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.

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