Politics of Black Hair

When rocking my daughter to sleep, I often spend time delighting in the patterns her hair makes on her head.  Like many people, her curl pattern is not uniform; it’s looser in the front and top, creating a soft crown of hair that I love to touch.  The hair in the back is more tightly wound, creating beautiful coils that dot her scalp.  The hair on the sides gently fan out in little waves, framing her tiny ears.

When I take her out in public, however, I sometimes forget to see the beauty of her hair, scanning as I am for the disapproval of others.  I find myself apologizing for the lint that her curls tend to trap.  If she’s just come from her father’s care, I interrogate him: “did you brush it before you left?!?”  In response to suggestions that her hair is short, I tensely explain, “it is growing; it’s just curly, so you can’t tell.”  The well-intentioned offers by relatives to “cornrow it so that it can grow” do not help.  In response, my back stiffens, and I plaster a smile on my face: “oh no; she’ll never sit for that.”

And, she won’t sit for it.  My 15-month old doesn’t like to be restrained, and since learning to walk and run, she doesn’t have to be.  But the truth is, I don’t want her hair braided or corn-rowed, because I like her poofy little afro.  Her short hair isn’t bothering her none, and it certainly doesn’t bother me.  My daughter is beautiful every day, whether her hair is long or short, lint-speckled or fresh from a washing, curled tight or billowed around her head like a halo.

I wish I could tell people this.  Tell white folks who have no experience with black hair that her coils are near perfect in their uniformity; that although more complicated to handle, black hair is the most versatile in the world.  Tell black folks who should know better that black hair needs moisture, not grease; gentle detangling, not too-tight cornrows; that every kink, standing for itself, does not have to be brushed out.  I’d like to tell everyone to abandon their obsession with long locks for my girl; stop teaching her at such an early age that she is less beautiful with tightly coiled hair.

But mostly I just smile and nod; it seems like such an uphill battle, and at this point in my life, I’m used to it.  After having worn locs for 2 years, a cousin asked me before I got married, “you’re gonna perm your hair for the wedding, right???”  When I go to the salon to get my hair re-tightened, the other stylists insist on standing near my chair, staring at my hair, and asking inane questions like “how does it stay???” Just yesterday, I thumbed through the pages of Essence magazine, and found not one article on natural hair care.  There was no end, however, of articles offering maintenance tips for chemically straightened hair.

I don’t begrudge other women the opportunity to make hair choices that are right for them.  But it saddens me that my family and friends don’t always appreciate the beauty of textured hair.  I don’t understand how you can be a licensed hair stylist but have absolutely no understanding of the basic mechanics of dreadlocs.  It’d be nice if acknowledgment and celebration of natural hair on black women went beyond a superficial pop-culture fixation on larger-than-life afros and perfectly groomed locs.

Until that day comes, I continue trying to shield my daughter from an onslaught of messages that undervalue her beauty, while navigating an aesthetic landmine of my own.  I’ve been talking about cutting off my locs and rockin’ a short afro for 2 years now, but I can’t work up the courage to do it; it seems I, too, am invested in a white beauty standard that prizes long hair.  Taking scissors to it all, however, just might be what liberates me from all this hair oppression, finally freeing me to delight in my child’s hair–and my own–whether we’re inside the house or out.

7 thoughts on “Politics of Black Hair

  1. The hair stuff is serious business, huh? I just started on the transition from relaxed hair, largely because I don’t want to take away my daughter’s choice to see her hair as beautiful in its natural state. She fell in love with the twists on the little girl when we saw “Imagine That” and has been begging for that style for months. I finally figured out, sort of, how to do it and styled her hair that way. When she looked in the mirror, she was beaming; she looked so full of herself–literally, as if this is how she was meant to look. I hope she’ll always feel that way, but it will required, as you’ve pointed out, dodging other people’s expectations and narrow definitions. I’ll also add that, although there is a clear focus on straight hair, I don’t ever remember seeing so many black women with natural styles in the public arena (both in real life and in media). Maybe that means the tide is shifting.

