I’m one of the more than 15 million who have watched the video of the scene in the gymnasium of New Jersey’s Buena Regional High School. Watched the 17-year-old Andrew Johnson, an African-American high school wrestler, standing with slumped shoulders as a female official cut off his dreadlocks with cool efficiency. Witnessing Andrew’s humiliation — hundreds of spectators in the stands who’d come to see Johnson and his teammates wrestle in a local tournament. But minutes before it was to start, referee Alan Maloney ordered Andrew either to cut his hair or forfeit playing. As his team’s acknowledged star, he was under intense pressure to participate, and he did. But when the referee raised Andrew’s arm in victory, the young man snatched his arm away and walked off with his head down.
That moment was too much for me. I found myself shaking with anger, so mad I could not stop the tears running down my face. Maybe some in that crowd observed the forced haircut impassively, but Andrew’s humiliation felt especially personal to we black folks who wear our hair naturally. Dreadlock wearing and Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay said she was “wrecked” by the scene. WGBH attorney and natural hair product entrepreneur Nike Okedijii noted, “Hair becomes politicized, it seems, when we continue to embrace ourselves.” But whether or not we wear our hair naturally, we recognize what happened to Andrew as part of a painful continuum of attacks on African-American culture and identity. From the moment enslaved Africans arrived on these shores, those original human traffickers tortured their stolen chattel into abandoning who they were and accepting new customs, even names. In his seminal novel "Roots: The Saga of an American Family," author Alex Haley chronicled the brutal process of forcing Kunte Kinte, based on his African ancestor, to become "Toby." And so, referee Maloney was not satisfied that Andrew’s hair was cut. According to the Johnson family lawyer, Maloney pushed the scissor-wielding official to keep cutting until he was “satisfied with the length.” This is the same guy who, in 2016, was sanctioned for using the N-word against a black referee.
This shouldn’t have happened. There is rule-sanctioned head coverings for long-haired wrestlers, which Andrew had worn in past tournaments. That’s why New Jersey’s governor found the forced haircut “troubling.” The New Jersey ACLU was blunt in assessing Maloney’s actions as race-based, asking, “How many different ways will people try to exclude Black people from public life without having to declare their bigotry?”
In an emergency meeting, the Buena Regional School Board decided that Alan Maloney would never again referee a sporting event in the district, and then they fired him. The epic racist demeaning Andrew suffered deserved no less a response. Dual investigations by both the state’s athletic association and the civil rights division hopefully will result in a longer-term fix. Andrew’s parents say he is trying to move on, but I ache for him, fully understanding the psychic damage he has endured. Andrew will never forget what happened, I know, as I know that he will have to spend his life defending his right simply to be who he is.