Spoken in Jest: Sheryl Underwood & Afro Hair

“Many a true word hath been spoken in jest.”–William Shakespeare, King Lear

Collection of picks from the 20th Century. Denver Art Museum.

Collection of picks from the 20th Century. Denver Art Museum.

Last week’s comments by African American comedian Sheryl Underwood on the CBS daytime show “The Talk” set Black Twitter on fire. In a format similar to the long-running talk show “The View” on ABC, the co-hosts of the show (Julie Chen, Sara Gilbert, Sharon Osbourne, Aisha Tyler, and Sheryl Underwood) include a daily discussion of “hot topics.” Sharon Osbourne introduced the topic of saving unusual things, stating that model and “Project Runway” host Heidi Klum saves her children’s hair when she cuts down their “big Afros.”

Being opinionated is probably a prerequisite for the job, and Sheryl Underwood certainly fits the bill. She asked incredulously, “Why would you save Afro hair? I mean, you can’t weave in Afro hair!” In a moment that was reminiscent of Chris Rock’s comedy-documentary “Good Hair,” she riffed that no one goes to the salon asking for “the curly, nappy, beady” weave. Almost inaudibly, she concluded, “That just seems nasty.”

Co-hosts Sara Gilbert and Sharon Osbourne both agreed that they saved similar mementos from their children. Gilbert mentioned that she had saved the hair from her son’s first haircut. But Underwood interrupted, stating that it was “probably some beautiful, long, silky stuff. That’s not what an afro is.” This, ironically, seemed to make Osbourne and Gilbert defenders of blackness while Underwood attacked it.

Sheryl Underwood’s statements may have passed without much discussion or notice if CBS had chosen a different “encore” episode to air on August 30, the Friday before Labor Day weekend. Many people, who would have otherwise been at work, probably extended their three-day weekend to four days, so they were home on Friday to watch “The Talk.”

By the beginning of this week, Underwood was trying to walk back some of what she said. In an interview with Curly Nikki, she denied calling black hair “nasty.” (Maybe it was a Freudian slip.) She insisted that her comment was really about the practice of “cutting and saving what I consider as dead.”  This is laughable. As a woman who wears wigs and weaves, she knows perfectly well that the hair on her head once belonged to someone else. Is that nasty? She didn’t seem to realize that her suggestion that keeping black (afro) hair was nasty while keeping white “beautiful, long silky” hair was understandable was problematic. It reifies the good/bad dichotomy of white and black.

Locks of love. Saved by my paternal great-grandmother.

Locks of love. Saved by my paternal great-grandmother.

Admittedly, I don’t think I would save hair in this way. It seems a bit quirky, eccentric, or maybe even strange. But I call foul on this college-educated woman, who has been on this planet for nearly fifty years, feigning cultural ignorance.

My paternal grandmother saved a braided lock of hair from each of her seven children in her family Bible. When I found these locks recently, I thought it was sweet and sentimental, not “nasty.”

Underwood has issued a mea culpa for her ill-advised comments, insisting that it was a poor attempt at humor and not meant to hurt anyone. Although I was not hurt by her comments, I am less than impressed with her apology. I tend to think that she let her “jokes” go too far but that some truth also slipped out.

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4 thoughts on “Spoken in Jest: Sheryl Underwood & Afro Hair

  1. I understand that she is a comedian, but her comments seemed to have been a genuine representation of her thoughts to me. She did not appear to be joking at all, and her words came so freely and effortlessly from her mouth.

    For me, this story, coupled with the narratives about the little black girls attempting to attend school, only to be suspended or expelled for wearing their hair in “trendy hairstyles” like braids or Afro puffs is about all that I can handle this week in black hair. When did wearing your hair the way that it comes out of your head become a “trend?” What is most problematic is that all of these cases that presented themselves in the media this week, were narratives of black folks being ridiculed by other black people for wearing their hair as they choose.

    See, this is one of the many reasons we can’t be free!

    • I don’t think being a comedian is an excuse either. I have never cared for her comedy though–too much self-deprecation. And a lot of it seemed to be negative comments about blackness.

      I can’t get over how eager she was to comment on the story. It was like she couldn’t help herself.

  2. Pingback: Forbidden African-American Hair Styles In School | Marcella Jones

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