Saturday, August 12, 2006

Hair (Race) Matters: Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney

j'stheater has a two part series (Take 1 & Take 2) on the national elections and black candidates. I responded (at, ahem, some length*) to his Take 2 writing on the Georgia Fourth District race between incumbent Represenative Cynthia McKinney and victorious former Dekalb County Commissioner Henry "Hank" Johnson. The fact is that as much as I respect many of Congresswoman McKinney's views and her willingness to speak out against the war, I don't agree with how she handled the Capitol police incident. But I can't help but wonder how being painted as a crazy woman, "loose cannon", and/or a pariah, has impacted McKinney, as has the hemorhaging of the support she once experienced? Most of the people adding fuel to this fire have no idea of the toll of mounting a defense against that type of reputation-tarnishing can cost in terms of time and psychic energy. Apparently the Democratic Party has decided that McKinney is a liability for 2008 election plans, even the Congressional Black Caucus was silent on the Capitol incident and were quiet again issue of endorsing her 2006 re-election effort, after lending their support for the 2002 and 2004 campaigns. Additionally, it would increasingly seem that her style has evolved into one of alienating people and making enemies both at the national and local level. Whether that is true or not, or to what degree it might be true, its appearance as truth left McKinney with few allies in a state that is quite partisan and a nation that has become deeply so, and has increasingly impacted her effectiveness. Unfortunately, this was not an issue McKinney addressed in her political campaign, and holding the feet of the powerful to the fire doesn't always make for powerful allies. Some examples of Cynthia McKinney's insistence on accountability and the price she paid for it can be found in her 2002 writing "Thoughts On Our War Against Terrorism" which can be found on journalist Greg Palast's site. As well as Palast's 2003 article on "The Screwing of Cynthia McKinney" , which also notes the history of the famous quote on what Bush knew that was erroneously linked with McKinney. Interestingly, journalist Earl Ofari Hutchinson, whose work also appears on AlterNet has criticized McKinney and other black leaders for being out of touch with the needs of their black constituents. But I wonder how speaking out against the Florida voter disenfranchisement in the 2000 presidential election, when most of those disenfranchised were African American, likely Democratic, and whose absent votes likely resulted in Bush's election is ignoring her constituency. And sadly, Ofari Hutchinson is continuing to repeat the erroneously attributed, and untraceable, Bush and 9/11 quote to McKinney.

The ways McKinney has been characterized and caricatured following the Capitol police incident speak volumes regarding the manner in which the media and certain bloggers have distilled/poured frustrations with McKinney into pre-existing formulations of racial stereotypes concerning African American physicality, particularly the gendered loci of body size and hair, but also eyes and lips. I'm not ruling out the possibility that race played a part in how the Capitol police officer handled the situation, a lot can be said with a glance, a particular turn of lip, the amount and type of pressure being brought to bear on a shoulder or forearm--a lot can be said without uttering a word. While the issues leading to the Capitol police incident may have originated from more sources than racism, I would posit that the below images validate that racism is an issue in the current downturn of McKinney's political career.

*Perhaps I could have just said, to quote Greg Tate acknowledging what he'd learned from fellow writer/performer Lisa Jones, hair is everything. Witness:

Cynthia McKinney in better times, at her April 3rd news conference in the 4th Congressional District of Georgia. But this isn't the sort of photo that appears ubiquitously in media coverage of the Congresswoman. Her hair is a primary target these images, running a close second are her large, expressive eyes which in video stills often look extreme, bearing a likeness to 1940-era African American actor Eddie Rochester's physical comedy bits. That is to say it is possible to make an affect, gesture, physical feature, etc. appear ridiculous, absurd, if you focus on it to the exclusion of or while downplaying other elements--a key method of caricature.

This is one of the less offensive examples:

An example of the worst images

One of the increasingly derogatory images (above)

And worse (right, and below)

A poster (below left) which makes an criticism of McKinney worth consideration, the relevance of her changes in hairstyle with regards to her recognizability, but seeming to use an intentionally unattractive main image. This image was also altered by one web communicator to highlight the whites of McKinney's eyes (below right).

In addition there are a host of cartoon caricatures dealing with the Capitol police incident featured on cartoonist Dan Cagle's political cartoon website and elsewhere.

(left) This caricature's text steers clear of racial associations, but the image is another matter.

A weblogger's commentary on McKinney's assertions ( right)

McKinney's new style for the run-off debate with successor Henry "Hank" Johnson (below left):

And finally as an interesting counterpoint, atypically congressional, but nevertheless luminous, a photo of Congresswoman McKinney from the website, again from better times (below right):

For more thoughts on the politics of hair and African American women's beauty within US society, three good beginning sources**:

Hair Matters: Beauty, Power and Black Women's Consciousnes, by Ingrid Banks

Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America by Ayana D. Byrd and Lori Tharps

Ain't I A Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race, by Maxine Leeds Craig

**My first instinct is to link to Powells, an independent bookstore which also offers a used books, but they hardly ever have synopses or reviews of the books I list.

Update 8/17/06: Before her defeat in the Georgia Democratic primary Cynthia McKinney was interviewed by Amy Goodman for Democracy Now! on the the subject of open primaries, advertising difficulties, and campaign financing with regard to Hank Johnson's funding sources. Transcript available at


At 8:14 PM, Blogger Daquaviar said...

Wow. Its an angle that many dare not touch because it hits home on the intra-racism that permeates many societies of color : especially black. Good Hair: For Colored Girls Who've Considered Weaves When the Chemicals Became Too Ruff
by Lonnice Brittenum Bonner , is another book that I'd recommend. Living in Atlanta I saw the debate between McKinney and Johnson live. She let him have it. Unequivocably , she countered every answer he had with either plain logic or by pointing out the stupidity of his retorts and poor delivery. However , he is nothing but a Republican smoke screen. And , he's not the 'crazy overly opinionated lady with the nappy hair'. Interesting example of what is sad but true.

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