Hair, power and politics

Professor Joanna Bourke from Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology explores the cultural and political significance of hair.

This is a summary of a free public lecture Joanna Bourke will be giving at Gresham College (30 Holborn EC1N) on 31 October 2019 between 18.00 and 19.00. It is part of a lecture series she will be presenting as the Gresham Professor of Rhetoric. Other topics include: Eye, Breast, Stomach, Clitoris/Penis, Foot.

Then NAACP President Rachel Dolezal speaking at a rally in downtown Spokane, Washington. Credit: Aaron Robert Kathman

 

In June 2015, Rachel Dolezal was exposed for having lied about being of African American heritage. Dolezal was head of her local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); she had given talks at the Eastern Washington University on African American politics, including a class on the role of hairstyles in the Black Power Movement; she was active in the African American community. The problem was: she was not African American. In making the transition, spray tans were never enough. Crucial to her “passing” as Black was the way she styled her hair in long dreadlocks, weaves, and box braids. Even one of her critics had to admit that she “definitely nailed the hair, I’ll give her that”.

In May 2019, Anna Sorokin (alias Anna Delvey) was imprisoned for scamming her way to the top of New York High Society by pretending to be a German heiress with a £60 million fortune. She may have worn Alexander Wang outfits but her “ratty” hair with split ends betrayed her. In the words of one commentator, “No real heiress would be seen dead without immaculately coiffured hair”.

These two cases illustrate the importance of hair to the staging of the self. Numerous historians, anthropologists, and sociologists have observed that the body is a site for the cultural production and staging of the self. Hair is one of the most visible of these social markers. Hair can be cut, coloured, curled, braided, knotted, crimped, twisted, straightened, backcombed, teased, moisturized, oiled, gelled, sprayed, shaved, and wrapped. People wear wigs, weaves, hairpieces, and extensions; they cover their hair with scarfs and hijabs, taqiyahs and yarmulkes.

Hair signals gender, class, status, age, generation, marital status, religion, group membership, familial ties, politics, social norms. It is personal, but it is also a highly visible cultural artifact. In Victorian society, it was taken for granted that a hair conveyed social and emotional messages. Indeed, it is difficult to find a Victorian novel that does not linger on the hair of its characters. Hair shows a character’s inner character. Thus, in Wuthering Heights, Isabella Linton had artfully arranged curls until, when upset, “her hair uncurled: some locks hanging lankly down, and some carelessly twisted round her head”. In contrast, Dracula had “hair growing scantily round the temples, but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose”. Hair was also a major part of relic culture in Victorian culture, particularly between the 1850s and the 1880s. The Great Exhibition showcased at least 11 displays of hair art. A lock of hair encased in a locket or ring was a powerful relic, creating binding connections between lovers.

Aesthetic judgements about hair are fundamentally political. Slave-traders, prisoners of war, and female collaborators are routinely shaved as a form of dehumanisation. In 1905, Madam C. J. Walker became the wealthiest self-made female millionaire in America by marketing hair softeners to African American women; decades later, the “Black is Beautiful” movement repudiated such products. As Marcus Garvey (the Jamaican activist who, incidentally, came to Birkbeck in the year immediately before he co-established the Negro Universal Improvement Association) proudly proclaimed: “Don’t remove the kinks from your hair! Remove them from your brain!”. During the 1968 protests against the Miss American pageant, feminists not only threw bras and girdles into the Freedom Trash Can, but wigs, hair-curlers, and false eyelashes as well.

Today, schools routinely apply rules that stigmatise Black hair styles. It was only in July this year that California became the first US state to ban discrimination over natural hairstyles. Hair remains a system of power.

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Francisco de Vitoria in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s ‘On the Law of Nations’

Dr Fernando Gómez Herrero, Honorary Fellow in Birkbeck’s Department of Cultures and Languages, explores the historical links between the U.S. and Spain, via England. This article, under the same title as this blog, is featured in its entirety in the book Norteamérica y España: una historia de encuentros y desencuentros.

An American, an Englishman, a Spaniard: birds of the same feather flying together? What binds them together? Why would a noted contemporary public intellectual and politician from the US go to an old-European legacy of the relative periphery of five centuries ago? And how does he go “there”? Are his modern languages skills good enough to do so? What about the Englishman? How does he broker a good deal across the Atlantic? What historical ghost of the Spaniard shows up five centuries after his demise in the Anglo world? The former American Senator for New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) invokes the figure of the Spanish Dominican Francisco de Vitoria (1492-1546), in his fight within and against the imperial politics during the Reagan presidency. And he does it indirectly via the satirical novella titled Scott-King’s Modern Europe (1947) by Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966). The connection is direct between this fiction with Moynihan’s social-science work titled On the Law of Nations (1990). What is going on?

