Ava DuVernay on the importance of images, having a voice — and why she flipped the script in ‘A Wrinkle In Time’ ‘There was no black woman I could call to say, “How does this go?” Because she doesn’t exist.’

“I didn’t pick up a camera until I was 32,” says Ava DuVernay. “So you finally get to pick up a camera and do these things and it’s like, ‘Wow. I get to say something. I get to make something, and people will pay money to sit down and see and consume,’ and it becomes a part of the culture.”

DuVernay is making a statement — and if you’ve been paying attention for the past eight years or so, you’ll know that she has been making a statement. Film enthusiasts finally got put on to her brilliance in 2012 when her indie film Middle of Nowhere was a Sundance delight and captured the directing award for U.S. dramatic film at the 2012 festival. In that film, she took viewers on a journey of self-discovery, wrapped in a very important story about incarceration — and love. That film was a follow-up to her first indie classic, I Will Follow.

What would this indie-directing darling do next? Tell the story of tennis superstar Venus Williams and her fight for pay equity by way of 2013’s “rousingVenus Vs. (ESPN). DuVernay expertly guided viewers through Williams’ 2005-07 battle for gender-equal prize money at Wimbledon.

The documentary helped establish what DuVernay would give us moving forward. She wants to work on things that say something, and things that mean something. And she’s doing it again with A Wrinkle In Time, which opens in theaters on Friday.

“I’m happy to be in this place. Some people think it’s a risky endeavor, but I’m happy. [The films] go beyond box office, they go beyond reviews.”

“I put my blood into these films,” Duvernay says in a recent interview with The Undefeated. “This is what I do. I’m not a workaholic, I just love this. I think workaholics are like chain-smoking, chained to their death. Yes, I work all the time, but I love it … and I don’t want to be frivolous with that, and I don’t want it to lose meaning. I want it to be worth my time and my energy and my effort. My name is on this.”

And what a name. In a relatively short time, DuVernay has established herself as a visionary director, a big name in Hollywood who delivers nuanced projects that inspire academic conversations. She rightly earned an Oscar nomination in 2017 for her 13th documentary (Netflix), which examined America’s prison system and how it exposes our country’s history of racial inequality. The top prize ultimately went to Ezra Edelman for his “O.J.: Made in America.” But DuVernay was victorious in the best way possible.

That moment gave her a bigger voice in culture overall. Often, she sparks much-needed social media conversations, and the work that she creates is often central to those conversations. The global headlines she grabbed when the Los Angeles Times reported that her adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time would make her the first woman of color in history to direct a movie with a $100 million budget were massive. “When I was making this film,” says DuVernay, “as a black woman and I was handed this budget by Disney, there was no one that I could call. There was no black woman I could call to say, ‘How does this go?’ Because she doesn’t exist.”

And her poignant reply back to the news at the time was so Ava. “Not the first [black woman] capable of doing so,” she tweeted. “Not by a long shot.”

DuVernay just believes that it’s incredibly important that we’re having all kinds of people rendering images that focus and concern women and people of color. “You know, 92 percent of the directors that are making the top films people see in theaters … are Caucasian male directors,” she says. “Only 8 percent of the films that you consume are made by women or people of color, or women of color. And that is a percentage that is untenable as it is unacceptable, and yet it’s what we have accepted as an audience, as a culture and as a society for decades.”

She reminds us how powerful film is. “They were draining pools when kids with HIV got in pools,” she says. “It wasn’t CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] reports that changed that. It wasn’t politicians that changed that. It was a story that changed that — it was Philadelphia, that film. It was Angels in America. … It was film that started to help people. It was images [that] people watched … that made them think. These images mean something … and to be able to be a black woman director and be in charge of budgets of this size, render images … about a black girl?”

DuVernay pauses — because, whew. In A Wrinkle In Time, she changed the young protagonist from a young white teen to a young teen of color. In the film, Meg Murry, the main character in Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved 1962 fantasy novel, is the daughter of two scientists, a black mom played by British actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw and a white dad played by Star Trek’s Chris Pine.

