As golden girls go — she is an original. She is the 2017 American Liberty High Relief Gold Coin celebrating the U.S. Mint’s 225th anniversary. This newest Liberty coin features the face of a black woman adorned with a patriotic headband made of stars. Liberty’s stars crown her signature hair style — braids of slim golden ropes neatly tucked into a bun, the ends trailing down the nape of her neck.
These braids are just like the ones Deanna and Mya Cook wore at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School. The twin 15-year-olds long braids were lengthened by extensions. The school said the braids violated the school’s dress code, which also banned hair coloring and nail polish. But according to the girls’ mother, the school overlooked students with colored hair and targeted black and biracial students. Colleen Cook told the Boston Globe, “Braided hair gives them pride. They want to partake in their culture.”
Because of their braids, the twins were banned from the prom and punished with several days of detention an hour before and after school. The girls’ protest brought them national attention, and advocacy support from both the NAACP and the ACLU who called the school’s action racist. But, administrators from Mystic Valley Regional Charter insisted the dispute wasn’t about race, but rules. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey disagreed, citing state and federal violations, “by subjecting students of color, especially black students, to differential treatment.”
For black women, hair is a cultural flashpoint, never as simple as ‘it’s just hair.’ Those of us who wear our hair in afros, twists, locks or braids are often subject to unsolicited commentary, sometimes overtly racist. As Phoebe Williams, author of the book “You Can’t Touch My Hair,” observes, “Black hair seems to raise a lot of non-black people’s blood pressure.”
Here are a few examples: The U.S. military’s ban on black hairstyles sparked a public months long protest and sharp rebuke from African-American congresswomen. The military reversed the ban, but meteorologist Rhonda Lee was fired after politely defending her natural hair to a viewer who wrote that “she needs to wear a wig or grow some more hair.” As young women, tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams were mocked and taunted because of their beaded braids. And when actress Zendaya Coleman wore dreadlocks to the Oscars two years ago, "Fashion Police" host Giuliana Rancic suggested on air that she “probably smelled like weed.” Then 18-year-old Zendaya pushed back noting the typical “harsh criticism of African-American hair”... and “ignorant people who chose to judge others based on the curl of their hair.”
There’s been plenty of judgement about the new gold coin featuring Lady Liberty with braids, and sales are lagging. But, a small victory for the Cook family. Mystic Valley Regional Charter School has lifted its braid ban, though the school maintains it was never racially motivated. Deanna and Mya, I’m happy that you can wear a hairstyle that makes you feel good about who you are. Welcome to the club.