammy character Hattie McDaniel depicted in Gone with the Wind, or with characters like the waitress Queen Latifah played in Jungle Fever, who didn’t want to serve Wesley Snipes’ character and his white date (Annabella Sciorra). Debbie Allen addressed some mammy connotations and attempted to reclaim them in A Different World’s 1987 “Mammy Dearest” episode. Costume designer Ceci (who goes by one name) began her career as a costume designer on A Different World and currently works on Dear White People. It was she who was tasked with dressing Charnele Brown, who played Kimberly Reese, in a black mammy head wrap similar to the ones worn by Aunt Jemima on boxes of pancake mix.

Ceci remembers a contentious atmosphere leading up to the filming of the “Mammy” episode and an emotional Brown, who didn’t want to wear the head wrap because of its associations, and especially the associations with her darker skin tone. Jasmine Guy’s Whitley Gilbert did wear a bonnet — or as she called it “a polytechnic moisture control cap” — in season four episode eight of A Different World, one of the show’s most pivotal episodes when she and Dwayne Wayne finally confess their love for each other. Ceci says that now, actors don’t blink twice when asked to wear one.

“People say ‘black girl magic,’ and seeing the scarf is like a magician showing you her secrets.”

“There were lots of tears,” said Ceci. “It brought up a lot of emotions. But that conversation is nonexistent on Dear White People. … It is what it is, and if you don’t understand it, it’s not for you.”

These days, head wraps are subtle signifiers of black womanhood and its multiplicities, and this imagery rarely comes with any sort of translation for nonblack audiences. Issa ties a small scarf around the sides of her teeny-weeny Afro. Rainbow protects her curly tresses with a printed silk scarf tied haphazardly to almost resemble a turban. And Cookie has worn a Chanel silk scarf that she ties at the nape of the neck with the ends cascading down her robe. Often, taking something off means freedom, but for black women, putting on a bonnet or head wrap means you are in a safe space and able to exist as you are. “There has always been a certain mystique associated with black women,” said Courts. “People say ‘black girl magic,’ and seeing the scarf is like a magician showing you her secrets. A lot of people aren’t privy to this ritual, and it’s intriguing to someone who can’t relate.”

Ayanna James, costume designer on Insecure, believes there’s a level of normalization that comes with showing a head wrap on-screen. She compares black women wearing a head wrap each night on Insecure to the women of Sex and the City going to Starbucks every morning. But despite this movement toward showcasing black-girl head wrap society on mainstream platforms, wearing one out of doors still has consequences. According to Dress Coded, a report put together by the National Women’s Law Center that details how dress codes influence the education of black girls, 68 percent of Washington, D.C., public high schools ban head wraps or headscarves.

“There is a negative connotation when you see a young lady on the street with a bonnet or a headscarf that you wear to bed,” said James. “People see her as less valuable, [as] more uncouth and wild. … But the more we see the Olivia Popes and the Annalise Keatings in their natural state, the more it helps the rest of the world understand our journey. Representation matters, and for the younger black girl who may have issues with her hair, it shows that she is not alone. The subtle nuance of wrapping our hair at night is what collectively brings women of color together.”

From ‘Dawson’s Creek’ to ‘Buffy’ to ‘Frasier’ to ‘Seinfeld’ — what happened to those lone, ‘token’ black actors? Eight talents tell stories of offensive scripts, stunt people in blackface and the heartbreak — and hope — of portraying Thug No. 2 and the dope dealer’s girlfriend

This is about television in the 1990s but let’s start with a quick, tragic and important trip to 1975.

Happy Days is about to deliver its infamous and most cringe-worthy episode. In “Fonzie’s New Friend,” the leather jacket-clad Fonz meets up with Sticks Downey, a new-to-town wisecracking drummer. The Fonz decides that Sticks, played with seemingly effortless timing by John Bailey, would make a great addition to Richie Cunningham’s band. When Richie asks a young woman on a date to a luau — with Fonzie’s new buddy as the perfect hookup for her friend, the punchline is of course that Sticks is black.

“Why do I get the feeling I was just humiliated?” Sticks deadpans as the studio audience roars with laughter. From there: one-liners about Downey’s lack of basketball prowess, about eating fried chicken and watermelon and yes, a low-key slavery joke. “Sticks was a very offensive character,” said artist Alida Bailey from her Palmdale, California, home. The easygoing stepdaughter of John Bailey wasn’t alive when the episode aired, but she’s seen it many times. “It was so over-the-top,” she said. “But to his credit, my father was still hilarious. He could shine in any role even if it was a token one.” He appeared in 1977’s The Kentucky Fried Movie, but by the ’80s, John Bailey bolted to the adult film industry, where he went by name Jack Baker. In 1994, he died of bladder cancer due to complications from AIDS.

“My dad got his foot in the door … despite race being an issue,” Alida Bailey said with pride. “But once the roles started to dry up, he could see that there was no equality in Hollywood … What you’re left with are token roles.” Downey was the 1970s. And while ’80s television — a groundbreaking era that launched The Cosby Show, the criminally underrated Frank’s Place, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and 227, the 1990s were actually awash in tokenism.

Yes, the adored 1990s. Even with the shows that are seared into our collective DNA: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Roc, In Living Color, The Arsenio Hall Show, New York Undercover, and Martin — all of these were must-see TV. There was A Different World, Family Matters, Moesha, Sister, Sister, Living Single. Indeed, in the 1990s, the wealth of black representation on television could lull you into thinking — if you turned the channel from Rodney King taking more than 50 blows from Los Angeles Police Department batons — that black lives actually did matter. But almost all of these shows were in varying ways, an extension of segregated America. It’s there in the memories of the stars below: There were “black shows,” and there were “white shows.” If you were a black actor appearing on a white show, you were usually alone.

For some of the most visible black actors coming of age in the 1990s, it’s clear that along with the triumphs came isolation, blatant racial stereotyping and biased casting calls. As for “crossing over” to the mainstream, in the mostly segregated worlds of Seinfeld, Frasier, Melrose Place, Saved by the Bell: The New Class, Felicity, V.I.P., Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek and more, blacks were usually relegated to bit parts or were there for a short time. The Undefeated sat down with eight of these talented women and men. These are their stories. This is history.


PHIL MORRIS, 58

Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Iowa City, Iowa

Throwback: Melrose Place, Seinfeld

Currently working on: CBS’ 9JKL

When you live in the same house as a father that created such an incredible legacy — not just for himself and his family, but for an entire race of people — it’s expected that you should do the same. Greg Morris broke down racial barriers on Mission: Impossible. Him, Bill Cosby, Diahann Carroll [Julia], Bernie Hamilton [Starsky & Hutch], Lloyd Haynes [Room 222] … they opened the door for all of us as black actors on television. I wanted to continue to break down those barriers.

