Saturday, September 5, 2009

Nappy On and In My Head ...a stream of consciousness

Once upon a time I started a beauty blog to compile media for women who wanted to learn more techniques for managing their "napptural" (nappy, natural) hair but who didn't want to limit themselves to dreads  braids or weaves. I'm sorry but those seem like the only options for black women without a chemical relaxer. Sadly, I didn't do much with this blog. Here is an entry from that blog. The date above reflects the original post.

I know natural hair is versatile  So why are the only style options in magazines dreads  braids, or weaves? In the spring of 2006 I left go of my creamy crack habit to begin wearing my hair as God intended. This may not seem like a big deal, as most of you have worn your hair as it grows from your scalp all your lives. Wash, blow dry (maybe) and go. You may wonder why all this natural hair hooplah calls for such thought and attention. The answer is complicated, my dear. People direct documentaries and write dissertations trying to explain the politics of black hair. I'll try my best to explain.

In America, beauty standards were (and still, to a large extent) extremely one tracked. Since the majority of the country is of European descent and had a controlling interest in the media, it is only natural that beauty standards would be derived around what is beautiful to them. That pretty much left my dark skin and tightly coiled hair out of the picture.  You can only imagine what this can do to a young child's self-esteem. Society tells you "you're black, you're poor, you're ugly, you're a woman, you're nothing at all," as "Mister" so eloquently put it in the movie The Color Purple. Think I'm exaggerating, here are some recent stories that revolve around black hair.
Non-blacks look at nappy hair in either in disgust or with intrigue, but blacks, sometimes don't make it better. Blacks who are less phenotypically African often poke fun at darker or nappier folk for not having "good hair." Take a peek at this video from Spike Lee's School Daze.
There weren't many images black women could truly identify with in the media. Sure, by the time I came along there were a few positive images of blacks in the media, but the vast majority were black of lighter skin tones, a less threatening image, I guess, for a Eurocentric America. So I did what many others did or felt they had to do; I attempted to assimilate to the standard by burning my scalp (especially when you scratch before applying) with chemical relaxers to have the bone straight look become my norm. (If you've never seen the conk scene in Spike Lee's Malcolm X, you need to in order to understand the desperation one has to get a relaxer out of their hair.)  Once my hair started growing out and my natural texture began to show, I'd have to run and buy a box of "perm" (what us black women call hair relaxer) for a touch up to keep the look up and also to minimize breakage. (The point where the new growth and relaxed hair meet is very fragile. So keeping the entire head relaxed maintains the hair's consistency and is less likely to break.) I understand straightening one's hair for a short period of time, you know, working your hair like an accessory, alternating straight and coily as the mood hits you, but the problem black women face is our options for stylistic expression with our hair is always judged (for the worse) by society. Kinky hair is looked down upon so black women endure all of this torture to make an unnatural style look permanent. It blows my mind how my hair's natural state is radical, yet chemical alteration is seen as normal. Millions of people still do buy into this beauty standard. Madam C.J. Walker made a fortune transforming tightly coiled kinks into flowing tresses at the beginning of the 20th century. The Koreans have taken over the hair care industry now and boy, do black women keep them in the black! The bottom line: your hair is your glory and should not be a source of shame. And under no circumstance should anyone be brainwashed into detesting the natural state of their hair because others find it unacceptable or not beautiful.

There are many women who relax their hair simply because it's a lot easier to care for. True, but the reality of this situation goes beyond ease of care; job security, housing selection, even finding a mate are opportunities that may be lost all because a boss, landlord, lender, or potential mate dislikes your hair and/or makes assumptions about your personality based upon it. I'm not talking about, "Oh, Suzy has wavy hair with sun bleached streaks. Uh-oh, we may have a beach bum on our hands." I'm talking, " Oh, God! Cheka has an afro, twisty thing going on. Reminds me of rebellious negroes of the 60s or she must be a diva with a 'tude" or  "It's not attractive/groomed." For those of you who know me personally, you know both opinions are far from the truth, but I realize how my hair can be misinterpreted. I remember back when I was an undergrad I talked about going natural to some older black women I respected, one with a relaxer and the other with a Jheri curl.  (Yes, one of the ladies thought her greasy, drippy Jheri curl was "superior" to my NATURAL hair. SMH. Cue the Soul Glo commercial from Coming to America.) They tried their hardest to talk me out of returning natural, thinking it would limit my opportunities for professional advancement. I wore wigs while I thought it out. They covered my head an entire year before my natural hair saw the light of day! To avoid all of this drama, some black women just say "pass the creamy crack" to get the straight look so approved by the majority. [I wanted to post a video clip from the 1990s urban sit-com "Living Single." It was a great show, one of my favorites. One episode in particular is so appropriate for this blog entry. It's called "A Hair Razing Experience (episode description link)." One of the protagonists believes his opportunity to excel in his firm is threatened because a co-worker makes him feel his hair isn't corporate enough.)]

The whole good hair/bad hair toxic way of thinking of not unique to the USA; I experienced it when I lived in El Valle del Chota, an AfroEcuadorian community located in the northern Andes of the country. There was extreme diversity among skin tone, hair type, physical build, all of which were beautiful. With respect to beauty standards, the most fact about the region was that ten years prior the community knew nothing of relaxers. Now women who longed for ”better” hair could not only buy the magic fix for themselves, but also for their young children. When I arrived, people were fascinated with me because they either never met a black American or never knew "my kind" existed. People wanted to know about everything I did. Some of the women were shocked that I wore my hair naturally. "Alisese” (go straighten your hair) was a constant request, because I would be "prettier." "Gringas negras no les gustan peinar” (Black American girls don't like to do their hair,)  said a neighbor when she met a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer who was also black and natural. It was like they were drug dealers, trying to get me hooked. I kindly informed them that black Americans invented the poison, and we had been using it for decades before we became aware of the risks associated with using it. Sorry ya'll are so late! The fear of fibroids, chemical burns and balding did not sway them. Vanity is one hell of a sin and we pay its price right here on Earth. Women with no access to (hot) running water in their homes would perm their hair, some getting the results they wanted, others winding up with breakage or permanent damage (worn off edges.)

Now, as I'm readjusting to American life (I just finished 2 years abroad with the United States Peace Corps, happy and nappy) I was and still am faced with the dilemma whether to relax or stay natural. I am unemployed at the moment  and wonder how the politics of hair will play out in me getting hired. Over this last month I have been turned down for employment opportunities due to a little something called "overqualification." I don't need any other factors making it more difficult for me; I already have an extraordinary resume and this recession working against me.

I tried my best to begin explaining this concept in this short rant of a blog. Like I said earlier, this is a very in-depth topic that requires more attention than is given. For those who want to go more in depth with this I've included a few links to catch you up on this topic.

  • Tyra Banks had an episode conveniently titled "Good Hair." Here are the video clips.

  • CNN's Black in America featured a segment on black hair.
  • Oprah also aired an episode on Wednesday, September  30, 2009 about this topic as well. Unfortunately, Miss Oprah does not post complete episodes. Here is the link to the snippets and summaries of the show.
I am pleased to see black hair politics being brought to the forefront. Unfortunately, I haven't even broken the ice with  this topic. In the meantime, I look forward to continuing the conversation below. Your questions and comments are welcome, as always.

UPDATE: Also see "The Politics of Black Hair" by Melissa Harris-Perry (MSNBC)

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