hie, i am supposed to write a research essay on any topic. i chose: politics of black hair. i have written a rough draft, but not sure if it really makes sense. its my first thread so, hope i followed the rules. thanks in advance.
About a year ago as I was stepping out of the elevator with my 4 year old and a girl about her age walked into the elevator. My daughter turned around and pointed in the little girls' direction as the elevator closed and she shouted, 'mommy I want her hair!' For, a second I did not know how to react, and I asked her why? She stated, 'It's long and pretty and I like it, I don't like my hair!' Whenever she sees ads in the media of long, straight hair; she is reminded of her desire to have the ideal and the five little words follow, with excitement, 'mommy, I want that hair!' I sometimes wonder if I should have encouraged her earlier to appreciate her natural hair and be proud of what she has. The process of hair straightening among African Americans has become an unconscious act. Women have been brainwashed into changing their hair texture from its natural, nappy, kinkiness to the European straight, long, blonde hair which is considered the "ideal" by society. I will be exploring African American hair and draw attention to the historic connotations associated with black hair. I will look at the social institutions that have shaped how Natural African American, "nappy" Hair is perceived. Lastly, I will look into what black hair symbolizes in today's society.
For over two hundred years a lot of black women have been and still are slaves to hair straightening by use of chemicals and heat. Women have been programmed into choosing straight hair over their own natural "nappy" hair. According to James A. Rawley and Stephen D. Behrendt, during the transatlantic slave trade (17th century), the time when black people were imported from the "Dark Continent" (Africa) into America and the Caribbean; black women were dehumanized and made to feel inferior as and their hair was viewed as wild and animalistic (2005). Colonists controlled the slave's daily activities including where they worked e.g. working in plantations and as domestic help. As the slave trade continued white supremacy rose and black people became more inferior, black women were sexually abused and impregnated, giving rise to mixed children with lighter skin and with hair that closely resembled European hair. These mixed women were privileged and taught how to read because they closely resembled the colonists' race. However, black people despised the mixed race because of their physical attributes and advantages causing a division amongst the black race. Black women straightened their hair using heat in an attempt to resemble Caucasians for better privileges and treatment in the struggle of gaining acceptance by the colonists, their African values were lost and they were colonized by the white patriarchy system. Today, some African Americans still find the necessity of straightening their hair for the purpose of getting hired or keeping their jobs.
By the 1920s, Madame C.J Walker introduced hair products and improved the straightening comb, which became popular amongst the black people in America and Europe. With the use of Madame C.J. Walker's hair care methods black people's hair became healthier and grew to longer lengths. Black women's hair was transformed from dry, kinky hair into straight, soft, silky hair. Black women could now fit into the "ideal" beauty standards set by Caucasians of straight hair and job opportunities also opened up allowing black people to be hired, (Giddings, 1984). Today, women still use this process of straightening hair, using straightening combs and relaxer creams to tame their nappy hair. The relaxer cream also gained the name, "creamy crack" as women have to keep reapplying the relaxer every 8 - 12 weeks, to straighten the new growth. This name shows how black women have become addicted to using this product in an attempt to be accepted by society, conforming to European Caucasian norm of straight, silky hair. Most black hair care companies are now owned by Caucasians, this shows how the white supremacists are still in control. Their Advertisements geared to luring black people into purchasing these products and keeping the norm of straight hair.
By 1970, black women started wearing the afro in an attempt to make a political statement during the civil rights movement and called it the "Black Power Movement". The Afro was perceived as symbol of Black pride and served as a bond between African Americans. However, the Afro hair style lead to a dichotomy amongst the black feminists; as some feminists accepted the afro as a symbol of Black Pride and opposed it. Noliwe Rooks wrote that Gloria Wade -Gayles said "an activist with straight hair is contradictory", in the sense that our appearance must resemble what the movement stands for - Black pride, therefore, one should be wearing an afro in order to refuse oppression. Other feminists, such as Eleanor Manson, the state of a person's hair does not matter, black people must all unite and fight for the same cause (Rooks, 1996). As the afro gained popularity amongst the black people, people started wearing it because everyone else was wearing it and they liked it and it became a hair style.
Today nappy hair still carries negative connotations; it is one of the ways Caucasians racially brand black people and African Americans distinguish each other into lower, middle and upper class. Nappy hair has been and is still viewed as animalistic and wild; still some companies do not hire people with hair that is natural.
Through different social institutionalization, black women have been taught to perceive straight hair as the ideal, i.e. European straight hair. Women have been socialized to view hair through their families, the media and workplace.
Growing up in a middle class family, my parents taught me to be independent and be proud of my black heritage. Even my hair was kept short and natural, although my mother used to braid me every weekend until the age of four. I used to despise these braiding sessions as I knew I would be in pain from all the combing (combing natural hair can be a painful experience, if one is not aware of how to do it properly). After some time of enduring all these painful sessions I told my mother to chop it all off or straighten it. I just did not want to experience this every weekend. My mother had no problems with my decision so she cut it, as it meant she did not have to deal with my whining every weekend. From then onwards, my hair was cut before the school semester started and other girls in my primary school also had their hair cut, so I never did mind having a bald head.