My first acting job was on Star Trek, way back when I was … around 8. I’m talking about the original Star Trek with Captain Kirk and Dr. Spock. It was stunt-casting episode, so I was in it, my sister Iona was in it, William Shatner’s daughters were in it, and some of the directors’ kids were in it. We were kids who weren’t actors, but we knew when to shut up when the director called “Action!” [Laughs].

“To his credit my father was still hilarious. He could shine in any role, even if it was a token one.”

My earliest adult experiences in the acting world … I stunted my own authenticity because either I was trying to not be my father or trying to live up to his success. But the ’90s kind of opened things up for me. That era allowed for more black images to be seen as intelligent, authoritative, educated, stylish, and beautiful beyond The Cosby Show, which normalized how the world looked at African-American families. I appeared on black shows like 227, The Fresh Prince, and Martin. But I was also able to do series like WIOU [a short-lived CBS news drama], Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and other more mainstream, non-ethnic roles. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the experience for black actors.

I remember [around ’95] going out for a role on Melrose Place — one of the hottest shows on television at that time. I had a long history with Aaron Spelling [Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, and Beverly Hills 90210]. I’ve gone to dinner with Mr. Spelling and I’ve gone to dinner with Mr. Darren Star [co-creator of Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and Sex In The City] and I’ve told them, “You need to have more black people on that show than just Vanessa A. Williams.” And they would tell me, “Oh, Phil … it’s all casting … we would bring you in, we would make a role for you in a heartbeat.” I took it as lip service.

A few weeks later, Melrose Place had another role. I told my people to submit me for it. My agents came back and said, “Nah, they’re not going to see you. They want the role to be a white role.” The next time I saw Aaron Spelling, I again told him that I knew I wasn’t going to get the role because I was black. And he said, “Well, I’m only so big. There’s only so much that I can do.” I finally got a role on Melrose Place because I happened to be the right dude.

SEINFELD — “The Finale: Part 1&2” Episode 23 & 24 — Pictured: (l-r) Jerry Seinfeld as Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes, Jason Alexander as George Costanza, Michael Richards as Cosmo Kramer, Phil Morris as Jackie Chiles (Photo by )

Joseph Del Valle/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

The truth is, you ain’t never going to please everybody, anyway. When I went to audition for Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld, I never thought of it as a derogatory token role. They told me, straight up, “We want someone that would give us a rendition of Johnnie Cochran.” I remember seeing Michael Dorn [Worf, of the Star Trek franchise] and Ted Lange from The Love Boat and Michael Boatman. We all looked like the Motown Mafia at that audition with our dark suits [Laughs].

“My Melrose Place experience only strengthened me. I wasn’t going to let no one tell me my worth, or value.”

I’d known Johnnie Cochran most of my whole life. We went to the same barber … Terrell’s Barber Shop in Los Angeles. I’d see Johnnie there almost every Sunday, for years — so I knew this cat way before the O.J. Simpson trial. I had a sense of his rhythm and his thing … that “Uh, huh … You don’t say.” I ended up getting the Seinfeld job, but Johnnie had to sign off on his likeness, which he eventually did. Jackie Chiles was a relief valve for a lot of people who were so frustrated with the O.J. verdict. It gave them a chance to laugh at the proceedings that were sometimes just ridiculous. Personally, I didn’t agree with the O.J. verdict. That’s why Jackie Chiles was so over-the-top. I let them have it.

I saw Johnnie a couple of times after my Seinfeld episodes aired and it was just like an old western movie. I walked into the barbershop and he’s laid back in the chair getting a shave. Everyone was quiet and Johnnie looks at me, laughs and says, “Young man, you are hilarious.”

I don’t know why I don’t have my own show right now. It’s driving me crazy, because my ambition is very high … I’m developing my own show, centering around me as an ex-soap opera star. I’m just trying to control my journey.


BIANCA LAWSON, 38

Brinson+Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Los Angeles

Throwback: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek

Currently working on: Queen Sugar

When I turned 14, I started Saved By The Bell: The New Class [in 1993]. I’d been staying in New York with my dad, and I ended up coming back to L.A. I was in a store and some guy walked up to us and said, “My wife is a manager. Do you act?” And literally that week I got the role for Saved By The Bell. I wasn’t thinking about if I was the “token black girl” on the show. I was just happy to be working.

Bianca Lawson played Megan Jones in Saved By The Bell: The New Class.

Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

I had a recurring role on Sister, Sister and it was so much fun. The UPN writers from that show told me, “Bianca, we’re going to make another series and we are going to write a part just for you.” It was a black sitcom with the legendary Sherman Hemsley called Goode Behavior. I was offered a role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as one of the leads, but I took Good Behavior because the producers had kept their word.

“Can you black it up? Can you make it blacker … more street? That was never me. Honestly, I had more issues with the black directors and producers than the white ones.”

After Goode ended, the Buffy people offered me another part. I thought I was going to be on Buffy longer, but it was only for four episodes. I loved playing Kendra. She was fierce and she was direct. She wasn’t about being liked. She had this mission to accomplish and it wasn’t connected to some guy or some romance.

Bianca Lawson and Alyson Hannigan from season 2 of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer.”

I can’t remember how many episodes I was supposed to do on Dawson’s Creek, but there was this thing where my character Nikki, who was a filmmaker, always had to be better than [her white peers]. She even had a discussion with Dawson about this. It was really surreal. The thought of becoming the first black actress on shows like Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer never really occurred to me back then.

Recently, I was on an airplane and someone left a beautiful note on my seat to say what I meant to them as a black actress on television. I didn’t really think about any of that when I was younger because you’re just doing the work. It was only years later as I got older that I realized seeing a young black woman on Buffy and Dawson’s Creek was empowering to a lot of people.

It’s a feeling that I’m experiencing on an even higher level with Queen Sugar. I feel like I’m part of a new black television era.


VANESSA A. WILLIAMS, 54

Born: Brooklyn, New York

Throwback: Melrose Place

Currently working on: Vengeance, Days of Our Lives, I Left My Girlfriend for Regina Jones

When I was 6, I wanted to literally know how people got into the TV set [Laughs]. My family is a performing family. My mother was a tap dancer and my grandmother was an accomplished pianist and organist and had played with W.C. Handy, and my auntie sung opera. I started to do singing roles as part of the New York City Opera, and there was a girl there who was also a professional actress. She had an actual manager, which really impressed me. We ended up becoming friends and I got that same manager.

