Politics of Black Hair (part 2): Social Regulation of Black Hair Texture

This piece, on the social regulation of black hair is the second part of my Politics of Black Hair series that was featured in the Earlham College student-run newspaper.

Historically, Black hair has frequently earned a reputation of being “unruly” and “unmanageable” with specific focus on it’s oftentimes kinky texture. It is such labels that aided the development and dependency of many black women upon hair chemicals (a multi-million dollar industry1 ) that promised the popular and socially accepted Eurocentric ideal of “good hair”, albeit temporarily. Perpetuation of ideas on what “good hair” must look like and how far black hair is from this idea, has worked to produce much of the social bias that many black people face within the workplace, school and in daily interactions.

Although the natural hair movement, has helped to sensitize and draw awareness about the beauty of black hair, there are still inherent problems with the way black hair texture is viewed. Because acceptable hair texture has often leaned towards the Eurocentric ideal, hair that could at least somehow “pass” as mirroring or attempting to mirror this Eurocentric ideal has usually been accepted within societies, both black and white. In Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary, Good Hair, we are taken into the complex and oftentimes expensive world of Black hair care and the lengths at which black people must be prepared to go, in order to achieve a socially acceptable image of themselves and more specifically, of their hair. Although the natural hair movement, has helped to sensitize and draw awareness about the beauty of black hair, there are still inherent problems with the way black hair texture is viewed. Because acceptable hair texture has often leaned towards the Eurocentric ideal, hair that could at least somehow “pass” as mirroring or attempting to mirror this Eurocentric ideal has usually been accepted within societies, both black and white.

Regulation of Black hair in the workplace is one of the most blatant forms of discrimination against people of color but also against the natural state of Black hair. In their opinion editorial entitled, “When Black Hair Is Against the Rules2 ” (2014), Ayana Byrd and Lori L.Tharps, authors of “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America” (2001) demonstrate how the US Army’s decision to revise its appearance and grooming policy, disproportionately affected Black women and their hair. The 2014 policy was said to “refer to hairstyles like cornrows, braids, twists and dreadlocks” while “severely limiting or banning them outright.” Specific language within the policy also referred to these styles as “matted” and “unkempt.”3 Although the policy has since been revised, such action conveys a clear message to black people: The US Army will not accept your natural as it is, alter it or prepare to face the consequences. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that social regulations on Black hair are perpetuated by Black and White people alike, who staunchly believe in the inherent inferiority of black hair. However, the best-kept secret still remains: Black hair should not need reform, rather it is the unhealthy ideals of Eurocentric beauty, unequal racial structures and power dynamics that need to be abolished.

 

Politics of Black Hair (part 1): Black Hair and Petting Zoo’s

As a young girl my mother’s decision to make me wear my hair in it’s natural state (without any chemical products) largely made me an anomaly amongst my caucasian friends but a symbol of celebration for its length and volume amongst my black friends.

I would grow up to expect the “oohing” and “aahing” of non-African’s at the sight of my hair, followed by the occasional, “can I touch it?” or “how often do you wash it?”. I will admit, some experiences were better than others but not one left me feeling necessarily good about myself or the attention that my hair provided me simply because I did not see individuals of other races being riddled with questions about the “management” of their hair. Disclaimer: In making these statements, I do not attempt to speak for the entire Black race or individuals who share hair textures that deviate from silky and straight. Although my experiences concerning my hair stem far beyond the time I have spent in the United States, I will have to admit that living in the US has opened up me to several new dimensions of the black hair discussion.

The attention that black hair garners whether in it’s natural state or in other styles such as wigs, crotchet braids or braiding extensions has often left me weary. Weary of explaining the “how’s” and the “whys”, weary of defending that black women’s decision on how they choose to wear their hair should be left to each woman as an individual and not a collective and weary of feeling like an animal at a petting zoo. The general inability for black hair to simply exist without question or analysis is frustrating, to say the least, and although there is so much discussion on the topic, so much ignorance still pervades the issue. In her internationally acclaimed novel, Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie demonstrates the difficulties that the protagonist, Ifemelu faces in deciding how to wear her hair and the consequences that arise from either wearing it naturally or using chemical products. Although Adichie helped to provide a platform for the discussion of the politicization of black hair, much more needs to be done. So my advice to anyone who feels the urge to grab a braid or quiz a black woman about the texture of her hair is to Stop! you are not at the petting zoo.Black Hair Collumn

Black Gold

I am Black Gold

They try to crack the ridges

And ends of my being

but my armor is impermeable.

They try to sing my freedom songs

And buy my history.

