Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dispatches from Nappyville: Hair hatred needn't be a black girl's right of passage

I once wrote about my natural hair:

My hair is nappy. It is coarse and thick. It grows in pencil-sized spirals and tiny crinkles. My hair grows out, not down. It springs from my head like a corona. My hair is like wool. You can't run your fingers through it, nor a comb. It is impenetrable. My hair is rebellious. It resists being smoothed into a neat bun or pony tail. It puffs. Strands escape; they won't be tamed. My hair is nappy. And I love it. Read more...

I may love my hair. But common wisdom, even among people with hair just like mine, is that my hair isn't "good," at least as it naturally grows from my head. It needs to be tamed, preferably by straightening, but at the very least, especially in young children, hair like mine should be restrained somehow--in plaits or cornrows or something that hides its unruly nature. It should be shiny. You should be able to run a comb through it. All this, in defiance of the natural properties of most black hair.

I suspect Newsweek writer Allison Samuels follows this common wisdom.

Two weeks ago she sparked furor around the 'Net with an article taking Angelina Jolie to task for her daughter Zahara's allegedly uncared for tresses:
But even the mothers who spare the hot comb still have to put time and effort into keeping hair healthy: Any self-respecting black mother knows that she must comb, oil, and brush her daughter's hair every night. This prevents the hair from matting up, drying out, and breaking off. It also prevents any older relatives from asking them why you're neglecting your child and letting her run around looking like a wild woman. Having well-managed hair is not just about style, it's about pride, dignity, and self-respect. Keeping your daughter's hair neat is an unspoken rule of parental duties that everyone in the community recognizes and respects. Read more...

In the face of considerable backlash, Samuels didn't back down. In a Newsweek online exclusive this week, Samuels answers her critics:

Still, I'm undeterred by the venom shown to me on the Web. I continue to believe Angelina Jolie should take better care of Zahara's hair. Hey, if Maddox can get blond highlights and a Mohawk, Zahara can at least get a quick top knot and rubber band. Is that asking too much? Read more...

"A top knot and a rubber band..."

There is a lot I could challenge in Samuels' articles: The ugliness of picking on a young girls' looks in a national magazine; the wrongess of applying black American cultural standards to blacks from other places (Latoya Peterson tackles this well on Jezebel); or the unfair burden put on white mothers of black and biracial girls when it comes to hair. My blogsister Renee asked me if people would be so critical of Zahara's hair if her mother was a black woman presumed to know a thing or two about textured hair. I think not.

I will confine this post to one point: Samuels seems to embrace the notion, a gift of society's Eurocentric beauty standards, that tamed hair = healthy hair, and unfettered black hair = hot mess. What's worse, she wants little Zahara to learn to embrace this thinking, too--a terrible lesson for a girl with tresses that naturally feature fuzzy parts and curls that spring akimbo.

In a society with Eurocentric beauty standards, it is natural that hair common to people of European ancestry would be the marker for beauty, professionalism and good grooming. And it is natural, though I think not good for us, that those of minority cultures have absorbed the standards of the dominant culture and adopted beauty rituals that support those standards.

This is why so many of us have memories of sitting at our mother's or grandmothers' knees, holding our ears and listening to sizzling grease, as our hair was tamed into a straight, shiny, combable mass and woven into multiple neat plaits. Most of us remember this bonding time fondly. But, in reality, straight, shiny, combable and neat are NOT markers of whether black hair is cared for or not. That so many of us, including Samuels, think these descriptors are related to hair health shows how much we have absorbed the idea that hair common to people of European ancestry is the norm by which all other hair must be judged. As I type this, my ginormous twist out is shiny, but not straight, combable or neat, And, I promise you, my hair is very well cared for.

Yes, I know that braiding has deep roots in African culture and is an ingrained part of black American culture. My beef isn't with plaiting; my beef is with the fear of the nap--the idea that unrestrained black hair, apart from other hair, is unacceptable. To many of us with natural hair, Zahara seems to be wearing a wash-and-go. But we are taught that black women can't simply wash their hair and go. Our hair has to be "fixed," made presentable. I think this hair hatred was born and nurtured right here in Western culture where the yardstick by which we judge our hair's beauty and health and rituals of care is invariably a white one.

Samuels says:

Unacceptable! For good measure let me explain once more what I consider unacceptable for a 4-year-old baby: uncombed, unconditioned, and unbrushed.

