Military Haircut History And Racial Identity Explored
The Foundation Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Kansas focused on a guide detailing how a U.S. Army coped with racial conflict and violence during the Vietnam era.
She said, “The Army believed this extraordinary amount of violence was going to undermine combat readiness and national security. I wanted to understand how this institution tried to address what it called ‘the situation of race’ and how its solutions affected racial justice in the United States. And hair just kept popping up.”
This unanticipated focus resulted in her new article, “The U.S. Army and ‘the Problem of Race ‘: Afros, Race Consciousness, and Institutional Logic.” It earned the cover story in this month’s problem of The Journal of American History.
“Hair mattered a lot in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For teenagers, hair signaled their identity and their allegiances. For African Americans in particular, the Afro style symbolized black pride and racial solidarity,” Bailey said.
However, the armed forces emphasized the importance of a “proper military haircut,” so young men’s hair became a magnet for discord.
Bailey points to a United Press International story in May 1970 that quoted a written report on Army race relations: “There probably is nothing that exacerbates and fosters ill will significantly more than the main topics haircuts.”
“Before the late 1960s, regulations governing haircuts didn’t even need to be written,” said Bailey, who’s also the director of KU’s Center for Military, War, and Society Studies.
“The assumption was you went to basic training, and they shaved your face, and you’d keep your hair short. After that, ‘neat’was all they said about it. But as hair became an interest of contestation, the number of words outlining hair policy grew and grew.”
Rather than pretending the situation didn’t exist, the military took a seemingly forward-thinking way of hair — especially regarding its black soldiers. Army leaders increasingly became aware of why these teenagers faced discrimination in civilian society and within the Army, and these men were not willing to quietly accept that fact. Some leaders believed the military could avert discontent out of this part of its troops by recognizing black soldiers’ demands of acknowledging their culture.
“I was surprised by how imaginative the Army was in its response, for both secretaries of the Army and its chief of staff were willing to embrace a race-conscious approach,” she said. “At the advent of the 1960s, the Army was happy with its race-blind policies — that has been its claim to racial equality. By the late’60s, key leaders asserted race-blind wasn’t sufficient; the Army had to become race-conscious.”
However, Bailey contends that when the Army began tolerating symbols of black identity, it introduced a new pair of conflicts. If black soldiers were allowed to display pride inside their cultural identity, what results when white soldiers do precisely?
“What they tried to complete was counter-institutional. That’s why the element of it didn’t work,” she said.
“Leaders more or less said, ‘We’re going to slack off in the temporary or unofficially be a little bit lenient.’ The Army doesn’t work with short-term strategy and unofficial leniency. And which means this created new problems. After you say, ‘We’ll allow some cultural symbolism,’ then your Confederate flags start waving. You can’t say one group can do this and another group can’t.”
Bailey, an indigenous of Atlanta, says she understands how vital hair was in the past — and not just to black soldiers.
“From the when I was in eighth grade, my boyfriend’s mother made him get a haircut. And I seriously considered not going to a school dance with him because it had been so embarrassing,” she said. “I look back with horror at my shallowness. But I get it. It’s a different thing, of course. But I do understand that hair.