DuVernay presented her vision to Disney, that her dream was that Meg was a young black girl, and they bought in. Asking for that change — a very big, important and remarkable change at that — was courageous. But DuVernay said she approached asking the studio about that as if she had nothing to lose.

“It’s kind of like living in the Hollywood Shuffle, where the mother always told him, ‘You can go out and audition, but you can also have a job at the post office. You can always fall back on the post office.’ Independent film is my post office.” She says she feels like she can walk into any meeting and ask for what she wants, because if they say no, she can go make something else. “I don’t feel like I live and breathe all of [this] … Academy Awards … studio approvals. None of that stuff is my heart’s desire.”

She said she has this take on things because she started being a filmmaker when she was in her early 30s. “Ryan Coogler is 31, and he’s made three films. I look at that and I think I started late. My story’s not just race and gender. It’s age. … Beautiful women filmmakers have made films, but it’s been a challenge for them to have certain resources and support. So it just makes me feel like, ask for what you want. … They’re probably going to say no, but you can still ask and you can still push, and if their answer’s no, you say yes to yourself in a different way.”

It’s a good thing she asked.


There’s an important moment in A Wrinkle In Time where Calvin (Levi Miller) turns to Meg (Storm Reid) and tells her that he likes her hair, which at the time is in its natural, curly state.

“These images don’t exist. People told me early on, ‘This book is unadaptable, this is a very hard book, it’s unadaptable.’ I said, ‘You know what? [Let’s] make Storm Reid fly as a little girl, and boys can see that.’ [Real] Caucasian boys seeing a Caucasian boy on screen say [to a young black girl], ‘I like your hair. You are beautiful with that natural hair, and I will follow you.’ Those are the kinds of things that if some of these boys that I deal with out here in Hollywood, in these boardrooms and on these sets, had seen that when they were young, maybe I’d be treated differently when I walk in the door,” DuVernay says. “When I have the opportunity to do it, I say, ‘I’m going to take this big swing. This is important to me, to just … put this stuff out into the world, and I’m happy to be in this place. Some people think it’s a risky endeavor, but I’m happy. They go beyond box office. They go beyond reviews.”

And it goes beyond black and white — she makes sure of that. Originally from Compton, California, right on the edge of Lynwood, DuVernay talks about how culturally rich her neighborhood was: black, Latino and Filipino. “Me and my friends would put our hands next to each other, and we were all the same shade of brown,” she says. “There’s a lot of people who don’t see themselves.”

One of DuVernay’s stars is actor/creator Mindy Kaling, who first gained notoriety as Kelly Kapoor of NBC’s classic The Office. “Mindy said to me yesterday, and it really got me … ‘I was a chubby Indian girl with glasses who loved sci-fi, but sci-fi never loved me back. I could never, ever find myself on screen …’

“Girls will see this, [and] if I had seen a brown girl doing these things, I would say, ‘Oh, it loves me back!’ It’s an emotional thing. That’s why I did it, [and] that’s why I chose to do this.”

But here’s the good news — because there is good news. DuVernay is actively working to ensure that the headlines she’s grabbing now — especially the ones proclaiming her to be the first black woman this, or the first woman of color that — won’t be wasted.

DuVernay, after all, doesn’t just walk through a door — she holds it open. And she builds a new door — a new house, even — to make sure that other people can come in. In 2010 she founded ARRAY, a grass-roots film distribution collective that focuses on projects by people of color and women. And amid the promo tour for A Wrinkle In Time, she announced that she and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti are launching a diversity initiative that will fund internships in the entertainment industry for young people from underserved communities.

“I will be there for whoever’s next,” she says, “because they’re coming. They’re coming. I feel proud that I can call them and that they can call me. That I’ll be able to talk to them about everything I experienced. … We can’t be safe in our boxes. That’s how we don’t move. We have too many freedom fighters and too many sisters that have gotten out there and gone into the darkness. Harriet Tubman had it in her front yard, and she said, ‘There’s something else out there, right?’ Not to compare myself, but you know what I mean? Rosa Parks. Or Amelia Boynton. All of these women who said, you know, ‘I don’t know how this goes, but I’m going to walk over there and see how it is — over there.’ ”

She mentions Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott and Ron Howard. “These men … have been able to make film after film after film,” she says. “Some work, some don’t. They got another one, another one, another one. Women don’t get that. Black directors don’t get that. And black women directors surely don’t get it.