However, at age thirteen, I moved onto high school and most of the black girls there had relaxed/permed long hair and I was one of the few girls who started the term without a single strand of hair on my head. For the first time I felt ashamed of being bald, I wanted so badly to be like my new friends. I used to wonder why my Caucasian friends had "nice straight hair" and I was stuck with hair that was difficult to put a comb through. I begged my mother and father to start braiding and straightening my hair. My mother did not mind, but because my father made all the decisions in the house, he believed and often said, "School girls should look like school girls, your hair should look smart (as in neat) and you should concentrate on you studies," My plight for long, permed hair was constantly denied. Noliwe Rooks also wrotes that at age thirteen, everyone else at her school had the ideal straight hair which she strongly yearned for. However, her parents refused to get her to permanently straighten her hair, (1996). From these examples, we can see how families are important in instilling values such as that of Black pride illustrated in both instances. On the other side my life experiences such as the painful combing and feeling ashamed of my natural hair reinforced my desire for long straight Caucasian looking hair. Here we see how parents fear that once their children straighten their hair, then all that they have taught is lost.
In the past, slaves were colonized into disliking their appearance and opt for straight Caucasian looking hair, (Rawley & Behrendt, 2005). This type of thinking was further reinforced when black women were discriminated against and could not be hired because of wearing their hair in natural hair styles. As a result of being treated differently in the workforce, an increase in the number of women with straightened hair grew. However, whether your hair is permed or in an afro, you can still have our values and be proud of being who we are. We should have the choice to have any hair style, as it is part of individuality and beauty.
Today black women are still conditioned to choosing straight hair over their natural Africa American hair. Some corporate firms still prefer to hire black women who have straight hair. Although I have not experienced this kind of racial discrimination, I have a friend who attended an interview about two years ago and she was told that in order to work for the firm and fit in with everyone, she would have to "do something about her hair", implying that she needed to straighten her nappy hair. Of cause she was offended by this remark, she could not believe there were people out there who were still so ignorant and she left after making it clear to the interviewer of how ignorant he is. I really commend her for standing up for her self as some would probably just perm their hair or just leave without a word.
The Media also played a big role in my decision-making process of whether or not to perm my hair. I was and still am exposed to magazines and television advertisements that show me how I can achieve "better hair". My thoughts were if I use these products I could have long straight hair like the women I saw in the ads. Once I started straightening my hair, I had to continue purchasing these products, in order to keep my roots straight, this got addictive, because the end product was just beautiful. Unfortunately, with the continued use of hair relaxer, my scalp got damaged and my hair was not growing well. I did not care about the burns in my scalp, all I cared about was attaining this standard of beauty that was set by the white supremacists. I started to feel like I was not beautiful, worried about how others would perceive me if I start growing my hair and leave it in it's natural state. In the past ads increased self hatred e.g. ads such as 'Curl-I-Cure', a hair relaxer from 1920s, read, "You owe it to yourself, as well as others who are interested in you, to make yourself as attractive as possible. Attractiveness will contribute much to your success - both socially and commercially. Positively nothing destructs so much from your appearance as short, matted unattractive curls hair."(Rooks, 1996). The message in this statement allows black women to think that they are not beautiful. The ad states that black women need to be aware of how society will perceive them. Therefore, they have to transform their hair from the "short, matted unattractive curl" to hair that fits into this ideal of long, straight and silky hair.
Black women continually face sexism, as the media has already set this standard of beauty; black women are sexually exploited on television and magazines. Women find the need to gain popularity to get noticed by the next male/female that passes by. For instance, in the video, Killing Us Softly by Jean Kilbourne, she talks about the objectification of women in ads and how they have no voice. She adds that ads show products women should buy in order to achieve ultimate beauty. In turn, these ads influence how we feel and who we should be. A few weeks ago, on the Tyra Show, featured an African American lady, a beautiful young lady who wore her hair in a straight weave. Her fiancé had never seen her real hair from the time they met and she was afraid that if he saw her without a weave he would leave her. This illustration shows how far woman can go in an attempt to please, their partners. Black women are struck in this invisible box that has been socially constructed for them over time and have learnt to live with.
Throughout history we see a constant power struggle between the white supremacists who want to be in control and the black people who are struggling with the dilemma of whether to conform or resist oppression. Hair is a perfect example of how Black women have been oppressed and used their hair as a tool to fight social injustice. As long as the white supremacists are in control and dictate what black women ought to be, then sexism and racism will continue to escalate. Black people will continue to be oppressed whilst the patriarchy system dictate major trends. As long as black women continue to purchase these products the rich white supremacist owned media will continue to bombard the public with these ads that show women with European straight Caucasian hair as the ideal. They really do not care who gets hurt as long as they make money and control the mass.
In the beginning, I dreaded the attention my hair brought, even though the comments I received were overwhelmingly positive from women of all races. “I wish I could do that with my hair,” and “I love your hair!” were most common. Most often I would respond with a smile and a thank you. With time, I understood their goal wasn’t to embarrass me—it was done out of admiration.
Months later when I started my last in-office job, I was a natural hair pro. I set the expectation that I would wear my hair in its natural state and my co-workers embraced it because they didn’t know any different. Seeing my braids or even my afro was normal for them, and it felt great not to discuss my hair like it was a huge deal. I worked that job for four months before making the choice to stay home with my son, and there wasn’t a single time that I felt uncomfortable presenting my authentic self.
Now that I work from home, my hair isn’t as much of a focus point. In fact, some days, I don’t do anything at all to it. But I’m glad to have gotten to a place that I am comfortable wearing my hair in ways that go against the “norm” of society. If I ever choose to work onsite again, it feels good to know I have a plan for making myself feel comfortable in a place where I am considered an “other.” Until then, I can be found twirling one of my coils around my finger with my eyes attached to a screen. Not trying, just being natural.