THE BOTTOM LINE | Unleash the talents of America

There is nothing more beautiful than a woman who knows she is beautiful and desirable. She has a confidence to her walk that makes the timid get out of her way and the bashful enviously watch her walk through a crowd that parts at her approach.

We are not talking about arrogance or a haughty highmindedness of the rich and unthoughtful. This is her world, and it is supposed to operate this way.

I say this to make a point that is both political and cultural: There is nothing more beautiful than to see an African-American woman adorned in her natural hair, braided or otherwise, who knows she is beautiful or desirable.

It’s a political statement because we are just getting around to allowing African-American women to wear their hair in its natural state. For nearly 400 years, they have been forced — either directly or indirectly — to cover their hair with a hat or a straight wig if they were serving the public.

It’s a cultural statement because being denied to do something that is culturally comfortable in most of the African world for nearly 400 years makes you a cultural ambassador in America in 2014. African women spend $7 billion a year on fake hair and billions more on hair-straightening accessories because that has become the cultural norm if they want to be successful in the employment market or in love. This ban on natural hair has been in place so long that it is the standard of beauty for most black men, as well.

That is why when you see an African-American woman with natural hair who moves with the confidence of a desirable woman, you are seeing a sexual, cultural and political statement all on display at the same time, and it can overwhelm your senses.

So I applaud the military, who just recently decided to let African-American women wear braids, a cultural hairstyle that is still quietly and sometimes openly banned in the hallways of the public and private sectors of America.

This is rooted in the slavery belief that black hair was as toxic as horse or cow hair, so black women had to cover their head so that a strand of those toxic naps did not get in somebody’s soup.

The vestiges of Jim Crow

It amazes me that we live in a country that believes it is so enlightened that so many are comfortable with the vestiges of Jim Crow that clings to America. Making American-African women cover their head is one of those old Jim Crow rules, as well as denying bank loans to create our own businesses and employ our own, or not receiving a fair percentage of our tax dollars back from the city, county or state in community-based programs.

The KKK and Night Riders were just the outward and public piece of Jim Crow. The laws and social mores that reinforced what they need is really what gave Jim Crow its teeth. We changed laws but never changed habits, and many of the same people who had denied us in the past continued to run the system after the laws had changed. Since most public municipalities are riddled with nepotism and one generation passes on its bad habits to the next, we still are denied access 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

When you create a nation that is so racially diverse you must make some decisions on how to integrate all of that diversity into a collective whole. In our more recent past, America has been reluctant to call anything American that does not pass the European cultural test.

Asian culture is now celebrated, and Native American culture and religion is now accepted as on par with Christianity or Islam, as it should be. African cultural traits have been in America for 400-plus years, and we are still talking about accepting the basic parts, like the braiding of our women’s and children’s hair. 

From dreams to reality

I contend that African Americans are operating at less than 10 percent of our capabilities. Imagine what this nation could be if we were operating at 75 percent or better.

If you think a confident black woman with natural hair makes a statement, unleash the talents of the entire African-American race, and we will need a new language to discuss the kind of nation that is possible.

When every racial group can openly and freely offer its best to the American dream, our dreams becomes the rest of the world’s reality because there will be nothing better in the world to be offered. 

CHARLIE JAMES has been an African-American-community activist for more than 35 years. He is co-founder of the Martin Luther King Jr. County Institute ( To comment on this column, write to