The future Missouri congressman's hair once frightened certain voters.
(Photo: Courtesy of Emanuel Cleaver)
Back in the day, the bigger the 'fro, the more handsome the man underneath was perceived to be, a fact that did not escape Emanuel Cleaver, whose hair in this 1982 photograph with daughter Marissa, belies his genteel and modest demeanor.
Not that he wasn't proud. Cleaver, who was a minister at the time, says that he boasted the number one or two afro, in terms of circumference, among Kansas City's clergymen. But these days, he laments, with a twinkle in his eye, "My 'fro won't gro no mo."
As he began to move up the local political ladder, Cleaver, now a Missouri congressman, was forced to begin letting go. During his campaign for a second term on the city council, his advisers said, "Look, your district is about 50-50, so you can probably win it with every precinct and ward if you cut your hair because your hair scares many whites," he recalls. "Back then, if you had an afro, you were seen as militant and aggressive. And if your last name was Cleaver, that added to [that image.]"
The former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus is referring to the image his surname evoked of his mesmerizing cousin from Arkansas, Eldridge Cleaver, a founder of the original Black Panther Party, who later in life became a Republican — and the inconveniences it sometimes caused.
"Way before anybody even thought about 9/11, my uncle and I had a hard enough time getting on airplanes," Cleaver said. "When I was first elected to Congress, I had to go to a representative at American Airlines to help me get my name off of the watch list."
Still, he wistfully adds, "I wish the afro would come back [into style] for both men and women."
Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.
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