Sunday, October 27, 2013

What's In A Name? - Gangsta Braids, Part I

Edited by Azizi Powell

For some reason which I still haven't figured out, Yahoo News featured an article yesterday about how in 1992 actress Juliette Lewis was caught spitting out chewing gum during the Oscars. A photograph of that Oscar night showed that White actress (who was escorted to the Oscars by actor Brad Pitts) wearing her hair in cornrows, a hairstyle that is almost always associated with people of Black African descent. With regards to that hairstyle, Meriah Doty, the author of that article, wrote that "More than 20 years on, Lewis has quite a sense of humor about it all — even her unique-if-not-strange hairstyle at the occasion. 'I had gangster braids at the Oscars because why wouldn't you," she said with obvious facetiousness.'"

In my opinion, Meriah Doty's comment and Juliette Lewis' comment were much bigger mistakes than Lewis spitting out gum at the Oscars.

And many if not most of the 1034+ comments from that article's viewer comment thread agree with me for one reason or another.

[All of these comments were posted on October 26 or 27, 2013]

Some commenters interpreted the word "gangster" in "gangster braids" as "criminals", meaning "people involved in illegal activities." For that reason, Lewis' comment was thought to be offensive to all those Black people who have worn & still wear their hair in that style.

"How dare whom ever wrote that Juliette Lewis' hair style in 1992 as gangster . . . . . she is wearing cornrolls. This statement had tones of being racist in my opinion. My young niece and other black women today still wear cornrows and this style has nothing to do with being a gangster!!!!!"

"first off,how are braids Gangster? to be "gangster" is to act and or react accordingly. secondly, i think she looks very unique, elegant, and sexy, with her braids or corn rows. the braids are a style not a behavior so the it makes zero sense for braids to be gangster."

"So what were they called back in 1979 when Bo Derek wore them? They were called "cornrows" then; they are called "cornrows" now. Gangsters did not invent them. Thank you. SMH!!!"
"Bo Derek" was an American actress who wore her hair in cornbraids & beads in the 1979 movie 10.

"SMH" is an acronym for "shaking my head" [in disdain, critism, annoyance etc.] A number of commenters added this acronym to the end of their comment. Although non-Black people also use "SMH", it appears to me that this acronym is closely associated with Black folks.

A lot of commenters interpreted the word "gangster" (or its African American vernacular form "gangsta") to mean "people belonging to gangs". For obvious reasons, that association was also considered to be offensive, if not racist.

"For your information, the hair style you so flippantly call "gangsta braids" are a traditional African hair style called Corn Rows. It has nothing to with gangs or anything else. Get some education - and stop disparaging my heritage."

"gangster braids who calls cornrows gangsta braids its amazing how the media twist and turns things they know who comments on these articles now lets see how much people share their hate of gangsta braids and the certain people who wear it. because on a subconscious level thats what yahoo is doing by not just calling them what they are…cornrows"

Why are they called "gangsta braids" ? When they are simply called cornrows....

Wow does the media need to sensationalize everything???? Does the term gangsta braid influence how you view and perceive the look????"

"Gangsta Braids??? WTH. How disrespectful to African Americans. Are you insinuating that when you see someone who wears this style of braided hair are all Gangsta??? I have plenty of educated (BA's MA's and a couple of Doctorates) friends and family members who wear this hair style. Damn....No wonder why many African Americans are still disappointed with the treatment we receive in this country."

Gangster braids? Really? I wore those all of the time as a kid and wasn't thinking about gangs. We called them plaits or cornrows.

At least two commenters suggested that referring to cornrows as "gangster braids" was an example of White people's ignorance of and misuse of African American vernacular English.

"These days, anyone can get called a "thug" and anything get labeled "gangster."

It's almost as if the people who use those words the most just learned them, and try their best to use them frequently.
They are used out of context way to frequently....."

What the hell are "gangster braids"! Is it related to the "terrorist fist bump"! Dumb just can't be descriptive enough!

