Jasmine Nichole Cobb on Haptic Blackness

Mar 8, 2023

In episode 150 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Black visual studies scholar Jasmine Nichole Cobb about haptic blackness and the cultural politics of Black hair in US visual culture.

Jasmine is a professor of African and African American studies and of art, art history, and visual studies at Duke University. Her recent book New Growth: The Art and Texture of Black Hair traces the history of Black hair in visual culture across documentary films, portrait photography, advertising, sculpture, and television.

In the episode, Jasmine shares how haptics—or the mixing of touch and vision—has been central to how blackness has been lived, represented, and imagined across historical periods.

Jasmine and Cathy also discuss why the 1990s and early 2000s were such a rich period for independent documentaries about Black women’s hair in particular and how more recent series like The Hair Tales and Hair Love adapt this genealogy to our contemporary moment.

Finally, they close out the episode with Jasmine’s vision for a haptic Black futurity centering Black embodiment and freedom.

In this episode

  • The cultural politics of Afro-textured hair in the past and present
  • Haptic blackness in visual culture
  • Genealogies of documentary films about Black hair
  • Enduring debates about Black embodiment in visual culture
Cover of New Growth: The Art and Texture of Black Hair, with the doubled image of a person in an elaborate hairstyle resting their chin on their hands

About Jasmine Nichole Cobb

Jasmine Nichole Cobb is a professor of African and African American studies and of art, art history, and visual studies at Duke University, as well as a codirector of the From Slavery to Freedom (FS2F) Franklin Humanities Lab.

A scholar of black cultural production and visual representation, Jasmine is the author of New Growth: The Art and Texture of Black Hair (Duke University Press, 2022) and Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century (NYU Press, 2015).

She is the editor of African American Literature in Transition, 1800–1830 (Cambridge University Press, 2021), and she has written essays for Public Culture, MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, and American Literary History.

Her third monograph in progress, The Pictorial Life of Harriet Tubman, offers a visual history of the abolitionist from the mid-nineteenth century through the present, including the persistence of her image in contemporary art and popular culture.

Teaching and learning resources


Click to read the transcript

[00:00:00] Cathy Hannabach: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about bridging art, activism, and academia to build more just futures.

I’m Cathy Hannabach, and today we’re discussing haptic Blackness and the cultural politics of Black hair in US visual culture.

My guest on today’s episode is Jasmine Nicole Cobb, who is a professor of African and African American studies and of art, art history, and visual studies at Duke University.

[00:00:32] Jasmine’s recent book, New Growth: The Art and Texture of Black Hair, traces the history of Black hair in visual vulture across documentary film, portrait photography, advertising, sculpture, and television.

In our conversation, Jasmine shares how haptics—or the mixing of touch and vision—has been central to how Blackness has been lived, represented, and imagined across various historical periods.

[00:00:59] We also explore why the 1990s and early 2000s were such a rich period for independent documentaries about Black women’s hair in particular and how more recent series like The Hair Tales and Hair Love adapt this genealogy to our contemporary moment.

Finally, we close out the episode with Jasmine’s vision for a haptic Black futurity that centers Black embodiment and freedom.

[00:01:24] Thank you so much for being with us today.

Jasmine Nichole Cobb: Thanks for having me.

Cathy Hannabach: A lot of our listeners might be familiar with debates and stories around racialized ideas of what constitutes quote unquote good and bad hair.

In the introduction to your book, though, you note that you’re very consciously doing something different, offering a new way of reading and understanding the political urgency around Black hair.

[00:01:49] Can you briefly introduce us to your project? What led you to that particular approach?

[00:01:55] Jasmine Nichole Cobb: Sure. New Growth is an exploration of Afro-textured hair amongst people of African descent, beginning in the nineteenth century and moving to the twenty-first century.

There are many great and important books about hair and so I had a lot to build on and learn from.

[00:02:16] My entrée into the conversation was really about understanding what has been meaningful about the texture of Black hair when straightening is not in use.

Many important works deal with the question of good and bad hair, which is a question about the quality of its look and texture, and that often traffics in practices of whether to straighten or not to straighten.

[00:02:43] I think these are important conversations, but I really wanted to understand the dynamics at work before questions of whether or not to straighten enter the conversation.

How has Black hair been meaningful to Black people, but also how Black hair has been meaningful to social structures, institutions, cultural dynamics, and people who are not of African descent.

[00:03:12] So New Growth really tries to tackle the tactile and visual significance of Black hair.

[00:03:20] Cathy Hannabach: You start off the book by discussing two images, one by contemporary artist Rashid Johnson called Self-Portrait with My Hair Parted Like Frederick Douglass and then you pair that with the iconic portrait of Douglass himself.