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    1. It’s also a recession. Sorry, but I don’t buy into Black women becoming enlightened and self-loving. Maintaining relaxed hair is not cost effective right now. And as more women “go natural”, and slather on every product possible chasing “the curl”, other women see hope for themselves that they too can achieve the curly biracial aesthetic. When they can’t, most lock or relax. I’m cynical. When the economic tides turn, sistas will return to the drain cleaner.

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  2. “She looked so full of herself–literally, as if this is how she was meant to look.” I love that! When I cut off my perm in college, I had the same reaction. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t wish my hair was something other than what it actually was. I applaud you for allowing your daughter the opportunity to explore her desire for natural hairstyles; its beauty notwithstanding, natural hair is more work for mom, and so it’s no small feat.

    I still get frustrated at the lack of information surrounding natural styles, and the way in which women wearing natural hair are portrayed: “organic; natural; crunch; earthy.” In that Essence magazine I picked up, there were some images, but no actual information. And all the women looked slightly disheveled; their clothes and make-up were not as crisp or sharp as the women wearing perms. And then there’s that near-fetish thing with natural hair. It’s great when it’s “wild and big,” but not so much when it’s short or calmly twisted. I was trying to convey that when I talked about a pop-culture fixation with “larger-than-life afros.” That being said, I do agree with you that images of black women with natural styles are definitely on the rise, and so maybe we are moving in the right direction.

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  3. First off, I think you should send this to Essence. Credit
    Cocoa Mamas while doing it. 🙂 I will preface the rest of this with a not-so-secret confession that I have permed my hair, again. I have literally alternated once every year or two since ’98. I have come to acknowledge this time that I really like my hair both ways and that I prefer short hair, in both states. And furthermore that do to my refusal to go to the salon in either state, I’m actually probably always going to need to “cut my off” once every year or so. This works for me, because I have an “excuse” to go to the salon (and I really do need a reason apparently) and to go natural.

    All that being said I had promised myself I would not perm my hair again because of my daughter, who is 1.5 years. I thought it may affect her ability to see her own hair as beautiful. I can remember thinking that my mom’s (permed) and sisters (permed or naturally curly) was more beautiful than mine.
    I too find myself frustrated by people’s comments about my daughter’s hair. I also think, cute as cornrows can be on little girls, we really need to acknowledge how damaging they can be. I can’t rock cornrows without them pulling my hair out on the sides of my heads. Why would I cornrow my daughter’s hair when she still has her baby bald patch in the back and was born with what looks like a receeding hairline that still has yet to fully fill in. Yet, both of her grandmothers have cornrowed it 😦 and her father secretly wishes I would 😦 We had the afro argument before she was born, and as a result of my insistence she stays rocking a fro or afro-puffs, daily. I Love Them!!!

    I do not “love” the lint they catch 🙂 If anyone has a solution for that please share! ORJ, I too am Anti-Grease, despite everyone’s disdain over my middle child’s naps, my brother personally wants to train his hair with some Royal Crown. I happen to love Miss Jessies Baby Buttercream on my daughters hair ORJ. And to make is smell sweeter I add some Papaya spray by a small independent startup Afiya Natural. Or the Tui scent by Carol’s Daughter.

    Hair . . . Crazy! I didn’t even want to do mine last night for a party I’m throwing tonight, that’s how little I care about it. Despite the extra-long reply 🙂 I gotta run now though so that I’ll have time to do it later 🙂

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  4. Great Post! It took some time for me to undo the brainwashing about hair… It’s been 24 years since I’ve gone natural- and I’ve come to be oblivious to the looks my loks inspire.I remember the years I wore a giant afro puff and beauticians offering me their business card and discounts on a perm. Lol. I do believe our hair is our glory, and I MOST loved my corn rows, the artistry and mesmermizing union of beads and complex patterns. Two strand twists, afro puffs…aahhhh, I love it all. Like Donnie says: I’m fine under Cloud 9!

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