I would debate that daily combing and brushing are part of necessary care of black, natural hair. And I would point out that so few black American women wear their hair naturally that most of us know as much about its care as Angelina Jolie does. (Yeah, I said it.) There is no way of knowing whether Zahara's hair is conditioned by scanning papparazi shots. You can't assess its softness. You can't check for split ends. You can't see breakage. What Samuels is reacting to, I think, is the fact that Zahara's hair is "wild" and unrestrained. And black women and girls are taught that this isn't okay. It isn't pretty. It isn't proper. It isn't professional. It isn't ladylike.

I'm not a member of the Jolie-Pitt household, so I can't assume to know their thought process or intentions. But one thing I do know is that girlie girls usually like to have their hair combed.

Yep, "girlie girls" deserve tamed, combed, sweet hair, not kinky, curly 'fros.

Trust me, I really do applaud Jolie and Pitt for bringing needy children into their lives and their home. But it doesn't and can't end once you get them in the house. As I said before, self-esteem and confidence can be just as vital as food and shelter if the child is to become a contributing member of society. As wonderful and as lavish as Zahara's life may be right now, it won't mean much if she ends up having serious issues with her identity and place in the world. If she's already asking about her hair, it means she's already thinking about her looks and how she fits in. At some point, Angelina will have to try to answer those questions. It won't be easy. But the actress should know that the next time Zahara asks about hair, it won't be why her hair isn't similar to others in her house. It will be why her hair doesn't look like other brown girls' does.

In another post, we can talk about Samuels' patronizing use of "needy" to describe the Jolie-Pitt's brown children. But I'll say this--I agree with Samuels that most little, black girls would NOT be comfortable wearing their natural hair loose as Zahara does. That is, in great part, because of the unrelenting messages they get, within and without our black culture, that their hair is inherently wrong. Must Zahara adopt these feelings of self hatred to earn her black card? I like to think, as a black woman who has wrestled and come to terms with her own hair issues, my job is to help free the girls in my life from damaging self hatred not encourage it as a litmus test for fitting in.

Instead of teaching Zahara to conform, as Samuels would advocate, I suspect her mom and dad are teaching her to love herself, including her hair, the way it is--whether in multiple braids and beads or flying free. Later, Zahara can wear her hair however she pleases--a bald fade, an assymetrical bob, dreds, or long, flowing and bright red. If her parents are successful, she will make those decisions free of feelings of hatred for her natural hair and without the pressure of judgement from people like Samuels who seek to impose their own hair "issues" on another.

My hair is nappy. It is soft and cottony, a mass of varying textures. My hair is fun to play with. I like to pull at the spiral curls and feel them snap back into place. My hair defies the laws of gravity. It reaches energetically toward the sky. My hair is unique. In a fashion culture that genuflects to relaxed, flat-ironed tresses and stick-straight weaves, my fluffy, puffy, kinky mane stands out. It is revolutionary. My hair is natural. It is the way God made it. My hair is nappy. And it is beautiful.


Kelly Hogaboom said...

"But I'll say this--I agree with Samuels that most little, black girls would NOT be comfortable wearing their natural hair loose as Zahara does. That is, in great part, because of the unrelenting messages they get, within and without our black culture, that their hair is inherently wrong."

Yes, this.

"Must Zahara adopt these feelings of self hatred to earn her black card? I like to think, as a black woman who has wrestled and come to terms with her own hair issues, my job is to help free the girls in my life from damaging self hatred not encourage it as a litmus test for fitting in."

Once again a great post - and an educational one as well. Your last two paragraphs are pure brilliance.

I don't know much about the Jolie-Pitt household, but the assumption of the author they took this little girl (and other children) into their home to feed and care for and dress and love and then - what, wear the kids around like accessories without a thought to their individual needs (grooming and otherwise)? Look, MOST parents I know don't treat their children this way. Why do some assume Jolie / Pitt are doing this?

ac said...

Beautiful article. My niece is three and at any given time she has pulled her hair out of whatever neat arrangement her Mom has put it in. So when she runs around with her puffs undone or her twists smushed in bedhead configurations is she endangering my sis-in-law's black card? What about my mother, she of the straight and "good" hair, who had no idea how to care for natural hair so she chopped mine all off? Is she losing her card?

