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The long history of Black hair in America took center stage at the Oscars

Jada Pinkett Smith at the Oscars on Sunday.
Mike Coppola
Getty Images
Jada Pinkett Smith at the Oscars on Sunday.

Will Smith has apologized for the dramatic turn of events at Sunday night's Academy Awards, in which the actor calmly marched across the Oscars stage and smacked presenter Chris Rock for a dig the comedian had taken at Jada Pinkett Smith and her shaved head.

The moment was bluntly condemned on Monday by the Academy. But the display — jarring as it was in a room of perfectly coiffed, elegantly dressed A-listers — led to what many in Black hair care saw as an unfortunate but important moment in the discussion of Black hair and what it means to protect Black women.

"Jada, I love you. GI Jane 2, can't wait to see you," Rock said as he prepared to present the award for best documentary feature.

Pinkett Smith has been vocal about her struggles with alopecia and appeared immediately uncomfortable at the barb. Initially, Will Smith seemed to laugh along with the joke, but mere moments after the bit had left Rock's mouth, Smith took to the stage and slapped the comedian, open palm, across the face.

"Wow," a stunned Rock said, followed by another sentence with an expletive.

Many online were quick to denounce the brief exchange between the two men as an unfortunate outburst of violence between two of Hollywood's living Black legends.

But to others, the moment, while perhaps unfortunately displayed at such a high-profile event, struck a chord.

For once, they said, here was a Black man publicly sticking up for his Black wife — and her Black hair — on a stage where Blackness has historically been overlooked or outright shunned.

"Our hair is our crown"

"You don't play about a black woman's hair, especially when you have alopecia," said Evelyn West, a Cincinnati braider who specializes in protective styles for Black women with alopecia.

West goes by the handle @LeomiaWest on TikTok and has been doing hair for nearly two decades. She is self-taught in styling Black women with severe hair loss.

"Our hair is our crown," West said. "[Rock] is making fun of her having alopecia, which is something that she cannot control."

"He won't make another joke like that again," West added.

Will Smith slaps Chris Rock onstage during the 94th Oscars on Sunday.
Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Will Smith slaps Chris Rock onstage during the 94th Oscars on Sunday.

That was a sentiment shared by some across social media, where Black women and gender minorities expressed dismay that Rock would seek to make Pinkett Smith's baldness a punchline, especially at an event that historically has been overwhelmingly white and male.

"Beyond offensive for Chris Rock, as the Black male host of a historically and predominantly white awards show honoring talent within an equally white industry, to get a chuckle out of his audience by making a Black woman's hair loss and autoimmune disorder the butt of a joke," one Twitter user wrote, garnering thousands of likes and retweets.

"The racial divide between these reactions to Will [Smith] is...interesting," wrote another. "Sorry but Chris Rock was vile for going after a chronically ill black woman over her hair."

The history of Black hair in America is littered with painful chemicals and processes meant to straighten Black curls and kinks to appeal more broadly to white audiences. Even up to the modern day, attempts to make Black people conform to white beauty standards have been officially sanctioned in classrooms and workplaces across the country.

As recently as last year, the U.S. Army announced changes to its grooming policies to allow for a broader range of hairstyles popular among Black people. And earlier this month, the U.S. House voted to pass the CROWN Act, which would ban race-based hair discrimination at work, federal programs and public accommodations.

Even among those who disagreed with Rock seeming to make light of Pinkett Smith's health issue, the issue of Smith engaging with the comedian physically was viewed as an unnecessary escalation of violence.

"I think Black people understood Will's reaction but did not necessarily condone it," said Kevin Jackson, a licensed cosmetologist and salon owner from New Rochelle, N.Y. "Of course violence is not something we want to promote. There are, however, limits to how much disrespect one can take."

Jackson works primarily with Black women, and at his studio, Before and After Salon, he specializes in hair extensions for women with alopecia.

Both Jackson and West — the Cincinnati hair braider — said their clients with alopecia have gone so far as to hide the extent of their hair loss even from their closest friends and family.

"I have clients who don't even allow their own husbands to see their hair in that state," said Jackson. "Their privacy is very important to them, and they take even more pride in their appearance. Seeing her face after the joke was made was definitely heartbreaking because you can tell it affected her deeply, which in turn prompted Will's reaction."

"He knew better"

That was a point that some social media users focused on, noting that Chris Rock had years earlier starred in a documentary called "Good Hair," which examines Black women's relationship to their hair and the historic precedent for modern Black hairstyles.

During the documentary, Rock sits down with celebrity interior designer Sheila Bridges, who famously sports a bald head — the result of her own battle with alopecia.

"In case you want to understand the trauma Jada and other Black women experience because of their hair, this clip is, ironically, from the #ChrisRock documentary "Good Hair". He absolutely knew better," one Twitter user noted.

After the slap, Will Smith was reportedly taken aside by actors Denzel Washington and Tyler Perry. During his later acceptance speech for best actor, Smith took a moment to apologize to the Academy and speak to his view on the importance of defending one's family.

"Now I know, to do what we do, you've got to be able to take abuse. You got to be able to have people talk crazy about you," Smith said, telling the crowd that he wants to be "a vessel for love" in a five-minute speech that earned him a standing ovation.

Late into the evening on Monday night, the day after the incident, Smith wrote an extended message on Instagram in which he apologized to Rock, explaining that the joke about his wife's medical condition had pushed him over the edge.

"Violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive. My behavior at last night's Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable. Jokes at my expense are a part of the job, but a joke about Jada's medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally," he wrote.

"I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris. I was out of line and I was wrong. I am embarrassed and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be. There is no place for violence in a world of love and kindness."

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Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.