[00:03:34] Why did you choose that encounter as a way into your book and into these discussions of the haptics and visuality and political history of Black hair?

[00:03:42] Jasmine Nichole Cobb: Yeah, so Douglass is this figure who I felt like in the process of researching this book, I couldn’t get away from him.

He comes up rather colloquially. In vernacular visual cultures, memes, casual conversations, social media platforms where people talk about hair in the twenty-first century, there’s this constant reference to Frederick Douglass, his image, and his hair in his images.

When I went to the archive and started trying to understand hair in the context of slavery, I went to Douglass inspired by his presence in contemporary visual culture, and I found that, like everything else about his life, he documents a great deal about his own hair: its meaning in his social interactions. He even clips his hair and gifts it to people as a kind of keepsake.

And so, what started as just sort of this curiosity about why Douglass and his hair matters to anyone really turned into a really big part of the book for understanding Black hair over a long period of time.

[00:05:04] And so beginning the book with Douglass was a way to sort of flag his real significance in the nineteenth century, and his hair as part of his powerful imaging practices, and then to flag a twenty-first-century example being Rashid Johnson’s work and the way Douglass, the memory of Douglass, is relevant to new creatives and art makers like Johnson who want to tell us something about Blackness and freedom in the contemporary moment.

[00:05:37] Cathy Hannabach: I’m curious how you came across Johnson’s work. Was it in the course of doing this research or was it before this book and then you found that that was a good way into talking about some of these issues in the text?

[00:05:47] Jasmine Nichole Cobb: I had come across Johnson’s work separate from the book. I first saw his work at a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

[00:05:59] It was really great stuff, even aside from his photographic works: installations, things he’s doing with creating sort of scenes in domestic Black life.

So, the image I cite is part of Johnson’s The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club series. These portraits, which include Johnson and other subjects, representing questions about acceptance, belonging, and social mobility amongst Black people.

[00:06:32] In writing the book, the image sort of stuck with me and I just sort of went with it. What was this about Douglass that was so relevant to Johnson in in a show where he is making rooms, he’s using Black soap and karate videos, just a real mashup of different elements of Black popular culture, which are mostly contemporary. Here’s this side part in his hair and this reference to a Black abolitionist from the nineteenth century.

[00:07:00] I took that as something about Douglass is really relevant to many of us, to myself, to Johnson, to people talking about hair on social media. And so, I just kind of went with it.

[00:07:21] Cathy Hannabach: I think it works well. It’s a striking way into this topic and it gives people a good way to think about how the contemporary stems from the past but is also doing something different.

[00:07:31] Jasmine Nichole Cobb: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think that’s what’s so great about Johnson’s work. The way he makes the images, the way he layers these references, the hair part, the clothing, but then also the way of printing the image and the actual medium of photography that he chooses builds this complexity.

[00:07:55] Cathy Hannabach: You work a lot in this project with the concepts of haptic images and haptic Blackness. What do you mean by those terms and how do you see those working in the examples you uncovered in your research?

[00:08:08] Jasmine Nichole Cobb: Yes, so haptic images are images that touch us, but also invite touch. When people talk about haptic cinema, they might be speaking about the way a scene is shot or if you imagine the undulation of waves on a screen or the movement of a silk scarf, an image that when looking at it, you can recall the sensation of touching the material in the image.

When I thought about hair, I thought hair was the same kind of thing: that Black hair in particular is a haptic image that the sight of Black hair sort of calls out a feeling or a sensation about how the hair might feel.

[00:08:54] And I think this experience underpins the often-inappropriate question that people of African descent might get from strangers: Can I touch your hair? This is about what Black hair is visually and texturally.

And in grounding the work in this question of the haptic, I really wanted to understand that: What is it, aside from just bad manners and social mores, what is it about the texture of Black hair that calls in haptic experiences?

[00:09:22] And along the way, I found that not only was hair this kind of haptic image that people want to handle or make judgements about how it looks and feels, such as in the context of slavery, for example, but then it becomes a point of haptic image making. Making films about the texture and touch of Black hair, making photographs like Johnson does, that call in matters of the texture and touch of Black hair.

[00:10:00] Cathy Hannabach: I’m glad you brought up films because one of my favorite chapters analyzes documentaries from the 1990s and 2000s, things like My Nappy Roots that folks might be familiar with.

You spend quite a bit of time in the book looking at this historical period because it’s so significant in this visual and haptic history that you’re talking about.

[00:10:21] What makes that period so significant? Why the 1990s and 2000s, and what was going on in that period around tactile viewing experiences?

