Monday, March 5, 2007

I am Not My Hair (Part II)

I have had a bit of an epiphany in the past few days. It was a rather minor epiphany, if one can call an epiphany minor…

It happened as I was watching the NAACP Image awards, about which I will post soon. To cut right to the chase, it was when India.Arie was singing her hit song called "I am Not My Hair". It is a smokin' tune, it really is. I had never heard it before, but hearing it, and being able to repeat it at will courtesy of TiVo, brought up old memories… and sparked renewed thought on the age old subject in the black community… "Good" hair.

All of the black women who just read those words started nodding their heads upon seeing them.

"Good" hair

"Good" hair.

"Good" hair.

These words have always been able to send me on a tear. Their use upsets me as much as the use of racial epithets… as much as the use of epithets hurled at any group or community.

"Good” hair.

For generations, within the black community, the term "good" hair, means hair that is different from ours. More to the point, different from the texture of those of us who are, ancestrally, from sub-Saharan Africa.

"Good" hair means straight hair. “Good” hair meant hair like the hair of Europeans. “Good hair” meant… and still means “white” hair.

Now, you might think that having generational memories of intra-ethnic strife based on something as trivial as hair texture, is silly. Perhaps it is, but, I entreat you to look at it from a different perspective.

Historically, from the beginning of chattel slavery in America, A slave of the more pure African ethno-type was seen as something less than, or not as good as, a slave of mixed African and European ancestry. Eventually, as more slaves were brought to America, and more and more ethnically mixed slaves were born, a new social stratum was born. The dark skinned slaves were used as field labor… little better than draft animals that could talk, in most cases. The so-called mulatto slaves tended to be used in the homes of the owners as maids and household servants. One of those things that marked the partly white slave was, beside their skin color, their hair… particularly in women. You see, these women had lighter skin, usually ate better, often had more education (such as it was) and had more or better clothing, befitting their closeness to the master’s family.

Fast forward to the early 20th century. Slavery has been dead for a generation or so. Black Americans are beginning to get a bigger piece of the American pie. Black entrepreneurs like “Madam” C.J. Walker are even becoming quite wealthy. The industrial revolution is changing the country, making goods and services available to people of the most moderate or humble means. In the black community, this was indicated, in one instance, by the ability to straighten the naturally tightly curled hair of the African American. Men, in many cases used products as lye and heavy pomades to straighten their hair. Women were using “hot combs": and even flat irons to straighten their hair. Black people were spending inordinate amounts of time and money trying to turn their hair into “Good” hair. Good hair. Hair that was “less black”.

Fast forward again. This time it is the early 1970's and wee Gunfighter is almost ten years old. Ten years old, and nearly nauseated by the stench of singed and burned hair. A stench produced by the “straightening” comb that is heating in the open flame of the gas stove in our kitchen. You see, even though this was around the time of the burgeoning black consciousness movement that grew out of the civil-rights era, we were still conscious about out hair. Witness even the strongest black icons of the period… James Brown, and Ron O'Neal, the cat that played "Superfly”, had straightened their hair. Diana Ross & The Supremes, Tina Turner, Lola Falana, Dianne Carrol… all of these people, women in particular, were sayin’ it loud, “I’m black, and I’m proud!”... as long as I can look like I’ve got “good” hair, that is.

For generations, black women have damaged their hair with chemicals, hot irons, and dye, so that their hair would make them look less black. Women that could afford to go to more expensive beauty parlors could have this work done by others. People that couldn't did it at home and often destroyed their hair for years. Having "good" hair became something of a societal marker.

"Did y'all see so-and-so in church?, did you see her nappy-ass head?"

To appear publicly with nappy hair was nigh unforgivable.

When I was a kid, a good way for two girls to get in a knock-down drag-out fight, was to start some stuff about somebody’s “nappy” hair.

I could go on and on, and while some of you may be scratching your heads wondering if your friend Gunfighter hasn't been using some chemicals himself, trust me when I say that there are others nodding their heads in memory.

So, let us fast forward one last time... we'll call our destination: 2007. What now? What are the hair issues of today? To tell you truth, I'm not sure. The ability to get your hair straightened into the most gravity-defying hair sculpture is available to nearly everyone. So what does it mean?

I'll tell you what it means in the eyes of your humble correspondent. It means that however black women... hell, any women, choose to wear their hair. The hairstyle is not what defines them.

In her anthemic song, India.Arie hits the nail right on the head when she says:

"Good hair means curls and waves
Bad hair means you look like a slave
At the turn of the century
Its time for us to redefine who we be
You can shave it off
Like a South African beauty
Or get in on lock
Like Bob Marley
You can rock it straight
Like Oprah Winfrey
If its not what's on your head
Its what's underneath and say HEY....

