In my fashion course I inevitably assign Kobena Mercer's "Black Hair/Style Politics," sometimes with selections from Lisa Jones's Bulletproof Diva and Ayana Boyd and Lori Tharps's Hair Story, sometimes with Angela Davis's "Afro-Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia," in which Davis reflects upon her infamous image as a revolutionary on the run, and this image's recirculation as a stylistic icon, as black power chic, in the decades that follow.
For me, Mercer's essay is especially valuable for his insistence that "we need to de-psychologize the question of hair-straightening and recognize hair-styling itself for what it is, a specifically cultural activity and practice." He usefully argues that black hairstyling can be understood as a variety of "aesthetic solutions" to these ideological of race and racism, "in that they articulate responses to the panoply of historical forces which have invested this element of the ethnic signifier with both personal and political 'meaning' and significance."
There are several independent documentaries about black hair and its politics and practices, but the latest --and with the most advance press and mainstream attention-- is Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair (2009), which opens in select theaters on October 9. Judging from the scenes in the new official trailer, it would be great to screen for the course alongside reading Mercer and Davis on the traffic in criteria for creating, circulating, and challenging stylized signs of blackness.