We here at Black Girls Rock! totally understand how, at one point or another, hair has has played a significant role in a black girl’s life. Our complicated relationship to our hair stems back centuries ago to the time of slavery, when our hair texture and skin color served as the main signifiers of our African heritage. Pulitzer Prize-winner Toni Morrison has featured hair as a primary subject in her groundbreaking novels Sula, The Bluest Eye and Tar Baby, along with a number of other black authors concerned with addressing the black female identity.
Today, “sales of home relaxers total $45.6 million (excluding Wal-Mart),” while inner-city Black communities are sprinkled with black hair salons about every two blocks. Hundreds upon thousands of black women have created websites, blogs, and online photo albums critiquing, lamenting, and celebrating their hair, whether it be relaxed, natural, or in transition between both. And, who could forget the long hours they’ve spent getting their hair “did” by either their mother, various family members, a friend, or a stranger? The age-old debate surrounding “good” versus “bad” hair can also be found within this complex legacy.
Recently, comedian Chris Rock has decided to bring this debate to a much larger platform–the silver screen. Puzzled by why his daughter would question the value of her hair, Rock went on a mission to uncover the source of this self-deprecation by creating a documentary aptly-titled “Good Hair,” which won the jury prize at Sundance. Peep the trailer below:
But why did it take a man to bring black womens’ historic struggles with their hair to the forefront?
Well, realizing the amount of buzz Rock’s documentary has been generating, The New York Times promptly featured an article intending to shed light on not only the “good/bad” hair debate, but black hair in general. Judging by the introductory nature of the article, black women were not the target audience. Consequently, the article seems superficial and plain ol’ tired to the same subjects that the author attempts to analyze. We’ve heard all this before! As in most issues that involve both race and gender, the author eventually makes an effort to transcend the racial component of the debate all together:
For many people no matter their race or hair texture, accepting yourself “as you are” is a high bar. The history of beauty is one of dissatisfaction and transformation: brunettes become blondes; white women get their curly hair Japanese-straightened.
Sigh. No. No. No. This is the reason why discussions surrounding black hair always seems to ambiguously trail off without anyone having gotten to the bottom of things. The issue of gender and the role that beauty plays in women’s social identification gets the spotlight because no one either wishes to or even knows how to touch on the centuries-old racism that is inextricably tied to black women’s social identification. Prominent black feminist scholar bell hooks explains this same entanglement in her 1988 article “Straightening My Hair“:
Irrespective of the way individual black women choose to do their hair, it is evident that the extent to which we suffer from racist and sexist oppression and exploitation affects the degree to which we feel capable of both self-love and asserting an autonomous presence that is acceptable and pleasing to ourselves. Individual preferences (whether rooted in self-hate or not) cannot negate the reality that our collective obsession with straightening black hair reflects the psychology of oppression and the impact of racist colonization. Together racism and sexism daily reinforce to all black females via the media, advertizing, etc. that we will not be considered beautiful or desirable if we do not change ourselves, especially our hair. We cannot resist this socialization if we deny that white supremacy informs our efforts to construct self and identity.
Rock on, bell hooks! As hooks’ analysis demonstrates, seemingly-trivial debates such as “good/bad” hair stem back deeply to much more disastrous roots. So now I dare you, go forth and analyze what black hair means to you (“It’s just hair” will not suffice), remember that anything worth figuring out is, initially, never simple!
What are your thoughts on black hair? Have your own hair story to share with BGR? Thoughts on the NYT article? Feel free to leave comments!