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