My first big gig was a Bubble Yum commercial with Ralph Macchio [of The Karate Kid] We did a f—ing bubble gum rap [Laughs]. “Yum, so fine, the flavor lasts a long, long time!” It was hilarious … a bunch of white kids and a black girl rapping about gum!

There are two projects that I count as my big break into Hollywood — The Cosby Show and of course New Jack City. As a New York actor, you are trained in theater, and if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. So I wasn’t intimidated when I got the Melrose Place phone call. This was a big deal because we knew the show was an Aaron Spelling project coming on the heels of Beverly Hills, 90210. I heard that my role as Rhonda was going to be for a Jewish girl, but I won the role. I just thought, Wow, my dreams are coming true.

“I started out as a standup comedian. I wanted to be Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Whoopi Goldberg.”

When the L.A. riots happened, there was a story line on Melrose Place dealing with the aftermath. In the script, Rhonda was separating herself from her own community — the black community — and saying things like, “Those people … ” I had a serious talk with Darren, who was very amenable about changing that part of the script.

The cast of the TV series, ‘Melrose Place,’ posing on steps, circa 1993.

Fotos International/Getty Images)

It wasn’t until Melrose Place fired me after doing 33 episodes of season one that I felt the sting of Hollywood. There was positive fan feedback about my character, but I guess the Spelling people did some demographic research and decided that they were going to go into a more backbiting, soap opera direction. I thought the only strike against me was that I was a black actress. It had all to do with the fact that they were going to have people sleeping with each other in the cast — and how would that play for Middle America to see a black girl bed-hopping?

But my Melrose Place experience only strengthened me. I wasn’t going to let no one tell me my worth or value. I kept rolling with roles on such shows as Chicago Hope, Soul Food and [most recently] the Bella Thorne-vehicle Famous In Love on ABC’s Freeform network. One thing about the ’90s is there was a plethora of work for black actors even with all the ups and downs. This was the golden age of black television. We literally built Fox and UPN. That is a known fact.


MARKUS REDMOND, 47

Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Philadelphia

Throwback: Doogie Howser, M.D.

Currently working on: Wine & Whimsy, The 6th Degree

I always knew I wanted to be a television actor. I was enamored by John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino on Welcome Back Kotter. I thought he was the coolest dude in the history of the world, and my parents laughed at me. They were like, “You know acting is an actual job? Travolta is not just some cool guy … he’s acting.” I was like, “Well, I want that job!” It wasn’t until my family moved from North Philadelphia to Ventura County, about an hour north of Los Angeles, that I got into a high school drama class.

I started taking lessons from acting coach Cliff Osmond, rest in peace. After I’d been in the class long enough, he told me, “I think it’s time for you to meet my wife.” She became my first agent in 1989, and I ended up booking a play called Ten November. One of the casting directors from this new show, Doogie Howser, M.D., Beth Hymson, came to the play. She brought me in for an audition to play Friend No. 2.

So I go to the audition and Friend No. 2 is asking Doogie what it’s like being a doctor. Now I grew up in Ventura with a bunch of surfers, so to me it just seemed natural to be like, “Whoa, dude … You get to see blood and guts?!!! Gnarly, dude!” And I’m a big, black guy, so that didn’t make a whole lot of sense doing a white surfer voice, but Beth and the others got a kick out of it. They told me they’d keep me on their radar. And then the very next audition was for Raymond on Doogie Howser, M.D.

The cast of Doogie Howser, M.D.

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

Early on, I noticed the Doogie script was very surface. My character was written as this tough black guy who’s about to rob a 7-Eleven. Doogie talks him down, he realizes the error of his ways, and Doogie gets to feel good about himself. On the third or fourth day of production, there was a line where Doogie’s mom screams at a cop, “If that animal hurts my son!” She was talking about my character. This became hugely controversial because we had a good number of African-Americans that were extras on set.

The extra that played my mom, she especially took offense to it. I remember production stopped, and when we came back, that “animal” line had been taken out of the script. So there was this slow process of humanizing Raymond on the series.

“I don’t have my own show right now. It’s driving me crazy because my ambition is very high.”

I met a lot of black people while I was on Doogie. They’d be like, “So, wait, you’re on TV?” And I’d say, “I’m on Doogie Howser.” They’d usually respond, “Oh, I don’t watch that show because there ain’t no black people on it.” And that’s the thing. If you segregate yourself, the media will always give those stereotypes to you. If you keep telling the media, “Ghetto, street, rap … that’s all who I am,” the media will respond, just like the universe.

Neil Patrick Harris and Markus Remond on an episode of Doogie Howser, M.D.

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

When I’d go out for auditions, there was usually a prerequisite of, “Can you black it up? Can you make it blacker … more street?” And that was never me. Honestly, I had more issues with the black directors and producers than the white ones. I’m not a fan of hip-hop. Look at my Spotify and its mostly country. My favorite actors are William Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart. That’s where I get my juice.

After Doogie, I was able to book a series on UPN called Family Rules as the black next-door neighbor. Everybody knew what the UPN acronym really meant: The Underpaid Negro Network. I was the reverse token … the only black person on a mostly white show on UPN. It was canceled after [six] episodes. It had gotten to the point where none of this acting stuff was relevant to me. I was tired of playing Thug No. 4. Like I said, I grew up with surfers, listened to swing music and loved Woody Allen movies. I didn’t fit in.

I think that’s why I embraced writing. I’ve sold some scripts to studios and I did a film that went to Sundance back in ’07 that Whoopi Goldberg and Sharon Stone starred in along with me called If I Had Known I Was A Genius. I never limit myself. Fortunately, today we have great shows portraying black people in a broad light like How To Get Away With Murder and Scandal. Thank God for Shonda Rhimes for saying, “Let me just make great television shows and just put black people in the lead and surround them with everybody.”


KENN MICHAEL, 40

Brinson+Banks for The Undefeated

Born: New York

Throwback: The Parent ‘Hood, Freaks and Geeks

Currently working on: Artificial intelligence software project

I loved being in front of the camera. I did Reading Rainbow twice, and one of the producers said to my parents, “He’s really good. This seems like something you guys might want to pursue.” I thank my mom, Lola, for my career, because she put in a lot of work.

The first national spot I booked was a commercial for Bubble Yum in 1990. I was around 12, and the role for that ad was originally not created for a black kid, but a white character named Milo, the Mathematical Genius. I guess white kids were only allowed to be intelligent, but the agent I had was incredible. She was like, “Oh, no. We’re going to send Kenn there because they don’t know what they want. And he can do it.” I nailed it.