“So the idea that you can say, ‘I want to be Spielberg, I want to be able to move [between] genres,’ go from E.T. to Schindler’s List to The BFG to The Post … make intimate character dramas and historical dramas. But to also make fantasy? Is that possible for us? It remains to be seen, but we have to try. And so, I try.”

Venus and Serena Williams: from Compton to the world By changing how the world views black women, they’ve changed everything

It’s really just a makeshift dance floor in a small hotel conference room.

But then a song — some might consider it the Black People’s Party Anthem — drops and everyone falls in line, moving, shaking and, yes, wobbling to the beat of V.I.C.’s 2008 “Wobble,” a song that hasn’t vanished from many black family gatherings, even after a decade. Everyone moves to the beat, celebrating, as if a couple has just jumped a broom.

At the center of this dance-happy moment is Venus Williams. She’s at her most comfortable, dressed in a look from her own athleisure line, EleVen by Venus, and surrounded by family members. For a night, anyway, she gets to just be Venus — instead of “Venus Williams,” who as a burgeoning star tennis player made her Australian Open debut in 1998, playing her baby sister, Serena, in a professional match for the first time at that tournament.

That was the Venus Williams who rocked freshly oiled cornrows adorned with blue and white beads that shook something fierce every time she whacked what became her signature serve return in the direction of Serena Williams, whose own cornrows were bright with green and white beads. This was the Venus Williams who, along with Serena, demonstrated early dominance and took center stage in one of the most stridently white of professional sports. Tennis, a game of rackets and stretched nets, that at times is played in the world’s most stridently white spaces.

But when “Wobble” was on? The revolutionary “Venus Williams” was just Venus — a woman with a mean body roll and a swag surf that dropped so low, gravity was no match for all 6 feet, 1 inch of her very recognizable frame.


Before the holidays, both Venus and her superstar sister sat on a panel to discuss violence in the inner city. A poignant and effective conversation, it reminded everyone at the December 2017 “A Family Affair” that these two beautiful brown women who have both helped change how we consume pop culture — and yes, tennis — aren’t immune to the harsh realities and social justice issues of American “inner” cities.

After all, they both hail from Compton, California — the birthplace of Kendrick Lamar, and the now-gentrifying city that Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Dr. Dre helped make infamous via their provocative supergroup N.W.A. Compton is the city that took the life of their sister, Yetunde Price, who was killed on Sept. 14, 2003, at the age of 31. She was the victim of a drive-by shooting.

But now the Venus Ebony Starr Williams who we all know best is back. And she’s ready to take the place of her rightful throne at the 2018 Australian Open. Serena Williams, a newlywed and new mom to baby Alexis Olympia, is still waiting for what her big return might be. But at the very least — which, certainly is the very most — we get to welcome back half of the duo who helped to change the pop culture game. And Lord, are we ever ready.


Both Venus and Serena Williams have challenged traditional global beauty standards — by simply being.

In 2015, a hater tweeted that Serena Williams was “built like a man.” It was a tweet heard round the world. That affected us all. It insulted us all. Then Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling shut it down by posting a photo of Serena Williams in a slim-fitting red dress with the text: “She is built like a man. Yeah, my husband looks just like this in a dress. You’re an idiot.”

A year earlier, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpischev, called the tennis legends the “Williams brothers” and said, “It’s scary when you really look at them.” Insulting. The ensuing clapback was mighty too. Tarpischev was fined $25,000 and banned for a year, and Serena Williams called him out for being sexist and racist.

That insult penetrated, though. Throughout history, black female bodies have been both sexualized and besmirched. But the Williams sisters, via presence and practice, have turned any negative black woman body image trope on its head. They create and embrace their chiseled, athletic shapes and flaunt their world championship bodies in public arenas, draped in silks and jewels, in the coolest sneakers, in disruptively fashion-forward tennis “whites.” They continue to shock the world.