This is thus about the reconstruction of the historical links between Britain (or should I say England?) and Spain, inside the early years of the Cold War. And it is also about recognising the necessity of crossing the Atlantic and “Americanising” some of these findings, hence the connection with the influential figure of US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an Irish-Catholic of Democratic leanings who collaborated with diverse administrations such as Nixon’s and Clinton’s. Moynihan’s argument for international law is Vitorian and utopian and he is exclusively following Waugh whilst quoting from Brierly. How does our good American follow our colourful English man of satirical letters dealing with the figure of Vitoria emerging from the relative marginality of Franco’s Spain, still reaching us today? Two other names of importance: the Englishman J. L. Brierly (1881-1955) and the Spaniard Camilo Barcia Trelles (1888-1977).

This article deals with the historical links between the US and Spain via England. It deals with the history of international law caught up in between English-speaking and Spanish-speaking traditions of scholarship and interpretation. We are dealing with the deemed inspirational “father” of international law in one official beginning, i.e. the Early Modern / colonial European capture of the Americas, mid-1950s in Europe and the 1980s-1990s in the US. Our man of fictional letters (Waugh) misbehaves. Our American man of social-science studies behaves somewhat. The ghost of Vitoria is invoked by the latter to try to put limits to systematic violation of international law by his own imperial country. What lessons are we to learn in our own times? There is more to Moynihan’s neo-Wilsonian visibility of Vitoria on the American side of things than meets the eye, and there is also less. There are virtues -and vices if you wish – in both men of letters. And the significance of the historical sign “Vitoria” starts to go in many directions. This critical evaluation underlines some generalisations about historical links between the Anglo-Atlantic and Spain, which are not yet left behind.

In addressing areas and studies, historiographies and ideologies, the aim is here not to celebrate but to historicise, i.e., to interrogate critically world-area demarcations directly implicated. The task is to reconstruct the ideological interests of diverse scholars and intellectuals, see how they related to each other, or failed to do so, and also cover representative groups (mis-)handling the (im-)possible global history-writing done ever since. English-language and Spanish-language materials share the discussion table and project these voices towards the imperfect future convergence of international law.

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The sports shoe: from field to fashion

Dr Thomas Turner writes on the hidden deeper, roots of sneaker fashions and obsessions; the subject of his PhD in History at Birkbeck, which he has now turned into a book.

Sports shoes are an inescapable part of modern fashion. We see them everywhere, from the sports field to the catwalk, the classroom to the battlefield. Comfortable, convenient, inexpensive, and accessible, for many of us shoes that have roots in sports are our go-to everyday footwear. The big names – adidas, Nike, Puma, Reebok, Under Armour – have some of the most widely recognised and well-established brands in existence. Alongside them an array of smaller, more niche companies flourish. It amounts to an industry worth billions of dollars, a truly global enterprise with design, manufacturing, and sales spread around the world.

Sales are one indicator of the popularity of this type of footwear, but recent years have also seen the growth of a rich and diverse culture around sneakers. Global communities of obsessive sneakerheads and collectors now connect the worlds of art, design, music, fashion, and popular culture. Yet these groups only reflect a wider appreciation for athletic footwear. Whether they were Dunlop Green Flash, adidas Samba, Puma States, Reebok Classic, Nike Air Max, or Yeezy 350, many of us remember our old shoes with nostalgic warmth, and almost everyone has a particular model that magically transports them to a specific time and place. In this respect, sports shoes have developed a cultural significance much greater than other forms of footwear or clothing.

I got my first pair of adidas in the mid 1980s, when I was in primary school. I thought they were fantastic. I have had countless pairs since then but my fascination with sports shoes has only grown. It was this that led, eventually, to my first historical writing on the subject. Studying at Birkbeck for an MA in Social and Cultural History, in spring 2005 I had taken a course organised by Professor Frank Trentmann on the history of consumption. I wrote my end-of-term essay on the adidas Superstar, a 1960s basketball shoe that in the 1980s became closely associated with hip hop and the New York rap group Run-D.M.C. The essay did well and later formed the basis of a proposal for a part-time PhD on the broader social and cultural history of sports shoes. My goal was to uncover the hidden, much deeper, roots of sneaker fashions and obsessions. I wanted to establish how sports shoes had come to be as they are as objects, but also to investigate the ways in which people in the past had thought about them. This meant finding how sports shoes were perceived and portrayed by makers and consumers, but also how they were integrated into popular fashions and cultures away from the sports field. Crucially, it meant looking at a broad sweep of global history, from the mid 19th and to the early 21st Century, and considering sports footwear against a changing landscape of society, sport, fashion, industry, and technology.