I always played the smart kid in a lot of crossover roles. And then I hit this rut that was typical with being a black actor where the majority of the roles were the street kid, the drug dealer or the bad kid. All the auditions were the same, and I was bummed, so around 1992 I was an apprentice director on the film Boomerang, shadowing the Hudlin Brothers. I got the chance to watch Eddie Murphy work. I developed a bit of a rapport with him. Eddie noticed I was a little out of sorts.

Hours later, he asked me to see him on his bus. I was excited! I told him what I was experiencing in the television audition game and he gave me this pep talk, like, “Dude, I know. But you have to keep on trucking. Your excellence will shine no matter what you do.” I ended up getting an actual part in Boomerang.

But then you go from being on a big budget film that showed blacks in a nuanced, positive light, and back to the politics of TV. I remember a meeting I had with Darren Star, who was the head of Aaron Spelling’s development company. I walked into this huge office in Beverly Hills. They were interested in creating a show for me, so Darren walks in, puts his feet up on the table and he says, “You may know some of our series like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place …” He had this very arrogant way about him. So I said, “Yeah, I’ve seen those shows, but I don’t really watch them because I don’t see anybody who looks like me.” [A] phrase you heard a lot back in those days [was] … “Oh, we don’t know how to write for black characters.”

Being on the show The Parent ’Hood was an interesting situation. I was on a black series with Robert Townsend, who was show’s creator and executive producer. There was diversity, and it was great at times, but then my character started to get painted in a corner. He was viewed as this superpositive black male character … smart and into music. I was written off the show. The character they replaced me with was this boy who was written as a troubled, streetwise kid. It wasn’t just the white shows that insisted I play the hoodlum. That was an eye-opener.

“I hit this rut that was typical with being a black actor where the majority of the roles were the street kid, the drug dealer or the bad kid.”

When I did Freaks and Geeks, nobody knew anything about it. Judd Apatow was not a huge name at that point, so for me it was just another audition. I was just happy to be on a show where the writing was really funny. We know that Apatow’s projects are mostly white. In hindsight, yeah, it would have been great … for them to have more characters of color.

I got tired of the politics of auditioning for roles. I’d always been directing my own short films before I got my first official directing gig. I was doing film festivals and some projects on the digital side of filmmaking before anybody was talking about it, because the picture quality wasn’t of quality back then. I was also doing a lot of voiceover work for video games and cartoons. I ended up directing BET’s Let’s Stay Together. That was my multicam, sitcom, directorial thing. It was a lot of fun. Doing voice work for video games has been a lot of fun because you get to play all these crazy characters. I do a really great German accent [Michael is an in-demand video game voice actor. He has appeared in the Saints Row series and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas].

I’ve started this next phase of my journey. I’ve been building a software project that is dealing with sound, healing, and sacred numbers and frequencies. My thing is bringing spirituality, technology, and science together. Artificial intelligence is upon us. We need to make sure that we are imbuing things into A.I. that we would want.


KIM COLES, 56

Born: Brooklyn, New York

Throwback: Living Single, Frasier

Currently working on: Stand-up comedy, speaking engagements (AARP, American Heart Association among others)

I started out as a stand-up comedian. I wanted to be Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Whoopi Goldberg. [In 1987], I auditioned for A Different World, for the role of Jaleesa … the role that Dawnn Lewis eventually got. Dawn and I had been friends since we were 11, so for her to get that was huge. I remember being at an event and meeting Keenan Ivory Wayans. Keenan tells me that he has a television show coming up and that he wanted me to audition. I found out that it was a multicultural sketch comedy show, which had never been done before.

We filmed the pilot for In Living Color in 1989, but somebody had already gotten a hold of the episode! There were bootlegged copies being sold on the streets. There were people who loved the show and others who thought we were too edgy, too black, and hated it. I was only on In Living Color for the first year … it was an incredible experience.

The cast of Living Single. Kim Coles is the to far right.

Deborah Feingold/Corbis via Getty Images

Landing the role of Synclaire on Living Single was massive. It was around 1992, and I’d just left In Living Color. The producers reached out to me and said, “We love you. We want to do a series about black women and their experiences and what they think about life and men.” Living Single was an iconic show with a lot of layers. It wasn’t a stereotypical black sitcom. But it wasn’t hard to notice that networks like Fox and UPN were using black shows just to establish their success. There were black series that were watched by millions on Fox, but apparently they weren’t a part of the network’s vision.

I booked The Geena Davis Show, but they kindly let me walk so I could do an episode of Frasier. Then I booked a second episode, and I have to tell you, the experience was amazing. Kelsey Grammer was beyond kind to me and he loved my Dr. Mary character. I knew that there were no [black people] on Frasier, but I saw that as a challenge.

“That just was the reality of the times … you usually were the only black person on a so-called ‘white’ show.”

The response to Dr. Mary was incredible, so we tried to get the Frasier people to do a spinoff. This was at the time Kelsey was about to do Girlfriends, so I knew he had to be open to black women being the lead [of a show]. The writer who wrote my two episodes on Frasier even won a diversity award because before that they didn’t have anyone like me on that show! But the spin-off never happened.

I do some stand-up and I have my own one-woman show. And I do a lot of speaking engagements for AARP and the American Heart Association. I tell my story and I try to inspire, motivate … and I get to be funny. I think there should be more black shows like black-ish. We have Shonda Rhimes, who is putting together these amazing series with these amazing black women at the helm. But I’m not waiting around for Hollywood to call me for jobs. Everything that I’m doing today keeps me fed until I’m able to get that free food. Because that’s the only reason to do a television show … it’s the free food [Laughs].


TANGI MILLER, 47

Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Miami

Throwback: Michael Hayes, Felicity

Currently working on: Nwannem: Sisters

Acting seemed kind of far-fetched. It wasn’t practical. But there was a show called Michael Hayes, which starred David Caruso. It was a detective series, like Miami Vice, and I played a drug dealer’s girlfriend. I was more concerned about my hair than how my peers would perceive me as an actor [laughs].

Thank God I don’t have to worry about that now, because today they have a lot of black hair stylists, but back then that wasn’t the case. So I showed up on set with my hair clean and washed and no makeup. And they would look at me like, “What happened to you?” This one white girl came to me with a pressing comb and she tried to comb my hair in the opposite direction, and I’m like, “No, no, no … the comb goes the other way.”

Cast of the show Felicity.

Getty Images

I don’t think I ever felt like Elena was this lone, token black character when I got the role for Felicity. As a black actress, that just was the reality of the times … you usually were the only black person on a so-called “white” show. When I met J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, who created the show, I actually thought they were assistants because they were so short and cute [Laughs]. I was talking to them like they were my peers … but they were really cool about it.

