Short and Proud? GQ Grapples with Black Men and “Rebellious” Naturals

by Latoya Peterson


My boyfriend brought home the GQ with a three-quarters naked Rihanna on the cover (for obvious reasons), but warned me against reading the articles.  (He’s a staunch Esquire man.) Ignoring his advice, I decided to flip through the magazine – and the first article in the “Grooming” section immediately catches my attention. In “Say It Loud – Keep It Short and Proud,” Knox Robinson reveals early on in the piece that he sported dreadlocks for close to 14 years.

He describes cutting off his dreads as the acceptance of a life transition:

I was at the start of my thirties and dutifully undergoing the transitions of that age—the arrival of a son, new career moves. With a radically new appearance, I felt distinctly like a man who’d escaped through the back door of a burning building and used the second chance to set out on a completely new path. Old acquaintances stared right past me on the train, and at parties women who once denied my advances wondered who I was.

Which is cool – people tend to use their hair as markers of transitions.  Growing the hair long, chopping it short post-break up, altering it with dye, eschewing dye for the natural color, giving up relaxers or embracing lacefronts, these are all parts of the personal choices (informed by our politics and society) that are small tiles in the mosaic of our identities. And indeed, the transformative aspects of a dramatic hair change cannot be underplayed – a friend of mine recently cut off the locks he had been growing for more than a decade.  But that reason was wrapped up in feeling stagnant in a life and a relationship he no longer wanted.  So the cut, to him, symbolized moving away from the person he used to be, toward the person he wants to become.

However, Robinson takes his piece into strange territory when he starts his analysis, completely disregarding the politics of hair and instead concluding (emphasis mine):

We’re now experiencing a restoration of black cosmopolitan glamour last witnessed fifty years ago, and the guys who define that sensibility are dudes like Usain Bolt, Lewis Hamilton, LeBron James, and yes, Obama. I see their close-cropped hair as marks of men singularly focused not on rebellion but on changing the game, or more acutely: results. It’s hair for the man with a job to do rather than a comment to make.

I am amazed that the conversation around natural hair still focuses on the idea of “sticking it to the man” instead of an expression of culture or just a personal preference.  And I am also amazed that so many people still see natural hair as a barrier to professional progress, or a lack of professionalism or focus. I’m often fascinated by the attempted control of people through their hair (see: teachers cutting children’s hair; indigenous children being barred from school for wearing their hair long, the contempt shown to men who wear their hair long because it isn’t “‘masculine”) and how this control is often dressed in the language of “growing up” or “being professional.”

Articles like this one just remind me of how far we actually have to go.