I'm not sure what Ms. Samuels real issue is here: is she against natural hair or interracial adoption? Is this another apect of the only "we" can truly care for our young in all their nuanced and complex needs argument? Because this:

"And I would point out that so few black American women wear their hair naturally that most of us know as much about its care as Angelina Jolie does. (Yeah, I said it.) There is no way of knowing whether Zahara's hair is conditioned by scanning papparazi shots."

This is so the point in one brief, clear and concise paragraph.

So Ms. Samuels is using the platform of a national news magazine to start a flame war on a four year little girl? I don't care how many time she denies that and says its about the mother - no it ain't. It's not Angelina's hair Ms. Samuels is calling messy, a hot mess and wild in a NATIONAL NEWS magazine.

So Newsweak - are you watching this? You're enabling the flaming of a 4 year old? Really? Just how far does this hatred of natural hair go? 'Cuz this is plenty deep.

teendoc said...

Please don't think I'm being contrary to be contrary. I'm loc'ed. Not into straightening. And I understand the cultural history at work in any issue related to our hair.

With that preface, I have to ask, does the fact that I like my kid's hair to look neat (not straightening, not "tamed" or other pejoratives) make me a natural hair hater? Maybe I've just got some OCD. Maybe I just believe that doing something to one's hair after one rolls out of bed (are you listening husband?) is part of self-care, like toothbrushing and washing your face?

Do you know how often I have fixed my husband's hair because he literally does nothing to it? And he's not a POC!

Every time I read something about Zahara's hair and I feel that itching in my fingers to do a little something with it, I keep wondering whether this is black hair hatred, or whether I have some sort of hair neatness OCD started by my crazy mother?

How do I sort it out?

(PS: I also tell hubby: Yes, you need to brush your teeth. Wash the damn sleep crusties out of your eyes. And put on clothes you haven't slept in!

Mes Deux Cents said...

Hi Tami,

I think Samuels assumes a lot in her piece. First, doesn't she assume that all Black people have the same texture of hair when she says;

"Any self-respecting black mother knows that she must comb, oil, and brush her daughter's hair every night."

And what if Zahara was a little Jewish girl with a curly 'fro like Zahara's, would Samuels be outraged then?

This is the epitome of self-hate. And worse Samuels is doing it to please her White bosses at Newsweek.

anberu_chan85 said...

Beautiful post & from what I saw in the article, the picture of Zahara's was beautiful. Her hair is long, obviously there is some growth retention. So why is this woman picking on a small child? I wish I had never gotten a relaxer, my hair was so dry and brittle. I pray that Zahara grows up knowing her hair is different, but special. Even within out own people everyone's curls are different.
I wish Ms. Samuels would pick a fight with someone that could fire back at her. Using a little girl as a way to vent your feelings on your own hair hatred is beyond shameful.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Losangelista linked to you via Twitter.

Great post.

I really don't understand Ms. Samuels' issues. I find the whole thing sad.

Ms. Wooden Shoes said...

I have to say one of my pet peeves is white people with black children (their own biracial ones or adopted) who do not know how to care for their hair and as a result the kids are running around with their hair looking crazy. This especially bothers me when its black girls, knowing how fraught our relationship is with hair. White people with black children need to learn how to care for their hair. Period. That said, I think Zahara's hair looks absolutely healthy. The Jolie-Pitts are fans of Carol's Daughter and have obviously figured out how to keep Zahara's hair healthy.

Tami said...



No, I don't think wanting your daughter's hair in braids and balls and rows makes you a natural hair hater. I imagine, unlike Allison Samuels, you understand that, though you have a preference, little black girl hair that is not restrained can still be pretty and cared for.

windy city girl said...

Tami, thanks, as always, for your eloquent words. I really appreciate this post, as Chris Rock's "Good Hair" has brought this topic up again in the media. I wrote about it at my own blog (

I think it's hard for Samuels and a lot of other people to see natural black hair as healthy and not in need of fixing. It's really disturbing to think that at her young age, Zahara is being picked apart and encouraged to embrace self-hatred like this. I'm glad you called this out for what it is.

Anonymous said...

another great post tami...but i think i disagree.
natural has been my default for 40 years. i love my hair natural but i don't mind wearing it straight braided or rocking a weave if i want to. I call this black girl's prerogative: the right to do whatever we want to do with our hair, when ever we want to. i think what bothers me about zahara's hair is that it is the opposite of a style statement; it simply looks like noone bothered, or worse, they find her hair to hair to hard to manage. i am not a fan of anyone's undone hair: never got bedhead or that tousled look that white women wear, either. i'd have the same reaction to any little girl with ungroomed hair: i'd wonder why their parents didn't bother. but when the parents are white and the children are black the failure to do hair seems to be symbolic of the cultural disconnect that they will experience throughout their lives. you know...some of the things that are just second nature to us will simply have to be taught.