“When I went to audition for Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld, I never thought of it as a derogatory, token role.”

What I was really concerned about was wanting Elena to come across as more than just Felicity’s black friend. It was important to me that you saw some of my character’s girlfriends from before she came to college. If you look back at some of the episodes of Felicity, you will see Elena’s backstory with her family and father. Whenever I made those suggestions, the producers actually followed through. I felt supported.

I didn’t realize how lucky we were until Felicity was over. It was an amazing, well-written show. J.J. is a genius. I wanted another meaty character that I could sink my teeth into … that I could be proud of, but I couldn’t find one. That’s one of the reasons why I started producing and making my own movies. Recently, I directed Diva Diaries. I’ve done Hurricane in the Rose Garden, My Girlfriend’s Back, Love … & Other 4 Letter Words. I’ve done like 10 or 12 films, mostly as a producer and actor. I love what I do.


SHAUN BAKER

Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: New York

Throwback: V.I.P.

Currently working on: Atone, The Zim

The first thing I did when I came out to Los Angeles was House Party, but the first television series I booked was a [1993] sitcom called Where I Live. It was a positive depiction of a young Caribbean family and young African-Americans from Harlem who were supportive of each other. It featured myself, Doug E. Doug and Flex Alexander. We were just starting our careers, and were so excited to be working as young actors. After the second season, when we didn’t get picked up, it was heartbreaking.

I was happy to be a part of Living Single. Kim Coles is incredibly gifted. Everybody from that show from [Queen] Latifah, T.C. Carson, and Kim Fields to Erika Alexander to John Henton were heavy hitters. The role I played, Russell, a West Indian music editor, was interesting, because my family is from Jamaica. I tapped into my own experiences. We were groundbreaking, positive, upwardly mobile, young African-Americans, men and women who were flawed individuals striving for friendship and love.

“The thought of becoming the first black actress on shows like Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer never really occurred to me back then.”

But after that success, all of sudden these popular black series like Roc, In Living Color, Martin, and Living Single were getting canceled. Then you would see all of these white shows like Party of Five and Melrose Place pop up. I don’t know if it was strategic, but it did make us raise an eyebrow and ask, “Well, what happened to all those black shows?”

After Living, I had a meeting with Pamela Anderson for an action comedy called V.I.P. and she was transparent … about a lot of things pertaining to a role she had in mind for me. She told me, “You know why you’re here? You have a following … you have an audience.” Living Single helped me get on V.I.P.

The cast of V.I.P.

V.I.P. [1998-2002] was a huge action comedy series. When you’re minority on such a big show, having a support system is very important. I was very mindful of how I was being portrayed as a black man on V.I.P. But there was a situation that I had to deal with. A lot of times in the stunt world if they don’t think an African-American stunt person is not capable, they will actually [blackface] a non-African American. This would usually be a white person.

We were doing an episode where we were supposed to be circus performers, and they told me they couldn’t find any black circus people, but I knew they just didn’t want to spend the money. So I told them to take me out of the scene if they were going to use a painted-on stunt person. I knew the history of blackface. I understood how serious that was. I went to Pam and the producers and I said, “Not only am I offended, but the NAACP will be in here marching.” They wrote me out of the scene.

But looking back, I still feel fortunate to be part of a special time on television. I’m thankful because just to get one acting role back then was like hitting the lottery. But I had several: Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, A Different World, Martin, Living Single, V.I.P. TV is powerful. A lot of times, black people are portrayed as savages. That’s why it’s important to see shows like Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar — that’s how we as artists make a difference.

Colin Kaepernick has earned the right to rock that ‘GQ’ cover uniform and Afro He may be wearing it on the cover of a fashion magazine, but it is not just for fashion

On Monday, GQ magazine released its Men of the Year issue naming former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as its Citizen of the Year. Continuing his strategic silence, Kaepernick’s words are not featured in the piece. Instead, he guided GQ to interview 10 of his “closest confidants” — including director Ava DuVernay, hip-hop artist J. Cole, Women’s March co-organizer Linda Sarsour, and civil rights activist and entertainment icon Harry Belafonte — to provide intimate insights into Kaepernick the human being.

I was honored to be one of the 10 people interviewed for this piece.

While reading the article, I found myself fixated on the images that accompanied the piece. Photographed in Harlem, New York, by Martin Schoeller, the images were intended to “evoke the spirit of Muhammad Ali’s anti-Vietnam War protests in the neighborhood during the late ’60s.”

But for me, there was so much more encoded in the photographs, particularly the cover. There was so much beautiful black history and politicization hidden in plain sight.

Kaepernick’s Afro shined like a crown of black consciousness on the cover of GQ, serving as a crucial component for framing his unspoken love for black aesthetic affirmation. But if one picks through the historical roots of his natural hair halo, they will find a legacy of powerful black women affiliated with the Black Panther Party.

Arguably, the most iconic Afro of all rested atop of the head of the women engaged in black revolutionary praxis — most notably, Angela Davis. Unfortunately, many reduce her natural hair choice to simply a style to be easily emulated and not a powerful symbol that reflected a departure from the politics of respectability that served as a visual hallmark of the civil rights era, nor as a choice that combated Eurocentric standards of beauty that waged war on the self-esteem of black children, women and men in America.

As Davis noted, “I am remembered as a hairdo. It is humiliating because it reduces a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion.” This reduction that Davis sees as humiliating anchors the important implications involved in the multilayered nature of the Black Power-era mantra, “black is beautiful.” It was not just about looks, it was about liberation.

However, as Kim McNair, a postdoctoral scholar at USC who teaches in the departments of American studies and ethnicity, and history, poignantly points out:

Kaepernick’s choice in style links him not only to the idea of “black is beautiful” but also connects him to figures such as Frederick Douglass and Bob Marley, two biracial figures in the long black freedom struggle. These men also wore their hair long, and Marley’s choice in particular was part of his Rastafarianism that also became a political movement. Hair politics among mixed-race black people carries a weighted history of questions around legitimacy and racial authenticity. This is why Kaepernick’s choice in hairstyle is purposeful — not superficial, as many would like for us to believe.

I can recall an impromptu conversation that Colin had with the youths invited to one of his Know Your Rights Camps in Chicago. During a heated debate about young men and the need to look presentable, Kaepernick peacefully yet passionately interjected, speaking to the young black folks in the crowd about the importance of loving themselves — specifically their hair. He spoke directly to those who were stigmatized for making the choice to wear their hair in locs, or in some iteration of an Afro, highlighting how this cultural criticism about natural black hair was just one of the many ways that anti-blackness attacks your sense of self, leaving a trail of self-hate for something that was given to you from birth: your hair.

