What’s Wrong With This Picture?

He flosses his fro proudly.

She? Not so much…

Black women have been laying down their hair since colonialism gave us the idea that “blackness” was synonymous with poverty and inferiority. Of course, we accept this as an incidental hangover from those times, seldom holding up this (or other) practices from examination. For one thing, women in general are encouraged to view long hair as alluring. Men enforce that standard by chasing the ponytailed vixens down the road. (God forbid her face don’t match that tail.) It isn’t as if black nappy hair does not have its beauty but that beauty gets hidden in words like kinky and nappy. They are words that connote that same inferiority in many European accounts. Even Herodotus described Africans as men and women with troublesome hair and big smiles.

I have to take some personal responsibility for my own preferences. In my first summer at Morehouse College, I spotted across the yard four fair-skinned young women from Spelman and made it known to my peers how fine I thought they were. A truculent young man named Shomari pointed it out to me that I had been perfectly “programmed” to issue that response about any four Light Brights I saw. Having already seen Mo Better Blues, crushed on all manner and color of black woman, listened to Black Star, reconciled my love for black women as pure, I carefully dissected his presumptions and dismissed him. Shomari was on to something, all right, but not as far as it concerned my predilections. I was wrong though. It’s not as if I would consciously choose light skin over dark skin or even straight hair over curly hair but my so-called preferences were playing out like biases in my life. I dated girls who fit that bill to a tee. My sweet at the time was a high-yella Afro-Dominican sensation with long tendrils surrounding her face. I won’t resort to the self-hatred argument, however, because I’ve always espoused personal and communal empowerment among black peoples. I have never wanted to be far away from black families or black life and, in times where I was, I felt irrefutably dislodged. Then again, the straight-haired, fair-skinned attraction gnawed at me so.

A very close friend of mine is going through the mid-twenties black female transition of wanting to remove all ritualistic negativity from her hair roots. She wants to uproot all that relaxed, deadened hair and try to find what was there before it. I want to show her my support but also to examine why I’ve never so much as mentioned my feelings about perming/relaxing treatments to anyone but her. First, a woman is entitled to feel any way that she wants to feel and to wear her hair in any style she likes. Lord knows every corner of society is throwing her an image or an opinion for suggested adherence. The independent moments are thus valuable. For the women who do add lye to their roots without it affecting their sense of identity: more power to you. Maybe my silence stemmed from the conception that black women have been knowing what they were doing with their mops long before I ever gave it a thought. My mother sat in hair salons with white cream sizzling in her scalp more Saturdays than my age so she must know intuitively what makes sense for her. For someone to wrap her hair preciously in a cloth scarf, night after night, sometimes with rollers, meant it was an important measure. I still don’t believe my mother compromises her identity by doing it because, well, she doesn’t think so.

On the other hand, I’ve heard just the opposite about hair management from ritual relaxers. Some women have told me how flat it leaves their hair or how hard it is to present once that chemical has taken its course. And forget about getting a black woman with a fresh perm to come meet you on a rainy day. That’s like breaking an unwritten commandment. All of those factors led me to believe that perhaps identity (personal, professional, sexual) was absolutely entangled in the hairs of our forebears. Without explaining in detail the relationship between the Master’s wife and the female slave of carnal interest, I’ll hint that it was beneficial for the female slave to maintain some imitative beauty ideals to offset her exoticism. In short, perm that hair but keep the bush natural. Vulgarity aside, the relaxed hair has allowed black women to exist in the space of other women of all descents by showing it long (if not strong). Having a flowing mane can make any woman feel entitled to a fair shake. You ever peep a hair commercial and try to count the number of times hair is flipped, twirled, bounced, swung or primped? That’s all sensual overture making its way into the minds of every woman on the planet.

The black hair process bespeaks tragedy in ways that no advertisement could show. Balding women, scarred from the chemical treatments, resort to hair weaves, transplants and the like just to restore a sense of womanhood. Worse yet, women who do not bald completely watch their hair become a limp mess of proteins, or look high and low for the miracle hairdresser who will repair it to bouncy ideals. When no such savior comes, it’s years of laboring with hair that’s assumed the qualities of an experiment gone awry. So, although not every black woman will seek liberation through natural hair, a good number of them have done so. The Black Power movement urged women to disabuse themselves of hair notions previously taught by their mothers. Among other aesthetic signatures, the Afro made it all right to be black and stylishly defiant. Since our generation has only scant traces of the aesthetic shift left to consume, relaxed hair is a la mode once more. But a change gon’ come. And as with many other changes in the Web 2.0 generation, it will comb through our cities by way of YouTube hits.

Sweet science right?

