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Why Hair Matters

In this 1970 photo by Katsuhiro Yokomura, the hair stylist Willie Lee Morrow demonstrates Afro-cutting techniques to barbers and beauticians in Tokyo, as part of an army-sponsored training tour that took him to army posts throughout the world. From Bob Guthrie, “Afro Stylist Gives Pointers at px,” Pacific Stars and Stripes, June 6, 1970, p. 7. Courtesy Stars and Stripes.

I never intended to write about Afros. It’s true that for well over two decades I’ve told graduate students that the best research papers often come from a small but intriguing topic that sheds light on a larger question. And Afros, now, are my go-to example. But my current book project is in no way small. I started large, asking how the U.S. Army, as an institution, tried to manage racial conflict during the years spanning the U.S. war in Vietnam. “The war within the war,” as some referred to it, was disruptive enough to leave senior officers concerned that racial conflict and the violence that accompanied it undermined combat readiness and threatened national security.

As I began researching the origins of that conflict and the army’s initial fumbling toward response, I expected to find predictable, major factors: evidence of individual and institutional racism within the army; the anger and frustration that had fueled urban uprisings carried into the army by unwilling draftees; disparities in the administration of military justice and in promotions and assignments that left many young African American soldiers with no faith in the system; and the impact of Cold War tensions, plummeting public support, and the gradually failing war in Vietnam on an institution that was trying desperately to manage multiple crises.

In fact, that is pretty much exactly what I found, along with some surprisingly creative—and good faith—efforts to address underlying causes and sources of tension. But what surprised me (though it shouldn’t have) was how important hair became in the struggles over race in the U.S. Army.

Hair mattered to young men of that era. Its length and style signaled their youth, their politics, the group to which they claimed allegiance. And in the army, hair had come to represent a soldier’s individuality, which—as most young soldiers understood—was a category not valued highly by the military institution. Young men were willing to face court-martial or military prison over the length of their hair. (The charge, in case you’re wondering, was refusing to obey a lawful order . . . to get an acceptable haircut.) What interested me, though, was the army’s response: the institutional army was much more willing to accommodate modest Afros than to accept the lank locks of “hip” white youth.

The army Afro, however, fit neatly into a chapter on culture and consumption in an age of cultural nationalism, one that encompassed platoon-level struggles over the balance of soul to country music in the juke box and world-wide shifts in what was stocked in the PX. But as I continued my research, hair kept cropping up in unexpected places. That’s what intrigued me—that army agencies and commands that shouldn’t have been worrying about hair were, in fact, worrying about hair. The topic of hair nagged at me. I eventually realized it deserved its own tale.

Which brings me to a broader point about process, and the ways that process shapes analysis. So much of the history we write is based on chance and contingency in historical research, especially when records are preserved and organized to ends different than our own. The army has extensive procedures governing record management, and they are based on the institution’s own mission and priorities. Documents deemed essential by the army are not necessarily the ones historians find most valuable; documents I dream of finding are typically scheduled for disposal after just a few years. That doesn’t mean they disappear. The army is a vast bureaucracy, and (before the digital age) paper flowed with abandon. But the document that confirmed my interest in hair was preserved only because an army historian had assembled it as part of research for a book he never wrote. It turned up in a folder labeled “haircuts” that I found using a card catalog.

Had that historian not gathered records, categorizing them to his own ends, that document almost certainly would have been destroyed, leaving us with only the final, official report on the sources of racial conflict in domestic army posts. Instead, because of him, we have evidence that a young officer in 1969 thought it worth writing a separate report to his superiors to make sure that men’s concerns about hair didn’t get lost in the bigger picture.

As I traced mentions of hair through convoluted paths and stumbled over discussions of hair in places they shouldn’t, by all rights, have appeared, I came to think less about what the army did than about how the army works. I was interested in the army as an institution, but it became increasingly obvious that the institution is not a unified whole. As is likely obvious, policy does not seamlessly translate into implementation and public statements frequently mask internal dissent. But it’s more than that. Some army leaders, confronting a crisis, avoided risk. Others, confronting a crisis, saw opportunity. Various army components offered solutions to problems, seeing a way to draw command attention and secure new resources. By the early 1970s, the secretary of the army found himself on the defensive as members of congress publicly denounce the army’s policies on hair. A few forced early retirements of prominent general officers sent a message about what lines could and could not be crossed. Regulations governing hair became more detailed. The criteria for evaluating officers shifted; new reports became mandatory; new filing categories were created. Following these varying moves and the strands of connection among them was immensely revealing.

Thus, through process—through the chance and contingency of historical research—my story of hair became an analysis of institutional logic. Rather than simply a story of what the army did, it’s a story of how the army works and why it works that way. And by understanding the ways that institutional logic shaped the army’s responses to one part of “the problem of race,” we have a much better chance of understanding the process of social change.

Beth Bailey is Foundation Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Kansas, where she directs the Center for Military, War, and Society Studies.

For more on this topic, read Bailey’s article in the December 2019 issue of the Journal of American History.