Here we go again, talking out loud about the hair issue. I naively thought that we had done that issue to death, but the roots of the problem seem not to have been adequately addressed. Perhaps a little context will help grasp what’s going on now.
African American women slaves covered their hair with bandannas or used axle grease, greasy dishwater, or lye to temporarily straighten their curly hair. An 1894 minstrel song by African American Gussie Davis, “When They Straighten All the Colored People’s Hair,” proclaimed that heaven would be the place where straight hair, even for black folks, would prevail. Some sources allege that slave women felt ashamed of their non-straight, non-flowing hair when compared with the mistresses’ or the little white children’s they were grooming. In the 1960s, some black women embraced the Afro as a symbol of political resistance and saw activist Angela Davis and Davis’ bold Afro as the embodiment of black power. Davis later lamented her disappointment that her politics had been reduced to a hairstyle, a hairstyle that in the 1980s and 1990s became a fad among black youngsters who saw the Afro and the Afro pick as more fashion than political statement. The cover of the 2008 New Yorker magazine with an Afro-wearing Michelle Obama struck a political chord of cultural insensitivity among many blacks. Indeed, at no time in American history has every black woman embraced the Afro or other more Afrocentric styles — dreadlocks, cornrows, braids, twists, or colorful head scarves. In 2001, historically black Morgan State University stirred controversy when they mandated that no headscarves, dreadlocks, braids or cornrows could be worn in a commercial video for student recruitment. The university later lifted that mandate after public outrage among blacks. In 1963, a short season of the TV show “East Side/West Side” starred a cornrowed Cicely Tyson. Producers shielded Tyson from angry comments and mail from African Americans who “disliked her hairstyle, of all things.” Recalls Tyson in an interview about the incident: “A lot of it was directed towards the fact that I was wearing my hair in a natural state and most of it came from blacks who felt that I was degrading black women by wearing my hair in that state.”
This summer’s London Olympics has brought us into another moment of déjà vu, this time with Internet blogs and Facebook postings ablaze. We are talking about one of the best gymnasts of all time — Gabby Douglas, who at age 16 is proudly and exceptionally representing America, black people, and black women. Little black girls can now see an exceptional Olympic gold medalist that looks like them. Critiques of Gabby’s hair as “unkempt” and embarrassing might have taken a very different tone if coming from a place of reaching out vicariously to embrace her as “one of our own,” to mentor her as she approaches young black womanhood and school her on the extent to which hair and hair care are critical — perhaps too much so — to her personal development. I wonder if folks screamed at Venus and Serena Williams when many of us noticed their hairlines receding from frequent and excessively tight hairweaves and extensions.
Hair for black women is a big deal. Hair is typically not wash-and-go for black women as it can be for their white counterparts. Gabby might have worn “natural styles.” I have noticed but one black woman track athlete with dreadlocks. One presumes that Gabby’s permed hair with the tied-up synthetic ponytail extension and hair clips help with manageability; interestingly, the style is also exactly like that of other young white athletes — gelled, ponytail, bun, and hair clips. Those who wish that she had sported another style and texture are reaching out the only way they can — through blogs, tweets, and Facebook. As we look at other black women across the globe competing in these Olympic Games, we notice weaves, extensions, and even the same pulled back-into-a-tight-bun style for which First Lady Michelle Obama was also critiqued not long ago. Perhaps black women see themselves in Ms. Obama and Gabby Douglas. Perhaps those black women upset with others’ hair choices might turn the mirror on what really matters or what really should matter — “not what’s on your head but what’s underneath,” sings neo-soul’s India.Arie.
All of this media “hysteria,” dismay, and headshakes of disappointment doesn’t really surprise me; I have been studying the race and gender politics of hair for over 20 years. I know the 1997 national controversy over Carolivia Herron’s children’s book “Nappy Hair,” a celebration of non-straight, “natural” hair vs. Barbie/Beyoncé/Brittany hair that is almost always glorified in magazines — even Essence (hailed as “the magazine for today’s black woman”) — and the media.
Many question why the emphasis on Gabby’s hair at a time when her accomplishments have made Olympic history, especially as she negotiates multi-million-dollar endorsements and is immortalized on cereal boxes. Perhaps some black people care too much about image and trying to control what others see or don’t see. Chris Rock told us in his 2010 film “Good Hair” that billions are spent annually on black women’s hair and hair products. We are witnessing the rash of disturbing hair thieving across the U.S. — stealing the “good hair” from beauty supply stores to sell on the streets as an entrepreneurial response to these tight economic times. I don’t believe this dust storm of criticism comes from envy and jealously, so I wonder if there is another approach to showing young Douglas that we care, not by mocking her and offering to give her a makeover — as I have seen in blog comments — but by celebrating her accomplishments as we are doing with the other athletes representing this great country.
In at least one interview, Douglas has said that the negative comments about her hair don’t bother her. I hope that’s true. As she signs the various contracts that come her way, I hope that she’s singing India.Arie’s liberatory “I Am Not My Hair” (2006) or “Sesame Street” brown girl child puppet’s joyous 2010 proclamation that “I Love My Hair!” How golden might that be if more black women and black girls proudly embraced these culturally celebratory sentiments as if they were gold, silver, or bronze metals around their necks.
• Ahwatukee Foothills resident Neal A. Lester, PhD, is a professor of English at Arizona State University.