Black hair still tangled in politics

  • Article by: CATHERINE SAINT LOUIS , New York Times
  • Updated: August 30, 2009 - 2:45 PM

Some question why African-American women straighten their hair, while others ask why the topic continues to be debated.

First Daughter Malia.

Photo: Jewel Samad, AFP/Getty Images

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

Silky, straight hair has long been considered by many black women to be their crowning glory. So what if getting that look meant enduring the itchy burning that's a hallmark of many chemical straighteners. Or a pricey dependence on "creamy crack," as relaxers are sometimes jokingly called.

Getting "good hair" often means transforming one's tightly coiled roots; but it is also more freighted, for many African-American women, and some men, than simply a choice about grooming. Straightening hair has been perceived as a way to be more acceptable to certain relatives, as well as to the white establishment.

"If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed," the comedian Paul Mooney, sporting an Afro, says in the documentary "Good Hair," which won a jury prize at the Sundance film festival and comes out in October. "If your hair is nappy, they're not happy."

The movie, made by Chris Rock, explores the lengths black women go to to get long, straightened locks, from a $1,000 weave on a teacher's salary to schoolgirls having their hair chemically relaxed.

In the face of cultural pressure, the thinking goes, conformists relax their hair, and rebels have the courage not to. In some corners, relaxing one's hair is even seen as wishing to be white.

"For black women, you're damned if you do, damned if you don't," said Ingrid Banks, an associate professor of black studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "If you've got straight hair, you're pegged as selling out. If you don't straighten your hair, you're seen as not practicing appropriate grooming practices."

Anyone who thought such preconceptions were outdated would have been reminded otherwise by negative reactions to the president's 11-year-old daughter, Malia Obama, who wore her hair in twists while in Rome this summer. Commenters on the conservative blog Free Republic attacked her as unfit to represent America for stepping out unstraightened.

Although legions of black women in America straighten their hair (including Michelle Obama), hair salons specializing in natural styles have proliferated, and more black women are working with their virgin hair. Many wear their twists, locks or teenie-weenie Afros (known as TWAs) with an attitude -- proud to have not given in to the pressure to straighten hair.

In "Good Hair," Nia Long, the actress, describes the conventional wisdom that straightened hair is more desirable: "There's always a sort of pressure within the black community, like, 'Oh, if you have good hair, you're prettier or better than the brown-skinned girl that wears an Afro or the dreads or the natural hairstyle.'"

For some, the battle lines are drawn.

But some people of color expressed a weariness with the debate. They asked, essentially: Why can't hair just be hair? Must an Afro peg a woman as the political heir to Angela Davis? Is a fashionista who replicates the First Lady's clean-cut bob really being untrue to herself?

"I am who I am regardless of how I wear my hair," said Tywana Smith, an owner of Treasured Locks, a website devoted to upkeep for relaxed and natural hair.

"I want my kids to be seen for who they are, not for how they wear their hair," she added. "Whether they walk down the street with twists or braids, they aren't making any other statement other than, 'Today I felt like twists.'"

Last year, sales of home relaxers totaled $45.6 million (excluding Wal-Mart), according to Mintel, a market research firm, a figure that has held steady in recent years.

The "good hair" issue has almost always skewed toward women. Black men with highly textured hair have long had a convenient, socially acceptable option: a close trim. Many black women get into the habit of relaxing hair as girls -- when the choice is made by their mother or another relative -- so changing the status quo as an adult can be difficult.

For many people no matter their race or hair texture, accepting yourself "as you are" is a high bar. The history of beauty is one of dissatisfaction and transformation: Brunettes become blondes; white women get their curly hair Japanese-straightened. To go from short to shoulder-length and back again, celebrities from Britney Spears to Queen Latifah use weaves, which require a stylist to sew or to glue someone else's hair into tracks on the scalp.

So why, asks Brian Smith, who runs Treasured Locks with his wife, Tywana, is a hairstyle a "political or social statement" primarily among African-Americans? He has had customers implore him to stop giving hair-care advice to people who use relaxers because "you're helping these women sell out." But he and his wife, who now twists her hair after years of relaxing it, don't take sides.

The term "natural" is problematic, said Banks, the author of "Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women's Consciousness." She recently spent 14 months in black-centric salons in five cities researching a future book. Natural hair salons don't offer chemical straightening or weaves. But she found "a great deal of coloring in natural hairstyling, thereby challenging the 'chemically free' label."

Shayna Rudd, of Washington, wore a past-her-shoulders weave to have a better shot at the Miss America title. She said an adviser gave her two choices: Imitate Beyonce's long, luscious look or Jada Pinkett Smith's flowing mane.

"I couldn't be who God wanted me to be," she said ruefully. "I didn't win. My spirit was crushed."

Rudd, 24, has since sworn off relaxers and extensions. Instead, she occasionally presses her tight-curled hair and slicks it into a bun, which is what she did earlier this month when she won the title Miss Black USA. (She bested 28 other contestants, only three of whom wore their hair natural.)

"Don't buy into anyone else's standard," Rudd said. "Set your own."

  • related content

  • Michelle Lewis, Piper Miller and Shante Lewis

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions


Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters