Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Conseqences of Hair Drama, or Black Hair 101

I was watching a clip from The View the other day, in which Whoopi Goldberg was explaining why black women prefer to straighten their hair, rather than let it grow naturally. Barbara Walters had asked why, in this era when we've finally acknowledged that "Black is Beautiful", black women still use relaxers, trying to make their hair look like white people's hair. Whoopi's answer was that it wasn't about making the hair look like white people's hair; it was about making the hair more manageable. Never mind that one of the first acts in her career as a stand-up comedian depicted a six-year-old girl with a white towel over her head, pretending that it was blond hair; she certainly seemed to know what that was all about. (Go to to see the clip I'm referring to. []) I realized that I've been taking for granted that black people actually know how to manage their hair. Clearly, many of us don't. What seems commonsense to me may not actually be common knowledge (except, maybe, to guys). And, I suppose, why would it be? Most black hair care is based on altering the hair to look like someone else's. So, apart from the 1970s, the Age of the Afro, how much time has been spent by black people to learn how to care for their hair in its natural state? Apparently, not much. Here, then, is a little tutorial that I think I'll call Black Hair 101.

First, the comb. How many of us have tried to run a regular comb through our hair, and gotten it caught in painful tangles? Almost all of us, right? It's that "manageability" thing. Well, guess what, folks? We're not supposed to comb our hair that way. The very tight curls (a.k.a. "kinks" or "naps"; say it with me now: these are not bad words!) do not lend themselves easily to comb-throughs. But there's a simple solution: it's called a pick. You simply slide the pick into the hair, and lift it straight out. Don't try to tug it through; that's where the painful tangles come in. Just pick your hair out, and it'll be ready to go in 30-60 seconds. Do you feel as though your hair is dry or brittle? Add conditioning products (NOT straighteners or relaxers!) as needed.

But, some of you might say, you don't want to wear Afros. They're dated, out of style; they're so 1970s. Since when is the hair (or skin, or nose, or face, or body) that you came into this world with out of style?! Name me one other ethnic group on the planet that is so disenchanted with (in other words, ashamed of) its appearance that it feels it must categorically alter its fundamental appearance just to be publically presentable. You can't; there isn't one. What needs to change is not our hair, or appearance, but rather, the way that we think about these things--the way that we see ourselves--to something that's psychologically and spiritually healthy for ourselves, and especially, for our children.

But, some of you may say, there's not much you can do with an Afro. Wrong! Study the peoples of Africa who have not been confused by outside influences. There are many different styles of braiding that can be done, and they're very beautiful and creative. This applies to twists and dreadlocks, as well.

But, some may say, black hair is ugly. Un-sexy. Nobody wants it. Who told you that?! Where'd you get that idea? Well, this sentiment was certainly borne out in "Good Hair", when Chris Rock took some black hair around to hair sellers and tried to sell it. One of the sellers, an Asian man, looked at it with open disdain and disgust. Wasn't that hurtful? I don't know about you, but I wouldn't patronize any business that had such a low opinion of me or my natural characteristics.
Especially if it were owned and operated by an outsider (which most black hair-care companies are, by the way).

But, some might argue, we like having the long, silky hair hanging down our backs. What's wrong with wanting to have it? Well, I like soda, but I make the healthier choice of juice. I like the cool looks of Hummers and Dodge Chargers, but when it comes to fuel economy, I'll choose a Toyota Prius or Honda Insight every time. I admire race-car drivers and I'm impressed by skydivers--that doesn't mean that I want to be those things. There are things we can admire from afar. That doesn't mean we must emulate them.

But, some of you are saying, we must do this to compete with white women, and women of other races, whom black men seem to be choosing, more and more, over us. They want to run their hands through that long, silky hair that we don't have. Um--no. In my opinion, black men just want hair that they can run their hands through--period. They know better than to touch a black woman's hair--especially when she's just had her hair done. They know they can't go swimming with you, work out with you, be naturally affectionate with you, or even make love with you in some cases, unless you've made special arrangements regarding your hair. They know that your kind of hair maintenance, which they will, at some point, be expected to support, is very expensive. That makes you extremely high-maintenance. They know that they'll have to stand by and watch, as these insecurities are passed on to their daughters (and sons!--who will continue to not see themselves reflected in their female counterparts--with all sorts of detriments to our people as a whole. I don't think black men call conscious, aware, visibly proud black women "bitches" or "hoes"). They know that you are ashamed of the way you look...which means that, on some level, you're ashamed of the way they look. (How do you think that makes them feel about themselves? Do you think any of them "act out"? Have you watched the news lately?) Whether they know these things consciously or not, they know them. I'm certain that this has bearing on who they choose as partners. If I want someone in my life who is proud of who she is, who walks and acts and lives with confidence, and who will pass that along to our children, I'll go wherever I must to find her...even if that's far away from my point of origin.

Finally, there are some of you who would say that your hair is too long and tangled to manage as an Afro, even with a pick. To those I say, long hair isn't everything. Have you ever considered the beauty and possibility of wearing your hair short and natural? It's neat, low-maintenance, looks good, and you're out the door in five seconds.

Yes, I know I've exceeded the parameters of "Black Hair 101". But that's because this situation has far-reaching consequences--much farther than most people seem to realize. We must demonstrate pride and confidence as a people, if anyone is to take us seriously. They won't do that as long as we are willing to burn our scalps trying to look like someone else. We must stop measuring ourselves by other people's standards. Only when we're ready and willing to choose our own parameters by which to define ourselves will others accord us the respect we deserve...First Family notwithstanding. I welcome your comments. Let's get this conversation started! It's long overdue.