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June 16, 1966: The Solution

Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is released from jail this afternoon. Continuing a voter registration march begun by James Meredith, who was recently shot along a Mississippi highway, Carmichael had joined with other black leaders in the Walk Against Fear when he was arrested in Greenwood, Mississippi. After posting bond, Carmichael makes his way to Greenwood Park, where a crowd of 1000 is assembled to hear him speak.

Carmichael, 25, is lean and dark-skinned, with an intellectual’s head, tight and compact. He climbs onto the platform and begins to speak, opening his mouth wide so his white overlarge teeth show far back in his mouth. His voice, strung taut, carries well. He has spent a lot of time behind bars, including 49 days in Mississippi’s infamous Parchman Penitentiary, where he was routinely beaten. He says that today marks the 27th time he has been jailed. Suddenly he is yelling. “And I ain’t going to jail no more! We been saying freedom for six years, and we ain’t got nothin’. What we gonna start saying now,” he roars, “is Black Power!”

The crowd is electrified. “Amen!” they shout. They clap their hands and stamp their feet. Willie Ricks, a committee organizer, leaps onto the platform and begins chanting, “Black Power! What do we want?” The crowd screams back, “Black Power!”

Stokely Carmichael explodes onto national consciousness as the Saturday Evening Post cautions, “We are all Mississippians.” Martin Luther King calls Carmichael’s remarks “an unfortunate choice of words.” Roy Wilkins worries that this is “the raging of race against race.”

At a confluence of historical moment and technology, there appears at about this time, first in Harlem and Watts, then in smaller inner-city communities, a comb whose use dates back to 3500 B.C., with the first examples found in the tombs of ancient Egypt. With its wide-grip handle and single strip of strong, widely spaced teeth, it gets the name the “Afro comb,” or, more simply, “the pick.” With it, blacks have the means to do with their hair what they have never much done before — to tease it. The phrase, a suggestive mix of the playful and the aggressive, captures the new attitude blacks are taking on, not just about their hair, which is to say their looks, which is to say their perceived presence in the United States, but also about the larger society. It is America, they say, that has treated them unfairly, denigrated them as less than human, as monkeys, as baboons. If they are jungle bunnies, then their new hair, kinky and huge, is a drumbeat signal that the bunnies in the jungle are on the move.

Supported by a sudden plethora of hair products, from shampoos and conditioners that soften the hair to an oil-based spray, the final touch, that gives the hair its appearance of dark, glacial distinction, blacks, fretting their hair, are able to make it stand straight up. The worrisome kink — once a stigmatic symbol of a multilayered inferiority — proves itself necessary to the new, brazen display. Stokely Carmichael helped write the Black Power agenda of the Black Panther Party, but it is the poster of Huey Newton, enthroned on rattan, an M16 rifle and a spear in clear view, his Afro shown escaping the confines of a black beret, who gives it its face. And it is Angela Davis who endows this historical moment with a heavy inevitability all the more unyielding when she, clear and articulate, facing jail time and surrounded by her lawyers, takes her place in front of a battalion of television cameras. She does not say much, and need not, for her immense thundercloud of black hair says it all. Her hair is a breathtaking vision of the storm already breaking over the country.

It is, as they say, a new day. And huge hair, both a symbol as well as an expression of a new consciousness, is like a raised flag: huge hair becomes a call, not to battle, but more dangerously, to revolution — an event, warned songwriter Gil Scott-Heron, that will not be televised.

  • You will not be able to stay home, brother.
  • You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out.
  • You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and
  • Skip out for beer during commercials,
  • Because the revolution will not be televised.

December 23, 2000: A Gumbo Feast

Vernon Sukumu once bore a bomb. Thirty-five years ago, his thick hair, more wavy than kinky, was an incendiary device as black as night; today, at 61, he still sports a full head of hair, but it is a steel gray color, and it is worn short. (Two days ago, he was in a barber’s chair in the Skyline area getting a trim in anticipation of tonight’s get-together.) This evening, then, he is clean-cut; and he is busy. He tastes, he stirs, and he adds seasonings to the contents of a ten-gallon cast-iron pot and stirs some more, using a giant wooden spoon, the size of a shovel, its handle three feet long.

Vernon Sukumu is a modest height — five foot four — and the single-burner stove, heated by propane gas, sitting close to the floor like a Japanese hibachi grill, allows him to easily attend to the contents of that massive pot. The gumbo stock, made from garlic, celery, parsley, bell peppers, and onions, has simmered while Sukumu cooked the okra separately to keep it from going “ropy.” Gumbo aficionados know that the dish is nothing without okra — like fried chicken without the crusty skin — and that okra cooked in the pot has a natural, slimy texture that spreads throughout the dish. But a large crowd is expected here to eat — more than 50 people over the next several hours — and some may be new to the dish. Okra sliding slimily down the throat is an acquired taste sensation; because he wants no one gagging in distressed surprise, Sukumu has gone to the effort of cooking the okra in a separate pot and draining off the liquid. In this gesture, Vernon Sukumu evidences what is essential to him: His thoughts are always on those who might be coming new to the table.

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