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Kaepernick’s Afro and the visual shorthand of radicalism

The quarterback’s hair and face always made a statement. Now it could be his trademark.

When Colin Kaepernick first began sitting and then later kneeled during the national anthem to protest police violence, the quarterback wore his hair cropped close to his head. As the spotlight on his activism grew, so too did his locks, first into a mass of short curls, then cornrows, then a bigger crown of still-defined curls and, finally, a billowing, uncontrolled, woolly, seemingly semi-sentient mass that doubled as a silent trigger of white fragility.

Those changes mirror the evolution of the art of black radicalism, as documented in a new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. Tracing art from the 1960s to the present, it weaves a story of resistance and self-love. Kaepernick filed an application to trademark his image recently, and it would have made a perfect coda to this exhibit.

The Nike-endorsed athlete and quarterback without a football team asked the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to trademark a simple black-and-white image that shows how Kaepernick is likely to be remembered in perpetuity: He stares straight ahead, unsmiling, his eyebrows furrowed, with a perfectly shaped Afro filling up the frame as it connects to his beard.

The Kaepernick of the trademark application functions as a defiant embrace of militancy, the sort you would expect of Stokely Carmichael. It is not an image interested in acquiescing to white guilt or discomfort. Kaepernick is not here to make you feel better about racism and fatal police violence. He is demanding to be taken seriously. It is a departure from his in-person demeanor, which is warm and often accompanied by an easy smile. It’s the most conclusive evidence thus far to suggest that Kaepernick understands his evolution from man to symbol.

When called out in public, say, at the US Open, Kaepernick raises a single fist, the salute to black power. The image, when accompanied by a raised fist, falls along a continuum of black radicalism — from Carmichael’s quest for Black Power to Angela Davis’ defiant Marxism to Kathleen Cleaver and Dorothy Pitman Hughes’ calls for revolution to Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ silent protest at the 1968 Olympics. His Afro is cut and shaped into a retrosphere that frames Kap’s head like an irrepressible halo.

Angela Davis in 1975.

Courtesy: CSU Archives / Everett Collection

Soon after it debuted, the hair inspired gushing headlines: Colin Kaepernick’s hair sees me, wrote Kara Brown at Jezebel, while Essence explained Why Colin Kaepernick’s Glorious Afro Is Significant. Kaepernick’s ‘fro is a studious departure from modern permutations, which tend to be more textured and less obviously manicured — think Jordan Carlos, Seaton Smith, Solange or even the illustration of Starr Carter on the book jacket of The Hate U Give. It lacks the wiry, mad-professor quality associated with Cornel West. Rather, it’s a throwback to George E. Johnson’s Afro Sheen blowout kit, to Anthony R. Romani’s clenched fist Afro pik, to blaxploitation, to Black is Beautiful, to Nelson Stevens’ Uhuru screenprint of a black woman carrying the freedom of an entire people atop her head.

His jersey may have said San Francisco, but his hair screamed Oakland.

In his quest to draw attention to the injustice of lethal state violence exacted on unarmed black people, Kaepernick has become something of a walking museum exhibition, carrying 70 years of history, politics, resistance and symbolism within a few inches of black keratin emerging from his head. Kaepernick’s Afro, and the politics that inspired it, call back to the birthplace of the Black Panthers, just a 30-minute drive across the Bay from San Francisco. The money he’s raised for charity has gone toward community building and empowerment and eliminating police brutality. Echoes of the principles of the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program lurk in the 10-Point System of Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp. Touches like these indicate a fluency in the language and history of black American radicalism. And Kaepernick’s particular brand of it has been contagious. He’s been able to call on the financial resources and star power of other celebrities, including Joey Bada$$, Serena Williams, Meek Mill, Zendaya Coleman, Jesse Williams, Yara Shahidi, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry to further his causes.

Kaepernick’s bended knee, raised fist and picked-out follicles have fomented an explosion of artistic interpretations and, in the wake of a new Nike campaign, copycat memes.

One of the most ubiquitous illustrations of Kap depicts the athlete-activist kneeling, his hair curled atop his head like Elizabeth Catlett’s Black Unity sculpture of a black power fist carved out of mahogany.

If there’s a downside to widely recognized symbolism, it’s that it becomes ripe for co-opting. Loss of control is part of the price of ubiquity, which is how the same song that greets visitors to the Soul of a Nation exhibition, Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” can also double as an anthem for shilling weight loss products. It’s how the revolutionary politics of Che Guevara became twisted and diluted the more his image became well-known. Eventually, that single image of a wild-haired, bearded and beret-wearing Guevara became less associated with the overthrow of capitalism and more the province of causeless rebels who could barely articulate who Guevara was or what he stood for — but knew that image looked cool.

Capitalism’s funny that way.

An image of Che Guevara in Cuba in 1996.

Photo by Francois ANCELLET/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Davis is a revolutionary who actually lived long enough to take umbrage with her own iconography’s descent into semiotic mishmash. “I am remembered as a hairdo,” Davis told a Baltimore crowd in 1994. “It is humiliating because it reduces a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion. … The pertinent history of my legal case is empty of all content so it can be [made into a commodity] for the advertising industry.”

Perhaps Kaepernick will be able to avoid such a fate, although history suggests otherwise. His cause has already been willfully misinterpreted and truncated into the deceptively named “anthem protest” despite the fact that Kap was never protesting the national anthem itself (racist though its lyrics may be). And so, via the Patent and Trademark Office, Kaepernick is seeking a measure of self-determination from the same entity that for many years functioned as a tool to deny that very thing to black people: the U.S. government.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.