Still, the ongoing need to protect what should so obviously be protected is dismaying. It’s easier to hope we’ve come further along. (When Zendaya debuted new braids earlier this month, her Instagram post garnered nearly 12 million likes—though, just five years ago, her locs at the Oscars drew a racially charged remark.) The imperfect march of progress is clear in the way period television shows (Mrs. America, with Emmy-winning Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, and Lovecraft Country) have an uncanny resonance this year. Of course it’s painfully clear with the pandemic itself, with its disproportionate effect on communities of color, including in regard to Black maternal care—something that Lee, whose mother faced a harrowing childbirth in a segregated Texas of the 1940s, understands firsthand. She described her mother, laboring and in need of a C-section, left alone on a gurney. By the time they pulled baby Lee out with forceps, “I almost didn’t breathe. My mother almost died. She told me these stories over and over as a child, so that’s why I’m so passionate and determined on this issue,” Lee explained. “I mean, from day one, I had to fight for racial justice and for women’s health care.”
As a baby, Lee was so bald her mother taped bows onto her head. By the time she was a community organizer for the Black Panthers, the “Black Is Beautiful” movement was embracing natural hair. When she joined the Chisholm race, “I had a big Afro, running around, organizing her campaign in Northern California—and I felt like, finally, I was being seen as a Black woman,” said Lee, recalling that sense of pride. “That’s important for young people—young men and women—to be seen. And, important as that is, to [also] have policies that don’t ding you, that don’t discriminate, that don’t cause you to lose a job or be kicked out of class.”
Now, decades later, Lee’s natural hair is no longer called “militant,” as it once was. But even that word has shifted, as the branches of the military have revised their grooming policies. It was a newspaper headline back in 2014, announcing the Army’s strict guidelines banning locs on women and curtailing other styles (overturned by 2017), that first caught Lee’s attention. She was in Memphis for the reopening of the National Civil Rights Museum; in a speech there, she recalled how her father, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, was turned away, in uniform, from restaurants for being Black. The headline stopped her in her tracks. “I was furious. I read it, and I brought the newspaper back with me to Washington, D.C.,” she said. The work carries on.
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