Both Venus and Serena Williams have challenged traditional global beauty standards — by simply being.

There are some who are afraid of the Williams sisters’ dominance, confidence and beauty. They both have a similar dark brown hue and features that read very the Motherland. They look like so many woman around the world do. Their hairstyles over the years have transformed as ours have — from little-girl cornrows to micro braids to tree braids to sew-ins with wavy tracks to just a simple hot comb and flat iron of natural hair, at times, brushed back into a bun. So much of this black girl beauty used to be hidden. Right now, at this moment, it’s on the cover of Vogue.

But perhaps the most amazing Williams sisters moment came in April 2016 when Serena made a surprise appearance in Beyoncé’s HBO special Lemonade, which itself turned out to be a surprise album. In “Sorry,” we see Serena (to the tune of close to 250 million views) displaying a not-so-secret talent of hers as she dances and twerks alongside the Bey, who is sprawled across a throne, declaring in a casually aggressive way that she, in fact, is not sorry for the ill behavior of an untrustworthy lover. Beyoncé is queen — and Serena is equally regal.

But perhaps the sisters’ biggest contribution to the culture is just by being excellent, and expanding our horizons through their excellence. The Williams sisters represent us. They make us strong.

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.

Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens bring classic tennis dressing to the US Open semifinals It’s a new and stylish day for these tennis queens in Queens, New York

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. And if you are Serena Williams, your absence from Grand Slam tournaments this year has been a godsend to other female tennis players. Serena’s high-profile pregnancy and birth of her daughter (on Sept. 1) has left a gaping hole in the women’s singles circuit, and several excellent players have stepped into her fashionable breach.

Two Americans, Serena’s older sister Venus and Sloane Stephens, will meet on the hard court at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Thursday. It’s the first time two African-American women who aren’t both named Williams will play each other in the Open semis. Another African-American player, Madison Keys, the 22-year-old No. 15 seed, will play CoCo Vandeweghe on Thursday.

The US Open semi matches give us a peek into the sporty style of three very different black female athletes, and Venus Williams, Stephens and Keys have stepped into the giant Serena vacuum, where their wholesome, classic tennis style will shine.

First, a bit about the legacy of the Williams sisters. Venus and Serena are important cultural icons who have inspired countless young girls to become hardcore athletes for more than 20 years. Serena, especially, is the winningest female tennis player of all time — and she has famously adopted a unique, take-no-prisoners approach to fashion and on-court athletic gear. Serena has never met a leatherette catsuit, gladiator-style tennis shoe or sequin-laden jumpsuit that she couldn’t or wouldn’t wear as she snatched a Grand Slam title from another player’s sweaty hands. Everything about the tennis legend has been analyzed, decoded, imitated and slut-shamed — yet Serena remains perhaps the most interesting athlete in the world.

Venus and Serena are famously fascinated by fashion, and each has launched successful clothing lines. But there is a distinct difference between the sisters. Where Serena can be flamboyant, Venus long ago adopted a more conservative style. If Serena is, was and always will be Compton, California (the Williams’ hometown), Venus is the country club pro in Wimbledon whites.

“People see Serena as being curiously provocative,” said celebrity stylist and former TV host Robert Verdi. “Everyone is fascinated by her body, the way she dresses, what’s going on in her personal life. She’s sexy and strong, and they see masculine notes in her muscular body. She’s just more. You don’t say that about Venus.”

Venus won this year’s US Open quarterfinals against Czech Petra Kvitová while wearing a short orange-and-gray tennis dress with a geographical print from the Epiphany collection of her tennis-friendly clothing line, EleVen by Venus Williams. Verdi noted that it was an unexpected intersection between fashion and sports.

“Venus dresses like any other player on the pro circuit,” he said. “Her little dresses are a part of the athleisure phenomenon. You could wear those little Venus dresses to pick up the kids from school, or wear one of those four-way stretch microfiber skirts to the office on a casual Friday. Women don’t dress like Serena for that.”

