*When I was a kid, hanging out in metro Detroit with my maternal grandmother was always a hoot. Her very arrival at our house always caused a stir — mainly because of her chalky skin and Lucille Ball-red hair. I was born red-headed, and always loved the story of my dad, upon seeing me in the hospital nursery, asking my mother who she’d been sleeping with. I grew up hearing “Who’s the white lady with your mom?” at every school function that “Ma” attended. I later learned that all of my grandmother’s sisters married white men and “passed” for white, living their entire lives just minutes from where I grew up.
It took a few years for me to realize that red hair and freckles weren’t a part of the norm for most black folks, and that there was a perception that they were traits held only by the whitest of the white. Under normal conditions, when activated by a particular hormone, the recessive MC1R gene generates the production of black or brown pigment in hair. In cases when both parents are carriers of the MC1R and the gene is mutated or antagonized, it fails to turn the hair darker and instead leaves a typically gorgeous buildup of red pigment.
According to the BBC News, less than two percent of the world’s population are redheads. In Ireland and Scotland, the redhead count is around 10 percent. As such, the word “ginger” typically connotes visions of people with Celtic-Germanic physical features — i.e. milky white skin. However, white folks aren’t the only redheads in the world, and according to the Huffington Post, French-born, London-based photographer Michelle Marshall’s new project is documenting the many manifestations of the MC1R gene, particularly in people of African descent.
Marshall’s images don’t just evoke memories of my beloved “Ma”. They are, simply, some of the most stunning head shots I’ve seen in a long time. The close-ups document every rogue hair and freckle, while challenging and expanding the dominant and extremely narrow understanding of who and what a “redhead” looks like.
“I want to stir the perception that most of us have of a “ginger” as a white caucasian individual, potentially of Celtic descent,” Marshall said in an email to the Huffington Post. “As we struggle with issues of immigration, discrimination and racial prejudice, Mother Nature, meanwhile, follows its own course, embracing society’s plurality and, in the process, shaking up our perceptions about origins, ethnicity and identity.”
The project, which Marshall refers to as a “visual census”, originally documented the different manifestations of freckles. Eventually, the project evolved and she set out to document as many Afro-Caribbean redheads as possible. So far, she has discovered all of her subjects on social media, via word of mouth, or by running into them on the street.
I wish “Ma” was still around to see Marshall’s collection, because I see a lot of her in Marshall’s photos. Who or what do you see?