Hair…again

Written by Anti-Racist Parent editor Tami Winfrey Harris
Tuesday’s episode of “The Tyra Banks Show” dealt with the issue of black women and girls and their hair. Watch a clip from the program here.
 
Those of you who follow me here and at What Tami Said know that this is one of my soapbox topics. I think that ingraining hatred for natural hair is one of the first ways that society, and unfortunately parents, teach black girls that they are “less than.” People say the whole natural vs. relaxed debate is silly, not important in the scheme of racial equality. I disagree. This little thing most black women do–covering up their real hair texture pretty much from cradle to grave, sometimes with hair from women of other races; aggressively speaking negatively about coarse and kinky hair; never learning how to properly and easily care for unstraightened hair; avoiding everyday activity that might cause straightened hair to revert to its natural state–is ugly self-hatred that we pass on to future generations.
 
The wavy to kinky, sometimes coarse, hair common to people of African descent is just as beautiful, just as versatile, just as professional and just as easy to manage as the tresses of other races–but sadly, the majority of black people are likely to disagree with at least one of those statements. Many say that straightening is simply a choice, but the realistic admit that it is a choice made in societal context–one in which black hair is synonymous with ugly, radical, unprofessional, hard-to-manage and other negative descriptors. 
 
While I believe that hatred for natural hair is bad, I also believe that women have a right to control their own bodies and appearance. Sometimes we want to try a different style or color, just for fun. But I can’t help wondering, as I watch Tyra Banks with her hair cornrowed especially for this episode, what message black women who constantly relax and weave and wig send to black girls. It is disengenuous of Banks to point to her braids to show her young guest that a black supermodel and media mogul is proud of her black hair, when in reality, Tyra would never rock those rows on the red carpet. When Banks is looking “fierce,” she’s usually sporting a long, straight blondish weave or wig. Everyone “tsk tsked” at the little black girl who loves her Hannah Montana wig because she thinks it is prettier than her real hair, but doesn’t grown-up Tyra do pretty much the same thing?
 
How can black mothers, most of whom, like Tyra, straighten or hide their natural hair, demonstrate to their daughters that curly to kinky hair can be just as beautiful in its natural state as that of other races? I am not asking this to be confrontational. I honestly am interested in hearing from black moms who perm their hair. What are the steps you take to ensure your child does not absorb the belief that straight is better? How do you address what your child may see as a contradiction: “Honey, natural black hair is beautiful, but none of the women in our family wear their hair naturally, because…”
 
If you are not black, but are the mother of a black daughter, how do you manage differences between your hair texture and that of your daughter? Many little girls want to look like mommy. Many little black girls covet “white” hair. How does a white mommy of a black girl deal with these issues.
 
For those who don’t know. Below is my hair story, which I have posted at What Tami Said and Racialicious, but I think not here:
Nappy Love: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Kinks
 
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.

Growing up, I learned to covet silky, straight hair; “bouncing and behaving” hair; Cheryl Tiegs and Christie Brinkley hair. But as a young black girl, my appearance was far from the American ideal. Making my hair behave meant hours wriggling between my grandmother’s knees as she manipulated a hot comb through my thick, kinky mane. The process stretched my tight curls into hair I could toss and run my fingers through, something closer to the “white girl hair” that so many black girls admired and longed to possess.

My beautiful, straightened hair came at a price. It meant ears burned by slipped hot combs and scars from harsh chemicals. It meant avoiding active play and swimming pools, lest dreaded moisture make my hair “go back.” It meant having a relaxer eat away at the back of my long hair until barely an inch was left. It meant subtly learning that my natural physical attributes were unacceptable.

I was not alone in my pathology. Pressing combs, relaxers, weaves and the quest to hide the naps are part of the fabric of black beauty culture. It is estimated that more than 75 percent of black women straighten their hair. In the book “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America,” Ayanna Byrd and Lori Tharps write: “Before a black child is even born, relatives speculate over the texture of hair that will cover the baby’s head, and the loaded adjectives “good” and “bad” are already in the air.” In the same book, a New York City dancer named Joicelyn explains: “Good hair is that silky black shit that them Indian girls be havin’…Good hair is anything that’s not crazy-ass woolly, lookin’ like some pickaninny out the bush.” Too often, black women find their hair hatred supported by media, men and the rest of the mainstream.

Cultural and professional pressures kept me relaxing my curls for 20 years. In the late 90s, the neo-soul movement caught fire in R&B. Young, bohemian singers like Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and India Arie were rocking stylish natural looks, and I began seeing more natural heads strutting down Michigan Ave. in Chicago, where I lived. Two of my close friends took the plunge, shearing their permed hair to start anew. Suddenly natural black hair was fashionable—at least for a small group of people.

Seeing more women, however few, freed from the tyranny of constant straightening, inspired me.I began poring over books about the care and politics of black hair. I became a member of a popular Web site devoted to championing natural hair. I learned about the toxic ingredients in chemical relaxers and the lasting damage they do. I discovered the origins of negative myths about black hair. I learned how to properly care for natural locks and discovered the myriad styles that can be achieved. I met women of all ages who embraced “nappy” as a positive description. And I slowly came to realize the inherent foolishness of believing black women’s hair, apart from that of all other races, needs to be fixed—pressed, weaved and manipulated into something it isn’t.

In August 2006, after years spent admiring the growing number of nappy heads around me; fretting whether my husband would still find me attractive; worrying whether my unruly ‘fro would frighten my co-workers; I chopped my near shoulder-length hair off, leaving barely an inch of kinky curls. I was free!

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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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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