My friend sought inspiration for her hair alteration in the form of some liberating blogs and found — lo and behold — multifarious video documentation of hair chopping from black women near her age. What can’t be found in the general population surely finds a niche on the internet in seconds. From the School Daze scene “Good and Bad Hair” we get the comical battle between nappies and wavies, between dark and light. Most of all, we can perceive, years later, just how strong an internal conflict it presents for any young black girl trying to feel good about herself.

Wannabes vs. Jigaboos?

Aside from my unspecific observations about the difference between these two groups of women: one dark, one light; one elitist Southern Belle, one Round the Way Girl; there are palpable clashes like this one even in a single woman’s mind. Spike Lee represents this feminine conundrum with more aplomb than usual. He has been infamously stingy with his female representations in other work but his commitment to this topic shows. I’ve been infamously stingy my damn self when it comes to hair issues and my black female counterparts. I’ve never rejected a girl based on hair texture but, in this case my sin has been negligence of the difficulty. The most I’ll do to my own hair (reluctantly I might add) is go to a local barber to get trimmed. I couldn’t imagine having to go to a salon to wash it, treat it or even touch it thoroughly. That amounts to indoctrination now that I think of it, and in the physical place where it matters most.

The resistance videos:

Following the links will lead you into a world of video blogs from women who feel confident, surprised, relieved, empowered, scared, newborn, vibrant and original. Identity radiates each time. I used to have a laugh about girls who went to college and realized they wanted natural hair, calling it a frivolous phase about as relevant as the “pot-smoking” senior year or the sorority rush period. In fact, identity is a crucial part of life for everyone and likely the part I’ve missed out on in attempts to remain as far away from group trends as possible. In this community of hair-choppers there is more powerful identity than anything I’ve deigned to experience.

I should get every one of them together to write a book about it.


4 Responses to “What’s Wrong With This Picture?”

  1. 1 Lil debbie January 11, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    i think u should go natural too ๐Ÿ™‚ lol

  2. 2 Lil debbie January 11, 2008 at 11:37 pm

    i think u should go natural too ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. 3 Jared Lister January 12, 2008 at 10:15 pm

    I really admire what you’re doing here and in your post on Obama and tangential questions of fatherhood/motherhood.

    In the last week alone, there has been a lot of talk both implicitly and explicitly based on a divisive separation of the oppositional movements I am desperate for (admittedly, these are meager antisystemic moves firmly rooted within (and vouched for by) the depressingly “centrist” Democratic party). I think such a division of “spheres” is at best naive and at worst – more likely at worst – self-sabotaging. Between Roseanne Barr’s borderline incomprehensible diatribe against Senator Obama and Gloria Steinem’s Times Op-Ed, it seems that the most legitimate varieties of “Obama-backlash” are being led by those seeking to privilege the representation of women in big politics (in the form of a Hillary Clinton candidacy) to those of black Americans (in the form of a Barack Obama candidacy). This, to me, has to be exposed and emptied of value by the kind of thinking that, as you get at here, disavows a baldly patriarchal representation of black American culture, and rails against disabling internecine disputes among the so-called left. If we hadn’t learned it already from the past 150 years of American history, then I hope that the Nader-Gore fiasco of 2000 has finally taught those of us who are extremely angry with the world and depressed by the present to be a little more goddamn savvy with our political maneuvers. I hope that the debate over the Democratic primaries will not turn into a power-grab between two spheres that are clearly much better considered as one. Democratic formulations of a black culture supportive of and dependent on black women swiftly dismantle the sort of gainsaying exemplified by Barr and Steinem.

    I’m totally off-track now, and blatantly open to rebuttal and rebuke. But I think this matters a lot. At any rate, what I wanted to get over was that this piece reminded me a TON of a Cornel West argument I remembered reading a few years ago, so I went and found it and transcribed part of it below, from Race Matters… Hope it’s interesting or useful to you, Drew.

    “The eclipse of hope and collapse of meaning in much of black America is linked to the structural dynamics of corporate market institutions that affect all Americans. Under these circumstances black existential angst derives from the lived experience of ontological wounds and emotional scars inflicted by white supremacist beliefs and images permeating U.S society and culture. These beliefs and images attack black intelligence, black ability, black beauty, and black character daily in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye, for example, reveals the devastating effect of pervasive European ideals of beauty on the self-image of young black women. Morrison’s exposure of the harmful extent to which these white ideals of beauty affect the black self-image is a first step toward rejecting these ideals and overcoming the nihilistic self-loathing they engender in blacks” (West 27-8).

  4. 4 C W January 15, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    That’s why I haven’t looked back since the last relaxer in 2000

    Wooo Hooo! Now That’s Freedom!

    BWDB http://thecwexperience.wordpress.com

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