The children returned the love via a roaring round of applause.

Colin’s homage to the aesthetics of the Black Panther Party on the cover of GQ continued via his adorning a black turtleneck and a black jacket with a peaked lapel, symbolically connecting his image to the likes of Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale and many others wearing the Black Panther Party uniform, presenting themselves as a unified group moving in solidarity in the fight against systemic oppression.

Seale complained that with the increase in Panther visibility, many wanted to wear the impressive Panther uniform of the black beret, black pants, blue shirt and black turtleneck, but only to posture and pose “with a mean face on, their chests stuck out and their arms folded.” They wanted to be seen as helpers of the people without putting in the work and making sacrifices for the people.

Colin, by way of the work that he has committed himself to for social justice, and the sacrifices that he has made, has earned the right to wear that uniform and rock that Afro. Even though it is on the cover of a fashion magazine — it is not just for fashion.

As one delves deeper into GQ’s photographs of Kaepernick, it impossible to miss the image of Colin wearing a dashiki top while in a crowd of beautiful black and brown faces. This, of course, is a re-creation of the iconic image of Muhammad Ali in 1974, among the people of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is also a remix of photos taken of Colin while on a trip to Ghana. As Colin let the world know on July 4 via an Instagram post, and an accompanying video:

“In a quest to find my personal independence, I had to find out where my ancestors came from. I set out tracing my African ancestral roots, and it led me to Ghana. Upon finding out this information, I wanted to visit the sites responsible for myself (and many other Black folks in the African Diaspora) for being forced into the hells of the middle passage. I wanted to see a fraction of what they saw before reaching the point of no return. I spent time with the/my Ghanaian people, from visiting the local hospital in Keta and the village of Atito, to eating banku in the homes of local friends, and paying my respects to Kwame Nkrumah’s Memorial Park. I felt their love, and truly I hope that they felt mine in return.”

I was there with him in Africa. I was there when he and his partner Nessa personally picked out that dashiki while paying respects to African ancestors who were stripped of their lives in the Goree Island slave castles. This dashiki was not a piece picked out by a stylist — it was a part of his personal collection.

This was again, a moment of Colin telling his story pictorially in the GQ article without opening his mouth. The pictures are frozen moments of living memories, archiving a man of the people and his reluctant ascendance into the pantheon of iconoclasts, engaged in the struggle to attack oppressive beliefs and norms held by racist individuals and the traditional institutions that they control.

The employment/reconstruction of the iconic likeness of freedom fighters of the Black Power movement serves as a pathway that not only reminds us of the past, but the contemporary relevance of the image of Kaepernick on the GQ cover also shows how, in troublingly tangible ways, many things have not changed in America. Colin’s clothing in the GQ article honored the ancestors and challenged contemporary anti-blackness in the present. It was an icon of today paying respect to icons of the past while investing in the youth, the icons of the future.

Colin said a lot without saying anything at all.

Queen Harrison, Nzingha Prescod and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe talk rocking their natural curls Why hair isn’t an issue for these athletes

Simone Manuel isn’t concerned about what you think of her hair.

Speaking to a room full of swim fans at the 2017 National Association of Black Journalists convention, she shared that she had received flak about the way she wore her hair on the Olympic stage. Though frustrated, she keeps in mind something her mother taught her as a young girl.

“It’s just hair.”

Most sports teams and organizations don’t stipulate how female athletes wear their hair. They are more interested in how well they perform and how often they win. Yet, major televised competitions like the Olympics are often littered with hair commentaries, especially about black female athletes. Gabby Douglas, like Manuel, received criticism about her ’do after she won gold medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

Much of this hair-related shade comes from the public, not the sports industry. The ramifications of such public disapproval can affect decisions including whether to exercise and which jobs to pursue. Although a new wave of natural hair promotion began in 2007, black women have been fighting for social and professional spaces to accept their natural beauty since the 1960s and before.

Nearly 60 years later, natural hair is still considered less beautiful than treated hair. According to a survey from the Perception Institute, 1 in 3 black women said their hair prevents them from working out. Only 1 in 10 white women said the same. Nearly 4,200 men and women were interviewed for this study, which found that black women perceive a level of social stigma against textured hair, and that white women show bias against the textured hair of black women — calling it less beautiful and professional than straight hair.

The Undefeated interviewed three black female athletes in three different sports about their hair and how it affects their lives.

Nzingha PREScod

Olympic fencer Nzingha Prescod attends the AOL Build Speaker Series to discuss 2016 Rio Olympic Fencing at AOL HQ on Aug. 29, 2016, in New York.

Mike Pont/WireImage

Nzingha Prescod is an Olympic medalist in fencing. In 2015, she became the first African-American woman to win an individual medal at the Senior World Championships. Two years earlier, she became the first U.S. women’s foil fencer to win a Grand Prix title. These successes, and the fact that her head is covered by a mask when she competes, haven’t prevented her from feeling self-conscious about her hair.

She’s been experimenting with various hairstyles since she was 12 years old and natural. The desire to fit in middle school coerced her to dye the back of her hair and leave the front natural so she could still wear braids. Everyone in seventh grade had straight hair.

Afterward, she experimented with everything from texturizers to clip-ins. At age 22 and tired of her hair difficulties, she decided to do the “big chop” and cut off all of her chemically processed hair. She says she’s felt free ever since.

“[Cutting off a perm] strips you of anything fake, anything forced. … It’s a purifying self-discovery,” Prescod said.

That wasn’t the only reason behind Prescod getting her hair cut. At fencing practice, her sweat matted her clip-in extensions and entangled them with her natural hair. She had to keep cutting off parts of her hair, which left her with such an undesirable look, she once cried and wore a hood to class. Eventually, she went to a Dominican salon in Spanish Harlem to cut off her uneven, processed hair.

It took some time for to embrace the new ’do, but today, Prescod is confident and encourages women of all hair textures to cut off their hair because of its empowering effect. When she’s not training for fencing, she holds a corporate job in consulting where she typically wears her hair in a pineapple bun.

Despite the fact that various hairstyles are accepted on teams and in the workplace, many black women still believe that natural styles are not valued or considered as professional as straightened ones. The Perception Institute survey stated that 1 in 5 black women feel social pressure to straighten their hair for work, twice as many as white women. This happens, in part, because straightened hair is often considered to be a sign of professionalism and beauty in corporate settings.

WNBA player Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe and Olympic hurdler Queen Harrison hope the hair freedom allowed in professional sports will nudge corporate aesthetic standards in the same direction.

Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe

Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe of the New York Liberty shoots a layup against the Los Angeles Sparks on Aug. 4 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe is a power forward for the WNBA’s New York Liberty. This Afro-Canadian athlete grew up in British Columbia, where there are very few people of color. Just under 3 percent of the population identify as black. Raincock-Ekunwe’s father is Nigerian, and her mother is white Canadian.

Ekunwe remembers feeling self-conscious as a little girl. Her mother struggled to manage her curls and often put her in braids. She didn’t have the right products to deal with the frizz and the “poofiness” of her hair, and she wanted to fit in with her peers.

She eventually straightened her hair, against her mother’s wishes, opting for flat irons over products that chemically straightened hair (nicknamed “creamy crack”). Consequently, she’d have to wake up two hours before school to complete the process. She continued this regimen through high school, college and part of her WNBA career.

In 2014, she put down the straightener because of unhealthy hair.

“My hair was dry to the point that it would just like crack off, and it was basically straight after I showered and washed my hair. There was no curl pattern, and it was just bad times,” Ekunwe said.

To this day, she tends to receive more compliments from men and women when her hair is flat-ironed straight than when it is natural. Still, that doesn’t stop her from maintaining her brown, corkscrew curls with Shea Moisture and Kinky-Curly products.

“I love it [natural hair]. I’m sad that I embraced my natural hair so late in life. I think curls, kinky hair, coils are just so flattering on so many women,” Ekunwe said.

The only place she’s met formal resistance to her hairstyle of choice was when she played for the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) in Australia. Her teammates discouraged her from wearing braids, citing the league’s concerns that the style is prone to hitting someone in the face during games. According to FIBA guidelines, because of the potential for injury, players are not permitted on the court with free braids in their hair.

She also doesn’t see much natural hair in WNBA advertising.

“When I think of WNBA players in the media, I don’t really think Afros, curls; I think straight hair or Brittney Griner with her locks. You rarely see hair in its natural state; it’s often straightened and curled,” said Ekunwe.

Vincent Novicki, communications director for the Liberty, said they encourage athletes to let their personalities shine. He also said star power is used to determine which athletes are tapped for marketing.

“Who’s been with the team, who’s established themselves … who’s the most identifiable but who has the best ability to kind of reignite and connect with our fans,” Novicki said about the other factors used in advertising. He used Liberty star center Tina Charles as an example because she has natural hair.

Although natural hair may not be abundant in public relations for the league, go to any WNBA game and you will find every style, from Afros to weaves to cornrows.

Queen Harrison

Queen Harrison clears a hurdle in the opening round of the Women’s 100-meter hurdles during Day 2 of the 2017 USA Track & Field Championships at Hornet Stadium on June 23 in Sacramento, California.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The same can be said about black female track athletes. Queen Harrison is an American Olympic hurdler and sprinter. The 28-year-old from Loch Sheldrake, New York, was rocking her natural tresses long before she became a track star. Her parents are members of the religious movement Nation of the Gods and Earths (Five Percenters), and they don’t believe in using relaxers. Harrison remembers being strongly encouraged to cover her hair, which was typically styled in cornrows, with a head wrap in elementary school. Eventually, she learned how to braid and twist her thick hair, and she kept it that way in high school.

During her sophomore year of college, curiosity led her to try a relaxer. She figured the puffiness would be easier to manage. But after almost three years, her hair became limp and flat. The chemical life was not for her, so she, like Prescod, ended up doing the “big chop” and grew out her natural hair.

At that time, Harrison looked nothing like the models she saw in athletic apparel and sports team advertisements. The women featured had straight-haired ponytails and other styles that required straight hair. She thought she would need to conform to be used in advertisements. However, her sponsor, A6, did not object to her rocking her natural hair on the track. Harrison says African-American women have shattered the idea that natural hair is not acceptable in sports.

“My first photo shoot that I ever did … I had my Afro puff in a ponytail. I feel comfortable with coming on set with my hair in a press or coming on set with my hair in a curly twist out. I’ve done all of the above,” said Harrison. She currently wears box braids.

Part of what sets track athletes apart from their female counterparts in basketball and fencers has to do with the wide range of hair and nail styles they rock. From the long weaves to long acrylic nails, women in track seem empowered to display their individuality.

Prescod, Raincock-Ekunwe and Harrison are involved at the highest levels of different sports, but they share the experience of having their natural hair not only accepted but also welcomed in their sports. Too few black women can say they have experienced the same. The “Good Hair” Survey found that a majority of those surveyed, regardless of race, show implicit bias against black women’s textured hair.

Animated short ‘Hair Love’ to show the bond between fathers and daughters Filmmaker Matthew Cherry wants to help ‘normalize’ black fathers

Matthew Cherry’s evolution has taken him from the football field to a stint as a production assistant to music videos. Now, his résumé includes a heartwarming short film in production called Hair Love.

Cherry said the idea for the film came from watching viral videos of fathers interacting with their daughters. In particular, he focused on ones that showed fathers combing their daughters’ hair, which can be both a chore and a bonding experience.

His five-minute animated film is about the relationship between an African-American father, Stephen, his daughter, Zuri, and her hair. Although Stephen has long locks, he is used to his wife doing his daughter’s hair. When she is unavailable right before a big event, Stephen has to figure it out and concludes that Zuri’s hair has a mind of its own.

Cherry said the “story was born out of seeing a lack of representation in mainstream animated projects, and also wanting to promote hair love amongst young men and women of color. It is our hope that this project will inspire.” He took to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to fund the film. His initial goal was $75,000. To date he has raised almost $252,000, making Hair Love the best-funded short film in the history of Kickstarter.

Cherry, 35, is a former college wide receiver. In his four-year career at the University of Akron, he finished with nearly 2,000 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. After college, he played for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers and the Baltimore Ravens. In 2007, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment, landing work as a production assistant.

“I was just Matt the PA, and I was here to work,” Cherry said. “I was here to learn and work the game from the ground up, and that’s how I kind of got my foot in the door.”

He has worked on more than 40 commercials and was a director for more than 20 music videos for singers and entertainers such as Michelle Williams, Tweet, Jazmine Sullivan, Lalah Hathaway, Kindred The Family Soul, Snoop Dogg, The Foreign Exchange, Bilal, N’Dambi, Maysa Leak, Dwele, Najee, K’Jon and Take 6.

Cherry’s film The Last Fall received awards at the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) for Best Screenplay and Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival (MVAAFF) for the HBO Best Feature Film Award. After a limited theatrical release, it made its television premiere on BET in December 2012 and is currently streaming on Netflix and Hulu. He recently released a short film, Forward, which premiered on Ebony.com. He also writes and directs the award-winning web series Almost 30 and Almost Home.

