Collection Explore
Jada James ’18
on James Barnor
A black and white photograph of a young, Black girl with numerous braided buns with her head in the crook of her elbow resting on her knees.
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James Barnor (born Accra, Ghana, 1929)
Untitled, Accra, Ghana, 1975, printed 2018
gelatin silver print
Tang purchase

Jada James ’18
Skidmore College

For many women with Afro-textured hair, manipulation is a tool to fit in, to conform, and to feel beautiful. The realization that beauty can only be tangible after manipulation can stir a drive to create our own space and our own definitions of what it means to fit in, or a drive to make our own peace by feeling beautiful with our natural hair. We ask ourselves: How will this play out in society? How will it become normalized? The truth is, for centuries, it has been and, in many places, is “normal.” It’s all about perspective—perspectives that can be altered and pushed by a particular society’s view of black phenotypes. James Barnor presents a casual and familiar vantage point of a normal girl with normal hair.

This photograph is about the viewer as much as it is about the subject. It brings forward ideas of the ways in which viewers feel about themselves and the beauty standards they’ve either accepted or rejected. Your reaction to the subject’s hair texture, the parting, the knots, and even the shorter strands in the lower back of her head is a reflection of your own values. Some folks would look at this hair and immediately want to brush or gel or “tame” the back section. Some may admire the parting; some are wondering if she wears the Bantu knots as is or takes them down for a spiral curl look.

The date of the image, 1975, adds more depth. I see this photograph reflecting the present day. This hairstyle was one of the first that I tried when deciding to go natural. The photograph reminds us that someone somewhere is making a conscious decision to be their natural black selves, just like she was here, like I am now, and like many will in the future.

White supremacy has shaken the diasporic black community so vigorously, especially in the United States, that “being natural” is a very specific state. It acknowledges an uncommon, constant, and deliberate effort to not chemically manipulate your hair in aspiration for straighter strands. Barnor captures his muse just being—being a woman, being black, and being natural. This photograph is homage to the girls who would get home and hang their head down in their inner elbows, just like her, after a long day of bullying and ridicule for wearing their hair in styles that enhance rather than erase their Africanness. Barnor captures a still image of a very particular essence. An essence in her that many black women can relate to. The essence of being you.

Cite this page

James, Jada. “Jada James on James Barnor.” Tang Teaching Museum collections website. First published in Accelerate: Access & Inclusion at The Tang Teaching Museum 3 (2019).
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