The unseeded Stephens, who advanced to the semis after beating 16th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova, is an Under Armour-sponsored athlete who favors stylish, low-key tennis dresses with fitted waists in pale colors. (Similarly, Keys favors Nike tennis gear in bright colors and pulls her hair back into a no-nonsense bun or ponytail.) Stephens “clearly pays attention to fashion,” Verdi said. “You can definitely see that she’s having a conversation behind the scenes about body-conscious clothes.”

Speaking of hair, Venus and Stephens have both turned the lily-white ponytail aesthetic on its country club head while at the US Open. Venus wore her natural hair in a high, 1950s-era bun tucked under a visor; the look was gilded with cat-eye makeup and big gold hoop earrings. Stephens’ fishtail braid was pretty, but practical and serious. Again, the hairstyles have been several degrees shy of Serena’s tendency to go big, bigger and biggest on the brown girl aesthetic front.

The Venus vs. Sloane US Open moment may prove to be a memorable rivalry, but it’s Serena’s inevitable return to tennis that will likely unite them all.

“It almost feels like Venus and Sloane called each other and said, ‘Girl, it’s now or never,’ ” Verdi said. ” ‘We gotta take over now because once she gets back, she’s gonna have something to prove. That ball will be a bullet, and we’re all gonna be done.’ “

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.

Colin Kaepernick’s hair is not our business. Michael Vick telling him to cut it is a problem. Vick’s job advice to the free-agent QB is one of the oldest plays in the ‘black isn’t beautiful’ playbook

When I was an intern at the Kalamazoo Gazette, one of the longtime reporters there pulled me aside to offer up a piece of advice: Cut your hair. More specifically, he said I wouldn’t get a job in journalism with “those things in your hair.” I could see the Jheri curl juice pooling in the pores of his forehead as he spoke.

I initially started growing my locs because of Speech from Arrested Development. As my hair grew along with my taste in music, I learned Bob Marley was a lot more political than the songs on his greatest hits compilation Legend would indicate. Still, I had not considered my locs to be a statement until I was told my hair was a problem by a black man who had relaxed his.

Of course, he was wrong.

But I can’t definitively say having locs didn’t cost me something along the way. Natural black hair makes some people uneasy. Long natural black hair can be downright frightening. Especially for the folks who unwittingly buy into the outlandish propaganda that deems Eurocentric features as the singular standard of beauty. The propaganda that helps fuel the millions spent on black hair care products such as relaxers and weaves and drives plastic surgery in Asia.

On an episode of The Talk, Sheryl Underwood jokingly said Afro hair was “nasty” before praising white hair as “beautiful.” It was like watching a skit from In Living Color minus the satire.

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This is why it’s difficult to entirely dismiss Michael Vick’s assertion that Colin Kaepernick needed to cut his hair to find a job in the NFL. We all know his hair has nothing to do with his play, but it does play a part in how he is viewed.

Consider that earlier this week NPR published a fascinating, and disturbing, report on the rash of little black girls being suspended from school for wearing their hair naturally. In September 2016, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that employers can ban natural hairstyles. The case started when Chastity Jones, a black woman in Alabama, was told by a white human resources rep that her locs were against company policy because they “tend to get messy.”

Even the iconic Viola Davis admitted that ditching her wigs and wearing her natural hair at the 2012 Oscars was an act of bravery.

I repeat: bravery.

That reporter at the Kalamazoo Gazette didn’t mean anything malicious when he told me to cut my hair. Based upon his worldview, I am sure he believed he was doing me a favor. Just as Vick didn’t mean anything malicious when he talked about Kap’s ’fro, he was just suggesting he play the game. Notice he didn’t suggest Riley “I will jump back in and fight every n—– here” Cooper needed to cut his long hair before welcoming him back into the Philadelphia Eagles locker room, as Cooper doesn’t need to play the game. Or at least not the one blacks have been told they needed to play since Juneteenth. The problem, of course, is that the game’s rules keep changing.

We can relax our hair, cut our Afros, smear on bleaching cream, turn our laughter down or pull our pants up in a pointless effort to be more “presentable,” as Vick said. But embracing respectability politics as some sort of cure-all for systemic racism doesn’t end this game.

It just takes it into overtime.