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.
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.
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.