Thomas Turner

I began work on the PhD in late 2006 and finally completed it in autumn 2012. Throughout, I benefited from the supportive environment in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, whether it was advice from my supervisors or the encouragement of fellow PhD students struggling with their own projects. With the viva a surprisingly pleasant memory and the thesis submitted to Senate House, in 2015 I set about transforming the PhD into a book for a more general readership. I secured a deal with Bloomsbury, and in the years afterward juggled the book project with teaching, professional work, and other academic research and writing. The final result, The Sports Shoe: A History from Field to Fashion, expands on my PhD to tell the transnational story of sports footwear over 150 years. With 160 archive images, it moves from the tennis courts of the 1870s to the streets of 1980s New York to the global advertising campaigns of the 2000s. It is inevitably a very personal story, documenting and sharing my own love for this type of footwear, but it demonstrates that the humble sports shoe is one of the most culturally rich and economically significant products of our time.

The Sports Shoe: A History from Field to Fashion by Thomas Turner is published by Bloomsbury, £30.00

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Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes in Law and Literature

Professor Adam Gearey from Birkbeck’s School of Law writes about the horrific scandal of Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes, and how its representation in literature may play an important role in the recently opened Commission of Investigation.

A conference this weekend in Dublin City University is dedicated to ‘law and literature’ in Ireland. What is law and literature; and how can this kind of scholarship shed light on matters of public concern? Literature compels us to think about matters that are left unresolved when courts have ruled. In particular, the poet Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s book Bloodroot asks its readers to think about the lives ruined by the abusive regime of the Mother and Baby Homes. Mother and Baby Homes operated throughout Ireland from the early 1900s to more or less the present day. They were institutions run by the Catholic Church for women “who became pregnant.” Women who survived Mother and Baby Homes describe them differently—there are many stories of duplicity, exploitation abuse and forced separations. As Emer O’Toole has written: “women were incarcerated in state-funded, church-run institutions called mother and baby homes or Magdalene asylums, where they worked to atone for their sins.” Mother and Baby Homes were thus part of a system of institutions that served to discipline women and girls; enforcing codes of sexual morality and social conformity. Although not unique to Ireland, recent events have forced a confrontation with the traumatic legacy of Mother and Baby Homes- themes that animate Ní Churreáin’s poems.

Survivors of Mother and Baby Homes have long maintained that church and state presided over the systematic abuse of mothers and babies. However, only recently have Mother and Baby Homes become the subject of a Commission of Investigation. In 2014 Cathleen Corless published research suggesting that there was a mass grave in the grounds of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Taum containing the remains of over 800 babies and young children. A Commission of Investigation was charged with gathering evidence on conditions in Mother and Baby Homes, mortality rates and adoption practices. Excavations carried out by the Commission established that there had indeed been a mass burial of human remains in a sewage tanks in the grounds of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home.

Although the Commission is yet to publish its final report, the “hospital empire” has been denounced in the Dáil, and Taoiseach Enda Kenny came under pressure to make a public apology. The Commission is seen as an important way of establishing the truth. But it is only a partial victory for survivors. The Commission has no power to consider those mothers and adopted children who were subject to forced adoptions. As Tanya Gold, has put it: the possibility of ‘restorative justice’ seems remote to those whose histories have been effectively erased, and who remain outside the scope of the commission.

The poet Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s addresses the lived realities of this history. She has described herself as a “daughter” of the Mother and Baby Homes. Her grandmother gave birth to her father in Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home in the early 1950s. As a single mother, she had to give the baby up for adoption.

How can the horror, the systematic ruin of so many families and so many lives be understood? As an introduction to Bloodroot, Ní Churreáin’s has written:

“If I remain wary today of State care systems and policies, it’s because they disappeared from my life, without explanation or proper support, many of the people I have loved. It is at least in part the State that has taught me what I know in my poetry about space, power structures and the unsaid.”

Ni Churreáin talks of her ‘wariness’ towards the state. ‘Wariness’ stems from words that mean being attentive, heedful or watchful. As a poet, Ní Churreáin is invoking an attentive heeding of those who have disappeared. Heedfulness is linked to an old Irish word which describes weeping and lamentation. Bloodroot is an elegy, a lamentation for loved ones and for what remains ‘unsaid’. The power of law and the state may be able to silence, and to compel speech, but Ní Churreáin remains attentive to those who cannot speak. When the Commission publishes its final report, Bloodroot will be read as its essential supplement. If the Commission cannot recover evidence relating to the trauma of survivors, then perhaps poetry can remain heedful. If the suffering of many survivors is absent from official record,  Bloodroot affirms: “[w]hat comes from desire cannot be erased”.

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