Interview with Eleanor Holmes Norton

Did the Black consciousness climate at all influence your decision to get an afro?


Oh, certainly so. I'm the oldest of three girls who had her hair straightened for her whole life, and every two weeks had to press her edges, and the notion that I could be free of this and embrace my identity was utterly alluring. On the other hand, as an early afro, ah, wearer, I, ah, would also have not been in conformity with what most Black women at the time we--was doing, and added to that was the fact that I was a young lawyer representing unpopular clients because I was an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer professionally, so I had to, I had to consider my own, ah, utter attraction to the afro, and you can see it hasn't left me yet, along with my professional responsibility, particularly, did I have a client who was appearing before the military authorities, and I wanted, wanted to make sure I didn't prejudice him, so I had to think long and hard, and finally I thought, "My goodness, judges are trained to disregard everything but the evidence, and I'm going to get my hair cut." It had to be cut real short because it had straightener in it. So to get down to the nap, they had to really, really cut me short. I didn't tell anybody what I was going to do, ah, but often when I went to the hair-dresser, and we lived in New York then, ah, my husband and I would eat dinner with my in laws at their apartment in Harlem. So I told them that I would be by after I went to the hairdressers. I walked in the door, and everybody's mouths flew open. Nobody dared criticize, and I think they didn't really want to criticize, but they were, to say the least, shocked. Ah, I said, "I certainly hope the judge before the military court of appeals isn't as shocked as you all are, or else I'm in trouble. At least, my client is." My own parents, I have to give them credit, seemed to absorb this well when I came, again, I gave them no forewarning, I think I, I was at least interested in seeing what the first reactions of the generation above me would be when, ah, when, when straight hair was, was vanished for, for me. Ah, I recognized, though, as more and more Black women embraced the afro that, ah, we were not only engaged in an act of fashion, that we were embracing our Black identity, and that that was indeed healthy and that it had to happen. At the same time, as the styles have gone diverse, and many people now straighten their hair, I am not critical of that. The reason I am not critical of it is because I think the point is now made. Once that nappy hair came out and got the approval of Black people, then we were free to do anything we wanted to do, including straightening our hair so that it would not then be an act in any way of implied self-hate. So that, while, I must tell you, as I tell my son, who wonders why I'm out of fashion with my afro, well I must tell you that I'm going to go into my 90s or however long I'm able to live in this world with this afro, ah, because it's, it's easy and because my identity is so wound up with it, I am not at all critical of Blacks who are, who, ah, in their womanish ways, want to embrace whatever is the fashion of the moment, and that just might happen to be straight hair sometimes.