Best Actress nominee Viola Davis did a thing that shocked the world on Oscar Night – she wore her hair.
Not hair she’d purchased or fundamentally reshaped, but the hair that had grown out of her head. Given the enormity of the shock, and subsequent discussion, I decided to re-up the following, in which I consider what seem to me to be the very painful facts surrounding black women’s relationship with their hair — but please also click through to this essay in Essence, by Demetria L. Lucas (“I don’t need to recap for any ESSENCE.com readers the love-hate affair that many Black women have with their hair”) — I can only ever be a person who writes from the outside of these issues, and it’s really important that white people listen directly to the people who live inside them.
I’ll start with this: This is not my business. Not.My.Business. I know that, and if any African-American readers want to tell me as much, I won’t be able to argue.
But last night, I watched Chris Rock’s documentary about black women and black women’s hair, called (very pointedly) Good Hair. And when I find something that profoundly disturbing, that’s usually a sign that I need to write about it, and so here I am.
I’ve known for years that the concept of “good hair” exists in the black community, and that it translates to “not nappy,” or (as I understand it) “as close as possible to white hair as black hair can get.” I have always understood “good hair” to be a statement of deep, internalized criticism, one that teaches little black girls (and little black boys) that there is something essentially not-good — or, in other words, bad — about black hair. About having black hair. About being black.
Why I had this awareness, I’m not sure. I spent some of my growing up in the home of my aunt and uncle, where I have two white cousins and one black one, but we were all very young, and they were working hard to let their boy-who-happened-to-be-black know that, in fact, being black was a very good thing. There were black dolls, books with black characters, subscriptions to Ebony, and Ebony Jr.
The awareness may have seeped in from there, or from the occasional comment by black figures in pop culture. I remember Whoopie Goldberg doing a bit about putting her slip on her head as a little girl, pretending it was long, blonde hair that would blow in the breeze. I can still see her, grown woman channeling the little girl, slip on her head, grinning, waving her head back and forth, back and forth.
I came into adulthood in a foreign land, but one dominated by American pop culture. I would see the ladies of En Vogue flipping their long, long, long hair, or Beyonce, or Naomi Campbell, or Tyra Banks, and honestly wince as I thought of what this was telling little black girls — about beauty, about self-worth. About their bodies. About their skin.
And then I moved back to America, and came to see another side to it: Sure, I rarely see a black woman whose hair is not relaxed — forced to “goodness” — but I also came to see how much creativity black women express with their hair. The wigs, the weaves, the veritable sculptures that some create with potions and props and sheer will. There’s an art there, one a white woman really can’t access or, likely, understand.
I came to see, also, that there’s a class issue, wrapped up in all the other issues. I once asked a black woman online about the effort involved in creating the almost cantilevered styles I see in the Chicago neighborhood six blocks west of my house, and she said, with an almost-audible sniff, “Oh, you mean the parade floats?” And I suddenly saw: Black women of a certain stripe do this, black women of another stripe do that, and if you’re a lawyer or want to be one? You’d better choose hair that no one would call a parade float.
And (once again thanks to some complicated series of internet links) I stumbled acrossthis video (for the longer — and very powerful — cut, click here, and to read more about it,click here) in which a black high school student recreated a 50-year old experiment with young black children, asking them to choose between a black or a white doll — “which is the nice doll?” — and, straight up, it made me cry. It broke my heart. Breaks my heart. No child should be walking around with such a powerful sense of being less. No one. No one.
So over the course of about the last three years, I’ve learned that whatever I thought I knew about black women and their hair — I really had no idea. I really wanted to see Good Hair when it came out in 2009, but missed it, so when the husband saw that it was available on On Demand, he immediately recorded it for me. And last night, I watched.
And I really had no idea.
According to the statistics offered in the film, the black community makes up 12% of the American population, but accounts for 80% of hair care expenses. It’s a huge, huge, multi-billion dollar industry that by-and-large funnels up to white-owned cosmetics firms, but also has a few black millionaires in its ranks, not to mention the thousands of black-owned beauty shops, supporting countless black families and black dreams. The anchor of the film was the annual Bronner Brothers hair show, in Atlanta, and if you’re looking for personal creativity, look no further: Creativity and energy and a real commitment to excellence.
And a whole lot of chemicals and other people’s hair and anything and everything that looks almost nothing at all like the hair that black women actually have growing out of their heads. As one of Rock’s interviewees said, if you’re a black woman and you just let your hair grow out of your head in its natural state, “that’s revolutionary.”
And the chemicals are dangerous and corrosive (when Rock told a white chemist [just after watching the active ingredient in hair relaxers eat through a piece of raw chicken] that black women use that same chemical on their hair, the chemist was visibly shocked: “Why?!” was all he could say), and the weaves insanely expensive (just the weave itself can regularly cost anywhere from $1000 to $3500, and that doesn’t include the constant professional maintenance they demand), and the whole process literally creates a barrier to intimacy between black women and black men — because when you’ve invested that much in your hair, pretty much nobody had better touch it.
“It’s decoration,” one stunning young woman says with a smile, “it’s decoration. Don’t touch it.”
And I suppose now is the place at which we (finally) get to the point of this being Not.My.Business.
Because the whole thing just left me so sad. So beat down, even.
It was like watching beautiful women talk about their lifetime of dieting, their tricks for dressing to look thinner, their methods for cutting calories during the holidays, smiling broadly over their successes and also kind of (a little bit) laughing at themselves for the obsession, while yet maintaining and feeding the obsession. Like watching mothers tell their little girls not to eat, that they won’t get what they want if they allow their bodies to be something other than slim, while at the same time hearing their men complain about not being able to just eat a damn dessert now and then.
Both sides feeding into a self-destructive, self-denying, self-loathing system that neither side fully recognizes but which each side plays a part in perpetuating. The women serving as their own police force — as any oppressed society does — leaving the men to be baffled by something that ultimately serves their needs and their position of (relative) power.
With (in this case) the willing, willed, and sometimes completely unknowing collaboration of the majority white culture, which is setting the standard for beauty and, more than that — the standard for acceptable. Normative. Human.
If black women stop wanting straight hair, where will the industry go? How will those white-owned cosmetics firms turn a profit? Racism, sexism, class, and the basest of capitalist impulses, and all played out literally on the heads of one of this society’s least enfranchised groups. As the Rev. Al Sharpton (who, it should be noted, relaxes his own hair) put it to Chris Rock: “You’re literally wearing your economic oppression.”
Bottom line, every person on earth has the right to do whatever they want with their hair — just as every woman has the right to decide if she’s going to put effort into re-shaping her body, and every gay person has the right to decide if they’re going to be out or not.
Moreover, every such decision is the result of a hundred different little factors, many of which are entirely invisible to the naked eye. Not to mention that human creativity is not to be denied, or belittled.
But it seems clear to me that — just as with the in/out decisions in the LGBTQ community, and the accept/change-my-body decisions among women generally — as black women continue to spend billions of dollars and risk actual, objective physical harm in order to approximate a kind of hair that can only be called the-opposite-of-black, the decisions made are heavily influenced by societal pressures that undermine their value — their humanity — at every turn.
It saddens me, and it disturbs me, and frankly, it seems like a horrible waste — and not just of money and skin cells. I think of all the time and energy that women spend on body image, and LGBTQ people spend on the closet, and black women spend on their hair, and I wonder:
What would America look like — what would the society in which I live, breath, vote, love, work, and raise children look like — if we could allow each other and ourselves to live in our own skin? Black girls and women included.