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.
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.
I hear them in quiet moments.
These women with their mourning songs-
So hauntingly beautiful,
So hollow and wide
but always reaching my spirit in it’s darkest depths.
I sometimes call out to them to stop.
Knowing however, that I want nothing of the sort.
These women whose wails have created more life
and pleasure than can be comprehended.
They carry their mourning songs sewn and wrapped across their hearts.
These women with calloused hands that have cultivated and uprooted their hopes
and have faithfully watered the ego’s of pot-bellied husbands.
These mourning Women with their distant looks
and forgotten stories.
I have seen them many times before
in mirrors of the past and echos of the future
I shut my eyes and try to paint a lighter reflection-
one that demands less of my being.
She appears again, silent at first
And then her mourning song begins.
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.
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.
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
I am the whispers between the arch of the backless gown,
The beautiful black shadow that lingers
in the deserted alleyways.
I am the apartheid of femininity
the war on women,
and the voice shouting above the train.
I bow to your order,
Shedding myself as I go along.
Bringing gifts of silence to my matrimony of selves,
Holding within, thoughts of flight, of dreams, of hope.
I am the many who drift along the edges of this globe,
gliding over the circumference of existence,
trading in goods of sexual prowess and the need
to be loved.
Within myself, I see mirrors of who was, who is and-
who could never be.
I pay homage to the black sisters who wish themselves yellow,
Who pray chemicals over their kinky crowns,
who lift thighs high in salute to an identity
they have been thrusted.
I am the whispers, the prayers, the moans.
I am without but yet somewhere I am within.
Somewhere within, I am the beautiful black shadow that talks-
in the background.
Good day, how much for a husband?
I don’t mean those you only have for a decade or two
I’m looking for the kind that’ll be mine to keep.
So, how much for a husband? I ask again.
I won’t pay for one who cringes at the thought of female emancipation and equal rights.
And between you and I, he can be Black, White or even Both.
I don’t care too much for Religion either.
If I can order one today, that really would be best.
How much for a husband?
Who can cook and clean all right.
Who isn’t intimidated by my desire for power or dominance in bed.
So, how much for a husband? I ask again.
It is true; I am only shopping now since society has pinned me to the wall of appropriate gender roles.
The calls from not so distant ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ and the faint ring of a biological clock,
Have been enough to bring me shopping.
Good looks would be a bonus and only an extra charge though.
Simply hand me one who knows my rights and respects my thoughts.
Love is expensive on the market these days, I understand.
I will settle for one with good hygiene and some adequate knowledge of History please.
So, how much for a husband?