Cherry has one sister (visual artist Caitlin Cherry) and grew up on the northwest side of Chicago.

“Sports was a big part of both of our lives growing up,” he said. “I played baseball ever since I was 5. Football ever since I was 6. Played three sports in high school. Had a full scholarship for football in college. … My existence was very much kind of tied into sports growing up.”

Cherry spoke with The Undefeated about his transition out of football, positive representation of black fathers in the media and normalizing black families.


What was your inspiration for Hair Love?

The biggest, and I think the most important, is just we’re seeing a big lack of representation in that computer-generated, animated world.

We really haven’t seen a lot black characters in that space. Bebe’s Kids was the first animated feature film directed by a black director. That came out in 1992; 25th anniversary was a couple of days ago. Peter Ramsey was the first African-American director to direct a CGI [computer-generated imagery] animated film. That was like two or three years ago, Rise of the Guardians. I think in between that time, there’s really only been those two black directors that have done like a full-length feature film in the animated space.

So we only really have had in recent years maybe four or five examples of full-length feature films that really tell our story. But a lot of times you don’t really see the whole, full family dynamic, particularly in these computer-generated feature films. The biggest thing for me is just like really seeing that lack of a presentation. … I don’t have kids myself right now, but got a serious girlfriend, and one day we’re going to get married and be having kids, and I really wanted to make sure that when I did have kids that they had a character that they could relate to.

When you look at mainstream media, and you see all the images, black hair isn’t made out to be the norm. It’s not meant to be the standard of beauty. We have a very Eurocentric standard of beauty in America, and if you watch TV, if you pick up a magazine, if you look at different things, you’re not going to see yourself represented. … You don’t see your curly, kinky hair on these different models, on these different actors and actresses, on these different music videos, etc. It can really do damage to your self-confidence and how you perceive yourself.

That’s why my biggest thing with this project, first and foremost, was just to really hopefully have some characters that were human, that showed black families in a complex but also simple manner, and just have characters that people can relate to but then try to help increase that diversity in the animation world, because representation is everything. I think my biggest thing is if a little girl can see Zuri or see Stephen, and see themselves represented, if it makes them feel better about themselves, to me, mission accomplished.

Who did you consult with about dads, daughters and hair?

I’ve actually had this idea for a couple years. I always thought it would be cute to do a story about a dad trying to do his daughter’s hair. I’ve seen a lot of kind of online videos, and my main dad friends who have kids, they’re always posting pictures and videos online of their failed attempts of trying to do their son’s and daughter’s hair, and just always thought that that would be a really cool angle to hit, particularly because the whole black father angle. I think, again, in mainstream media, we’re really nonexistent.

We look at a lot of these movies and TV shows, they always depict black dads as deadbeats, nonexistent, abusive. These fathers, they’re getting girls pregnant, running off, that whole thing, and while obviously in every race, every group, you have that negativity, but it’s always made out in the black community like that’s just all black men are. We just are deadbeat dads. We’re not in our kids’ lives.

So for me it was just really important to normalize black fathers, normalize black families. And really I think in starring a young black father and his daughter, I think that would just do wonders to kind of help normalize those images, because it’s important.

What’s been the most difficult part of moving from football to filmmaking?

The most difficult part of my journey is feeling like you have to constantly create your own opportunities. Like, to this day, nobody’s ever hired me for anything. All my opportunities have been self-generated in some fashion. Outside the music video world, from feature films to short films, it’s all been stuff that I either created with some friends or I created on my own, and sometimes it gets frustrating because you feel like, ‘I made this. This premiered at a major festival. Help me.’

Help me get to the next level. I did the work. I followed the blueprint. I did everything that they say you’re supposed to do in order to have somebody help you get to the next level. …

You make all these sacrifices like putting your mom’s life insurance money into the making of your first movie. It comes out, hey, you get a little bit of press, but nobody hires you. Damn. OK. You go away for a couple years. You do random things to kind of stay alive. Then my second feature film, 9 Rides. We shoot it on iPhones and that’s the thing that gets you noticed and gets you an agent and then you realize that all the work you and your team put in mattered after all.

They’ve seen us doing the short films for no budget. They’ve seen us doing the music videos. They’ve seen us doing these feature films and all this other stuff, so. I think the biggest, most difficult part of the journey has just been having to continuously create your own opportunities to kind of continue to put yourself in the game, and I think that there’s a lesson in that, in that you can’t predict what’s going to be the thing that hits, or is going to be the thing that helps put you on. You’ve just got to keep working, keep grinding, and eventually something’s going to hit, or eventually someone’s going to help.

Do you miss football?

Not at all. Not in the least. No, I don’t, especially with all this news about what’s been going on with players’ heads and CTE. I’m actually glad that I didn’t play too long. People have been playing since they were 5 years old, too. You know what I mean? Between Pop Warner, high school, college, you might have your five or 10 years in the league, but if you’re 25 you might have played for 20 years.

How did you prepare for your career after sports?

I studied radio, TV, broadcast and media production in college. I interned at a lot of radio stations, and I was the music director at my college radio station at the University of Akron. I interned up at the Cleveland radio stations, KISS and then on WENZ. And so I would always be kind of dabbling in production, but more of an audio-radio side, and it was something I was really interested in. I loved cutting promos, loved working with all these other kind of post-production programs, and I kind of knew even in college that whenever I got done playing ball I’d either be working in radio or some level of entertainment on the production side of things.

I signed as an undrafted free agent. My rookie year with the Jacksonville Jaguars, I knew after training camp, I was like, “Yeah. I’ve got to get my plan B together,” because it was just so political. When you come in as an undrafted free agent it’s like being a walk-on, so all these things have to happen that are outside of your control in order for you to make it. Guys will generally have to get hurt or traded and all these other things. It’s not really about how you perform, necessarily. It’s about, ‘OK, can you justify putting this guy in over the guy we’re paying millions of dollars?’

And I knew literally in training camp like, ‘Yeah. This is kind of unfair. I’m doing my thing, but I’m still not getting rewarded for it on the field.’ I actually got cut during training camp, and then they re-signed me to the practice squad. That’s how they do it, and I learned when I first got cut by just feeling there was nothing more I could have done. I felt like I balled out. I did everything that I should have done to be able to make the regular team, and it didn’t happen for me.

What’s up next after Hair Love?

This has all been a roller-coaster ride. The biggest thing for me is just really trying to just continue to do projects that are personal to me. Things that I really love. We hope to be able to use the characters from Hair Love and turn it into a feature film

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.