My hair grows like my thoughts: up, out, intertwined and expansive if I leave them to their own devices. After years of wearing my hair in braids or chemically straightened, I finally convinced those around me that I would be better off letting my hair go its own way without harsh chemicals. Kicking the “creamy crack” habit (that’s no-lye hair relaxer for newcomers) was liberating. The management and care time for my hair was equal to the time when I had it relaxed.
Relaxed. What a joke of a name for chemically altering the texture of my hair. I personally never felt relaxed with a relaxer. My hair is very thick; so I always had to use a lot of no-lye white napalm to manage with the fine tooth-combs and to wear the surgically-inserted parts in my hair. You always left relaxer in a little too long, trying to outlast that burning sensation so it settles through your hair. Common mantra: “it’s burning; that means it’s working.” And there is no greater frustration than a botched relaxer treatment; your hair looks like it had a bad encounter with a straightening comb and a light socket.
With relaxer-free living, I regained the freedom to scratch my scalp when it itched, without worrying about the next treatment leaving painful sores in my head. I could run in the rain without horrible repercussions. It may not be fully au naturale, but it is close enough to give me relief and respect for my hair.
I have been blessed to know many black women who wear their hair in many different ways. From completely bald to locs to weaves to braids to wigs to the simple wrap style, the women in my life and around it have found a myriad of ways to keep their hair unique and true to their individual styles. Colors and cuts are no strangers to our heads, either. So where are all the ideas that black women are not living and surviving with the hair they have (whether bought, sheared, or homegrown) coming from?
Not us. We are as “have hair; will travel (whether you like it or not)” as anybody else.
The ideas and myths come from the outside, of course. Our battles with the white establishment over our presentation stem partly from a backhanded discussion of our “conflicts” with our hair. This discussion did not originate with us, and for that reason the discussion never ends. Some hair practices are healthier than others; but it’s no different than when white women get curly perms or models routinely get extensions added to make their hair appear to have more volume. So the important question is… how do we kill the myths and superiority complexes surrounding black women’s hair care?
The myths themselves are belittling and inane, and they occupy their own category in the never-ending fictional quest of black women and black people working to earn the purest approval of white folks everywhere. First, all black women are born with hair the texture of steel wool. Second, from the time we can talk, we obsess about the idea of having “good hair,” the stuff Pantene Pro-V advertisements are made of: it’s straight or gracefully waved, it’s silky, it has a near-metallic luster, and it touches the small of our backs.
Black women who opt for relaxer treatments are hydrophobic — they avoid rain, they avoid steam, and they even put off exercising to preserve their tresses (which leads to our terminal obesity and our need to be curvaceous for our men; it’s all in the article). Finally, there are camps of black women hurling insults at each other from different sides of the dividing line: status quo women who ignore the implications of subscribing to an European standard of beauty, and natural Afrocentric women who love themselves and raise their middle fingers to The Man for trying to change them.
Black women, however, are figuring out a secret to living with their choices: do what you need to do to survive. We wear ourselves out trying to survive. We have enough stresses beyond our tresses; so white people’s obsessions about making sure we understand its ideals will have to wait. As long as our hair is tidy and managed, does it really matter the form or style? So long as it pleases us and it is healthy, it’s bound to please someone.
Articles like the recent New York Times piece by Catherine Saint Louis do not help debunk these myths; in fact, they entrench the idea that what a black woman decides to do with her hair depends exclusively on external perception. The article dedicates a throwaway remark to the notion of some black parents not understanding how to care for a black girl’s tightly curled hair. It’s not widespread knowledge to comb the hair with a wide tooth-comb, to keep the hair relatively damp while handling it, to starting from the ends of the hair and combing until you reach the roots. And without that knowledge, hair incompetence can be abusive.
I personally think that some people of color who are also media writers occasionally trot these articles out in order to enlighten largely white audiences about a seemingly banal subject, and I’m not alone
It’s too hard to discuss disparities in health care among races, the racial disparities in prison sentencing on Black Americans, or the anatomy of racially-motivated attacks on the Obama family and administration.
Let’s see: the media merely can point out some conservatives felt it proper to lambast an 11-year-old black child about her hair presentation… or it can start a larger impartial conversation about the value of attacking children in political families about their presentation period. The former is lukewarm and just raises eyebrows; the latter may actually spark thought and meaningful discussion… The former wins!
Black women’s hair is as diverse as our skin color, and our attitudes about hair should be treated the same way. Each of us chooses to treat our hair differently, and that decision should not be relegated to a one-sentence acknowledgment in a larger discussion of our personal styles. But somehow the way we respond to outside pressures with our hair presentation has evolved into a pathology studying our hair care industry, black culture and reality.
Cursory media glimpses to satisfy white curiosity will not encourage a quality conversation among black people about why people (of all races and cultures) snapped on Solange when she revealed her close-cut curls, for example. It’s no coincidence that people compared her to Britney Spears: any woman who completely removes all or most of her hair in this Eurocentric long-locked beauty culture is considered crazy or deranged, especially if they’re a woman of color who isn’t a supermodel. When will the New York Times dig into this meaty treatise about why women can’t do as they please with their hair?
I’m hoping that Chris Rock’s upcoming documentary, “Good Hair,” becomes a game changer for how society views the racial politics of beauty standards. Since it’s from Chris Rock it’s bound to be funny; however, confronting the realities of what the chemicals, wigs and accommodations put black women through can have serious implications on the hair discourse. But these conversations are for our consumption and our community only. The same media machines that permit Don “Nappy Headed Hos” Imus and D. L. “They Are Nappy Headed Though” Hughley to work on a regular basis should not be guiding any perspective piece on anyone’s hair. And the views of both of these men represent a cultural problem that goes deeper than a psychological analysis of why black women choose what they choose.
Once society realizes its hang-ups are limited to its own misconceptions and needs for control, I’m certain a burden will ease off my nappy, beautiful head and the heads of my sisters.
*Author’s Note: I needed a kitschy title that didn’t involve tangles, knots, kinks, or any other half-assed pun about black women’s hair being unmanageable — yet another myth. Hair: The Musical was taken, and this kind of periodic hair concern trolling is a prime example of a song and dance.