I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am not your expectations no no
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am a soul that lives within"

Today, in 2007, black people wearing their hair straight doesn't make us less black, it doesn't make us smarter, it doesn't make us better. The converse is also true... having natural hair doesn't make us more black, more authentic, or ugly, or stupid. Hair isn't so much of a social statement as much as it is about the freedom to choose.

We are not our hair.


Leslie said...

Your post made me think of a spectacular special Julia and I watched on HBO called "Happy To Be Nappy and Other Stories of Me." It includes a depiction of the book "Happy To Be Nappy" by Bell Hooks and vignettes starring children who are celebrating how they are unique, as well as learning to appreciate the differences in others. It was a wonderful way to introduce Julia to the concept of diversity and help to instill a respect for the the things we all share in common and our individual differences.

If there is anything I hope to teach my daughter, it is that she has worth just as she is. She doesn't need to shape, twist, tuck, hide, cut and color herself to be right. Our looks are such a small part of who we are, or at least, what really matters.

super des said...

I have "good" hair. But that's because I'm white. And I dye it all sorts of pretty colors.

I remember a book called "Nappy Hair" was banned from schools because they said it was racist. But that was the white people saying that. The black people defended it, saying that it was true to life. Arguments ensued and they didn't make any sense because the white people were offended that the black people were proud. I never read it, but I never forgot it.

It's a good song, and one of those things that could teach people something if they let it.

Kelley said...

Thanks for posting the video below. Watching the crowd's reaction (particularly the women's reaction) demonstrated that she really did hit a nerve; it was moving.

Great song with a great message.

Terri said...

Hair ... I know if my hair doesn't look good, I don't look good.

Do you remember that Vidal Sassoon commercial from years back???

To be honest... if I don't have make up on, I don't look good either...

and sometimes even when I have make up on... I still don't look good... it's weird! Depends if I ate too much salt the day before...

sherri said...

Hmmm... Gunfighter, you should check out the adult contemporary stations every so often. This song has been out a few years now. ;-)

It's a great song and the message can be interpreted in many ways, depending on where your head is at the time. Hair in the Black community is/can be a political issue. You could change hair to (weight, job, income, house, etc)... and the song would still speak volumes. ;-)

Gunfighter said...


Adult contemporary isn't really my thing... I'm a bit of a headbanger... but I know that hair can be a political issue... it is just somehthing that I haven't really had to consider in my adult life, as I have spent all of my adult life in an environment where everyone wears their hair relatively short.

Zanne said...

This was a very thoughtful and convicting post. And great song!!!!

Tasha said...

GF, thank you so much for this post. I've been trying to organize my words to post about this very subject, but you've done it better than I ever could.

My entire life, going to hair salons I've heard every comment from "you've got good hair" to "what the f*#& is that jungle bush on your head" directed at myself and other women. For black women especially, it's been systematically ingrained in us that we have to "fix" our hair as if something is wrong with it. I myself wear it straight, in braids, or whatever way I choose, but even with that it's taken me a long time to escape that toxic way of thinking.

I'd like to link this post over on my blog, would that be alright with you?

Janet said...

I used to sit on the bookmobile every week and leaf through Jet while complaining about how there were no pictures of women with natural hair in it. They used to run a commercial for hair products that made my blood boil. The slogan was, "Was it her resume, or was it Raveen?" I will never get over hating that commercial and everything it stands for.

I do think it is more than time to stop making hair into political statements. Every woman I know of every race hates or has hated her hair at one time. If it's straight they want curly; if it's curly they want straight; if it's thick they want thin, etc. I even hate my hair sometimes and most people I know envy my hair something rotten. It's just something women do, I guess.

Gunfighter said...


Glad you liked it, pal!


By all means, link away!


As you know, I get my head partially shaved every two weeks... I have been doing tjis since I was 17, so it was never a big deal.

I know what you mean about women hating their hair from time to time... Mrs Gunfighter, the Queen of Hair products, goes to war with her hair every once in a while (even though it must be said that she doesn't really have hair issues).

the only daughter said...

Hair...the battle wages on. In one 4 block stretch near my home there are 10 salons, 2 barbershops and 2 supply products shops dedicated to serving black hair care needs. To say that black folks are into -hair- is the understatment of the century..still. In my daughter struggles with what next to do with her more *natural* tresses while at the same time, regretting that she didn't -get- *my* hair in the genetic olympic pool.

From addition to the *good* hair comment, I heard..."you must have some indian in you" -I looked and looked and I didn't see one hanging out of me-anywhere.

We are not...or shouldn't be our hair.