Anonymous said...

I am white (with "flat" hair that never has enough volume, ha!) and I think natural African hair is beautiful. Zahara J-P as well as the author of this blog are examples. Humanity would be boring if we all looked the same.

kristine said...

I'm white my husband and son are black and my sons hair is a mix of curly and nappy. his hair is beautiful and most of the white people around us love it - in fact too much - they all want to touch it. at times it's been 4 inches long (curly) but never 'even' because his hair is different in texture in different places. his hair is always washed and we use almond oil stroked through almost every day. it's extremely healthy and grows well. when i am alone with him i have had black women of all ages come up and try to 'teach' me about my sons hair. at first i would be exceedingly polite. until i realized he was beginning to believe it - that i didn't know about his hair. i had to learn to speak up, still politely but not backing down. no, i'm not shaving his head to make it 'neat'. yes, we own a wide toothed comb. yes, we condition. when asked do i like it that way, i say 'he likes it that way. and as long as it's clean and healthy i tell him it's fine. it's just hair.' I think Zahara and others like her have a good chance of growing up with a healthy respect for themselves and hopeful loving their hair. but if not (after all how many of us do love our hair) i hope all those children will feel that hair is a small matter and not a reflection on your real true self.

thanks for this post. it's so important.

msladydeborah said...

I work in a classroom that is filled with African American children. Only one of the girls has chemically relaxed hair. The other girls wear their hair naturally. One of my lil sistas has really long hair. It is all hers and her mom does an excellent job of keeping it together. I love to see the braids, puffs and frohawks that their moms create. They have healthy heads of natural hair.

I read the article about Zahara when it was published. I don't agree with the premise that was raised about her hair. What's important in my opinion is the way that she feels about herself on the inside of her thoughts. How do we know that she isn't the one who insisted upon the style of hair that she wears? Children see their imagery very differently than adults often do.

I am also sure that if Angelina and Brad didn't really know what to do with her hair-they would find someone who could take care of it. I have mothers who don't really know how to do hair period. It does not stop them from finding people who can.

Sabrina Messenger said...

What's wrong with Zahara's hair? I think she looks very pretty. I only wish I could've had natural hair when I was her age. Some of my worst childhood memories (1960s) are of being dragged to hair salons, getting press and curls, and then not being allowed to run and play like the other kids because of my hair! I remember being so happy when my mother finally let me get a relaxer at age 16. I actually danced in the rain that day because I knew it wouldn't "go back!" Yet, relaxers have their own issues...and still my hair wasn't long and considered 'pretty' and then I got criticized about 'why don't you do something with your hair?" Then I got a Jheri-curl (don't ask!) It wasn't till after I turned 28 and got divorced, that I cut my hair down to a TWA and have rocked one ever since (and I'm nearly 49.) Yes, everyone has the right to wear their hair as they wish...but I think it's sad that so many Black women don't seem to love the hair God gave 'em. Even in Africa, many continue to fry their hair and put on bone straight weaves that go down to the middle of their back and then have the nerve to call that 'natural.' Not only will those women not accept REAL natural "nappy" and short hair as beautiful, they will also judge those of us who choose to have bona fide natural hair...but you know full well why...because those women want to attract and keep a man, and they believe that nonsense about 'all men like long hair on women' no matter how unsuitable it may actually be on the individual woman.

Anonymous said...

Someone just linked to your post today on I have to say that this was an excellent blog entry. You're so right how 'nappy hair hate' is like a rite of passage in the AA community.

hsofia said...

I hate that this little girl was held up as this woman's example of ... whatever. I have a little girl whose hair gets messed up in the carseat on the way to wherever, who pulls out her hair bands or barrettes, and so on. She has curly, bushy hair that grows OUT. Her hair is beautiful. I love my child. Her hair is not who she is.

By the way, my mother is a self-respecting black woman who loved me - and no, she did not comb, oil, and braid my hair "every night" - what planet did this woman grow up on?!

I was embarrassed that this nonsense showed up in Newsweek!


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