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Black Hair Reclaimed for its Strength, Resilience, and Beauty… using cockleburs.

Many Black women will be able to tell you about the footprints on their backs as they were stepped over to get to the Beyonce’s of America…

Willie Little

I asked my partner, Black Artist Willie Little, about cockleburs. I’ve been dealing with these prickly seed pods for the last 19 years of our lives together. I find them in the couch, in the shoes that I’m putting on in the morning — Willie swears he didn’t put it there — scratching my face as they stick to the blanket I’m using to cover myself, in my cereal bowl, stuck to the cat, they’re everywhere it seems.

And they are painful to step on — remember, I found one in my shoe — and he still swears he didn’t put it there.

And these little seedpods have very strong, needle-like points that do not give an inch under your feet. You will yield quite painfully long before they’ve felt a thing. They are brown, ugly annoying things that cling to your clothes like desperate orphans and dare you to try and remove them with your bare fingers.

Cockleburs before harvest

So why, I wondered, are they so prominent in Willie’s art work. Certainly there are prettier organic materials that can be used in their place.

So I asked him one day, and when I heard the story I understood and felt kind of bad for not understanding how these annoying, needy pods of pain became so prominent in Willie’s artwork.

As Willie described them: “Cockleburs are prickly seed pods found in fields in the south that would stick to you and were often used to describe nappy hair. ‘Your hair is nappy as a cocklebur patch!’ or ‘don’t go out with a ‘nappy kitchen’”, are words he used to hear from folks back home in the Pactolus Township near little Washington where he grew up.

Willie told me how he used them in his work to represent Black hair and to reclaim it as a source of strength, resilience and pride.

Cocklebur Harvest

“If you can reclaim your shame you have won. Like Gays took back the word ‘Fag’ and Blacks took back the ‘N’ word. I’m reclaiming Black hair and re-presenting it as a thing of beauty and pride.”

Willie Little

Being a privileged white man… oh and let’s not forget bald… I’m not able to comprehend the challenges that Black people face due to the texture of their hair. Bill Gaskins helps to give perspective:

…if you are white, imagine going into a job interview and having to come in with your hair corn-rowed or braided or locked as a condition for getting a job…can you? It does take some courage to try to make it in mainstream society where hair that blows in the wind will get you a job.

Bill Gaskins – Good and Bad Hair
Nodder Doll with Cocklebur Hair

With cockleburs, Willie now re-presents Black hair in beautiful, defiant fashion that removes the shame and presents a strong presence that shows Black hair in a different light.

Similar to the Nodder Dolls with their cocklebur hairstyles or the African walking sticks that are adorned with many different placements and styles that promote beauty and strength while protecting themselves and those that embrace them. If you doubt that, try picking one up barehanded. (It didn’t work out so well when I tried it.)

Black men and women now wear their hair more freely. Recently California passed a law stating that Black people are free to wear their hair as they like in the workplace. It is sad that legislation was required to get that changed. But we’ll take it.

“For a Black woman to be accepted as a serious employee in her company, 100s of dollars a month can be spent on straightening her hair. The people in power control the standards.”

Willie Little

And as Willie will tell you, white people once again follow the lead from Black culture. The movie “10” starring Bo Derek is famous for the scene of Bo rising out of the ocean waves, capturing the love of all of America with her tight body, draping swimsuit and her beautiful blond hair tied up in cornrows.

“Sure, when a white person wears cornrows, they’re a ten!”

Every Black woman in America when the movie “10” came out.

And don’t get Willie started on Kim Kardashian, who could pass for Black in my mind, especially when she herself decided to go with the cornrow look. All fine and good I suppose… until… she referred to her new hairdo as ‘Bo Derek braids’. She really did: Kim Kardashian in “Bo Derek Braids”.

I’m white. I’m male. I’m bald. But when I heard that, my low opinion of Kim Kardashian hit the toilet. The gall.

Don’t miss the most recent portrait of Maya Angelou and witness the many depths of meaning that Willie portrays while using cockleburs as Black hair.

Other work of Willie’s that features the cocklebur prominently:

Walking Sticks

Natural State

Nodder Doll

Maya Angelou

Other black awesome hairstyles white girls are trying to co-opt: Nubian Knots

Please leave a comment and let us know your thoughts. Share if you’re inspired to do so!

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Post Author: Brian Reed

2 Replies to “My question to Willie: “What are cockleburs and why do you use them in your work?”

  1. Fascinating. And Kim K is white trash with money. Thanks for this.

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