I am Black Gold

My calloused memory

Retains the path of my ancestors

Whipped and raped

Forced to grovel

But continuing to rise.

I am Black Gold

They try to resist the flowers that bloom within me

Telling me there is no place for my beauty

Rejecting my roots

And defining my identities

While erasing my mother tongue.

I am Black Gold

They teach me to walk straight

To tilt my hat

To hide my colors

But to open my legs

And to always keep my mind shut.

I am Black Gold

Sold by my brothers

Who saw their reflections in the mirrors

But did not see the evil of their ways

Who prayed to a God of a color

That bore no resemblance to their own

I am Black Gold

I stand tall and break free

I have found my way home

In the belly of the Niger River

I found love in the blackness

And I have made peace with it all.

Along the lines of truth

And they keep telling me: my Black is beautiful.

As though this new revelation should surprise me.

Shock me, into

appreciating my existence, and to be grateful for my borrowed space.

and time.

How do they know I do not bow to my temple of blackness daily?

and pay homage often to the struggles whitened out in history texts?

They encourage me to accept my wide heavy hips and thick thighs.

They speak in weak tones of expression of inner beauty and imitations of color blindness,

Who are these that dictate what my reflections should sing?

Those who trap my stories in a box

Those who describe me as one thing.

One beautiful Black thing.

Why should i be defined, aligned and understood?

they teach me to know myself, while

always fearing i will recognize the lies behind their borrowed truths

and hand-woven sermons

Having produced an image of me that they find palatable and comfortable,

they clip my wings and demand i soar.

Mother, A wonderful Headache you gave me

And Mother,

You only ever taught me to love and to be true,

Assuring me that this was enough armor to meet the world with.

And Mother,

You prepared me to hope in the stars and pray to the winds.

And Mother,

You promised that faith could conquer all battles.

And Mother,

You made me understand the pain of others before my own.

And Mother,

You taught me to sooth the wounds on the backs of my foes.

And Mother,

You showed me that wisdom would always dwell in the rows of cornrows that lay upon my head.

And Mother,

You sang the hymns on the misery of wars un-fought.

And Mother,

You decorated my childhood with stories of the evils of men.

But Mother,

You taught me to be silent too soon and

too often.

The Many Falling Queens

Young girl, I pray you see these vultures hovering over you.
They prey on innocence.
Taking blood when able.
How can you decipher their evils?
My young one, they will come bearing gifts
of perfumed prose,
that may seem heartfelt but is rather a memorized eulogy.
Silky phrases that plead the divergence of legs,
and the raising of hips.

Young girl, I pray you believe your worth.
Immeasurable and unquantifiable.
Young girl, I pray you learn to love the broken reflection.
Tender and complex.
Young girl, it might seem like you will never win,
in this game of greed and falling queens.
But know this
That the worst of the vultures,
that suck you dry, leaving you hollow and barren
They are birthed
out of you

The beauty of creation

Pulling him to her breast,
She realized what she feared was the newness.
The feeling that perhaps
This moment had never occurred before and so,
the burden of creating something completely new had been given to them:
these young reckless lovers.
Who knew nothing more than to give of themselves,
Hungry, not to conquer but to be conquered.
They reeked of passion,
blinding and burning.
But even in the midst of passion,
She found herself gasping and wondering if the burden was too heavy.
As she moulded her body alongside his,
would this be enough?
She realized what she feared was the newness.
The beauty of creation that lay in the sandy horizon
And the failure of never reaching it,
blanketed her naked statue.

Nameless man

I fell in love
with his words,
That draped comfort
over the damp walls of my
solitude.
He was without a face,
but his voice echoed rhythms
that drummed resurrection within me.
He fell between the cracks,
He stepped over the broken shards
of a fragile identity.
Painting portraits upon my lips,
He
loved
me
slowly.
He curtained sunshine over my heart
and wrote peace under the soles of my feet.
We moved in melodies in midnight whispers.
caressing the complex knots of sorrow
between these legs,
he forgave the confusion of love.
Kissing life into the emptiness of my past.
He dwelled deep within me.

The women underwater

I speak for
The women underwater.
Those who have not drowned
But have adopted the art of sinking
Beneath.
Beneath themselves
And
Below the world.
They stand like unmoved pillars.
Waiting with no expectation.
Who are these women?
They that navigate the dark ocean depths,
with the familiarity of a well known story.

I speak for
The women who have studied the art of invisibility
and apologize their identities,
over their spread legs and wetness.
Who have learnt guilt to be synonymous with happiness.
They lurk between themselves
and around concrete walls.
Holding their breath
and wishing drops of joy
to fall above them.
On their way to nowhere,
They move silently.
These are the women underwater.