Several commenters who were critical of Juliette Lewis and/or Maria Doty cited the long history of cornrows in Africa, in the United States, and elsewhere.
"Cornrows are not "gangster braids." Some of you people really need to educate yourselves. People wearing cornrows have been found in pictures dating back as far as 3000 BC. It was originally a traditional hairstyle for women in Africa and parts of West Asia. There are records of men wearing cornrows as far back as the early 1800s. This includes African kings. If you think that cornrows are nothing but a hairstyle worn by "gangsters," then you are showing your own ignorance. Perhaps if you didn't limit your knowledge of black culture to the negativity that you see in popular media, you would be more aware of some the rich history and traditions that originated in Africa. Thumbs down all you want."
Editor: "Thumbs down all you want" refers to the readers' comment rating system in which thumbs down means readers disagree with the comment.

"Meriah, Lewis has her hair in CORNROWS for your information. As was Bo Derek's hair in the movie, 10. Black women, and now men, have worn their hair this way for centuries. Before you make comments like this, get your head out of TV and the movies and into real life. Obviously you do not know anything about Black Women's hair."

"'Gangster braids' How stupid can some people be.They are braids,corn rows or cane rows (Caribbean) If you don't know then shut up.That is stereotyping."

One commenter focused on the author of that article's use of the phrase "unique if not strange" as a descriptor of that hairstyle:
" "unique if not strange"...excuse me??? Why would an ethnic hairstyle be inappropriate or strange? Shame on you for perpetuating negative stereotypes of Black people in America...SHAME!!!!! Poor journalism at BEST and blatant racism at worst."

Given that the real topic of that article, it's not surprising that a number of racist comments against Black people were posted to that forum. I'm not going to quote any of those comments.

Also given the subject matter, it's not surprising that some [probably Black people] wrote something to the effect that that White people shouldn't ever wear their hair in cornrows or any other "Black" hairstyle. However, one commenter implied that she or he doesn't think that Black people should have any problem with White people wearing cornrows since Black females straighten their hair to look like White females.
"So the big news is that she dated Brad Pitt many years ago? Oooookay. By the way, what's wrong with braids on a white girl? I have no problems with black women who straighten their hair."
Personally, I think that's a good point.

And one commenter wrote that where she or he lived people who weren't Black also wore their hair in cornrows. That commenter also shared additional opinions about Juliette Lewis wearing cornrows.
"I'm not white or black but we had "corn rows" often worn by people in our island community(yes, whites included), just called a different name. I don't think she was being intentionally ignorant. I think her statement was leaning more towards an attempt at humor and subtly generalizing that it wasn't exactly one of her best looks because it didn't fit her. Personally i think she should have gotten someone to make the braids smaller...a much better look on white people getting those types of braids but extra tight rubberbands to hold the braids because their hair is usually finer and straight. Lighten up's 2013 and we got better things to concentrate on then being negative. Let the girl live a little :)"
While the "lighten up" phrase was probably an unfortunate use of words, I got that the commenter meant "be less serious".

One commenter wrote that when Juliette Lewis described her hairstyle as "gangster" 21 years after the fact, she meant to convey that that hairstyle was "tight", "fine", and "bad" in the positive African American vernacular connotation of those words:
"To those of you that are making comments concerning what gangster braids; It just means that she thought her braids were "tight" or what one would call "bad #$%$ braids" or just "together." "Yet maybe looking good to her and those in the know".

And maybe that's what Lewis meant. But maybe not. I've never heard of "gangsta" meaning "tight" or "bad #$%$" or "together." But what do I know...

What I found interesting is that no comment that I read mentioned anything at all about the fact that "gangsta braids" is a probably very recently created hair style or hair styles in which "locs" ("dreads", "dreadlocs") are braided a certain way. Truth to be told, I only learned about that style for locs after reading the above mentioned Yahoo article and searching the internet for that phrase. I found out that "gangsta braids" aren't the same thing as regular cornrows, but they are a type of cornrowed braiding. But prior to my doing that internet search, I would have agreed with Susan P who wrote in that Yahoo article about Juliette Lewis:
"Looks like cornrows to me. I have been on this planet nearly 7 decades and I never heard of "gangster braids" until I read this article..."
Susan P ended her comment by asking "Why do some people seem compelled to change the names of things every few years?"

I think it's human nature to make such changes. And I'm hoping that tendency to change the names of things comes into play sooner rather than later with regard to "gangsta braids".

Examples of "gangsta braid" videos, other information about dreadlocks, and other comments about that hairstyle are presented in Part II of this series. Click for Part II of this series.

Click "Terms Used Among People Who Wear Their Hair In Locs (Dreadlocks)"

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.

No comments:

Post a Comment