[00:10:31] Jasmine Nichole Cobb: Yes, this was some of my favorite material, to deal with in the book because it was just kind of around and I didn’t know what to do with it, but I couldn’t put it down.

[00:10:42] So, there were a number of films produced around 1990, and then they just continue on. Independent movies, often shot by women, often documentary, but some weave in elements of theater, personal narrative, and fiction into the documentary format.

[00:11:12] In these films, people are discussing their own experiences with their hair, talking about feelings of shame or dissatisfaction or pride or discomfort about the styling and care of Black hair in their own lives. And then they go out and they find other participants and they collect the same kinds of stories from other people.

And so what happens in the span of a single film and then the films collectively as I engage them, is this real sense of community that takes shape both through the experience of wearing and caring for Black hair, but then, I argue, through the desire for sense making about Black hair, which is what sets people off on the task of making a film about Black hair, this sort of self-exploration and connecting with other people.

I think the 1990s is really a prime time for this kind of work, for a number of reasons. I think the 1990s, scholars have written about, is really this complicated era for Black film.

[00:12:21] There’s sort of these spectacular examples of Black film in the 1990s, where the idea of Blackness is central to the storytelling.

And I think this happens on TV too. When you think about shows like A Different World or The Cosby Show or other sitcom programs, Blackness is part of the plot. It’s not the background, and it’s central to the concerns of the producers.

[00:12:47] And I think these hair documentaries reiterate that value, this question of Black aesthetics, Black representation, and what it means to people of African descent to identify as Black. And so, hair becomes the perfect terrain for exploring that in these independent films.

[00:13:07] Cathy Hannabach: One more contemporary example that I think is engaging this in maybe a slightly different way, is something like Hair Tales on Hulu right now.

[00:13:15] How do you see subsequent additions to that genre? Are those more contemporary versions doing something different? Something the same? What’s going on there?

[00:13:23] Jasmine Nichole Cobb: I think Hair Tales is great, and I think Hair Tales really shows us this long arc of storytelling. When I watched Hair Tales, I could see that the producers were familiar with some of these documentaries.

[00:13:39] Things like putting Black women in positions of expertise, showing them styling hair as well as talking about hair at the same time, as well as the person sitting and having her hair styled as an expert in her own hair but also the meaning of hair in Black popular culture more broadly.

What I appreciate about Hair Tales and other things like Hair Love, it’s a children’s story turned into an animated film, these works are all taking this cue from the 1990s that hair and its meaning and significance is worthy of other cultural production.

[00:14:10] So the hair is a cultural production, but then we are also allowed and could benefit from works about the meaning of hair, both to wearers of Black hair and to other people. So, I see them all as connected and really building on one another.

[00:14:42] Cathy Hannabach: So, in the spirit of imagining otherwise, which is a kind of key theme across your book, thinking about what Black hair has meant, what it can mean, I’d love to close out our conversation today asking you what is a giant question but I hope a productive one.

[00:15:00] What’s the world that you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want?

[00:15:05] Jasmine Nichole Cobb: I so appreciate this question because it’s a reminder that we’re allowed to do that, and other worlds have to start somewhere.

I would love a world where caustic chemicals for straightening hair just don’t exist. I would love if, for instance, the FDA would intervene in the production and circulation of straightening chemicals, not because people shouldn’t be allowed to straighten their hair if they want to, but that set of products marketed to children and adults that has been found to cause cancer warrants governmental oversight, just like tobacco. So that would be great.

[00:15:36] I would also though love a world where people of African descent don’t worry about managing their bodies and changing their bodies to achieve social acceptance or opportunity.

[00:16:01] There are people who appreciate straightening for the aesthetic benefits, and I don’t take that away from them. I think what shouldn’t be the case is that people feel like they have to straighten their hair and by any means necessary or else their life chances will be affected by the decision.

So yeah, that is what I’m working towards: the ability to be as free as one wants to be, whatever that means, and to have options for different presentations of self that do not come with severe health consequences.

[00:16:39] Cathy Hannabach: Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of the ways that you imagine otherwise.

[00:16:44] Jasmine Nichole Cobb: Thank you.

[00:16:48] Cathy Hannabach: Thanks for joining me for this episode of Imagine Otherwise. A big thanks to Jasmine as well for being here and for sharing her research.

You can learn more about Jasmine’s book New Growth and her other projects as well on our website ideasonfire.net, where you’ll also find a teaching guide for this episode as well as related books and resource.

[00:17:09] This episode was produced and edited by me, Cathy Hannabach, with interview support by Sara Tatyana Bernstein.

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