The unbearable politicizing of black hair

Writer Nikki Giovanni.

Full Disclosure: I’ve been natural for nearly 12 years. Many years ago, when I was working on a big real estate project as an entry level project manager, a fellow black woman admonished me for wearing a colorful headscarf. At the time, I wore my hair in double strand twists that I would do myself, a tedious,painstaking project that would warrant me wearing a headscarf for a day or two because until I completed it. She told me that she ‘didin’t want people to get the wrong idea about the project.’ Her hair, by contrast, was chemically straightened, permed in the natural parlance of black hair styles. She occassionaly wore hair pieces as well.

Context here is king: we were black women in a predominantly white male environment represented a contrasting view of black female identity. And hair, is a trait of that identity. I naively assumed that at the dawn of the 21st century, my hair was not relevant fact in convincing loan officers to invest in a real estate transaction.

Earlier this summer, Melissa Harris Perry aired a segment exploring the current cultural conversation around black women and hair.

And just this week, O Magazine released the cover of its forthcoming September issue with Oprah donning a natural mane.

After 12 years of being natural, I’m kinda stoked about all this mainstream excitement (thank you and But haters still lurk in the ether. 16 year old Gabby Douglas is a member of the 2012 US Olympic Gold Medal Gymnastics Team. Why are people tweeting about her hair?

Monisha of Sporty Afros echoes what I’m really thinking here:

2)   Many of us, Black women, have acquired the horrible habit of criticizing each other from head to toe with no regards of its repercussions. It’s almost like a sport to see how many laughs or likes one’s criticisms can get on Facebook or retweets on Twitter. Once again criticism has trumped compliments. And as a Black woman, this saddens me.

3)   Putting more focus on Gabby’s hair and not her athleticism proves many of us are still missing the point on where true beauty, strength, and health lies. Some of us are sitting up right now with our hair done but suffering from high blood pressure, borderline diabetes, obesity, and/or a lack of energy. Oh, but the hair is on point. As mentioned earlier, I don’t know Gabby Douglas personally and I would never try to speak on her behalf. However, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that she considers her health and fitness level to be a little more important than her hair staying in place.

What’s particular to me in this narrative about blackness and beauty is the rather uncomfortable admission that we are overly concerned by how the world (white people) sees us and our own internalized narrative of the meaning of kinky, curly, (nappy) hair. Our hair comes in all textures and types. The resources and community support that are available to us today were absent in my earliest journey of ‘transitioning‘. Yet, we’re still policing each other on how to be and be seen. Solange Knowles has also had her share in engaging the hair policing this summer, took to twitter to hush her critics for calling her hair ‘unkempt’ and ‘dry as heck’. Key word: ‘unkempt’. The socialization around black women and our naturally curly hair centers around a perception that I have assume stems from our tortured racial history, that our hair, wild, tightly curled, textured hair means something that is ‘bad’, ‘unruly’, ‘uncivlized’ and ‘rebellious’. The legacy of language in this context sadly echoes more race talk but within our own community. ‘Unkempt’ is this context is another way to say ‘uncivilized’. I’d wager that the history of racist and negative imagery of blacks in America in caricature, minstrel, to black face has a lot about how we worry about high profile successful blacks represent us to the mainstream. Except, now, we’re on the fast track becoming the mainstream. There’s a remarkable amount of work we have to do to transition our language from negative associations of black hair (beauty and identity) in the face of a flyaway strand from a dismount off a perfect balance beam routine.
I personally wear my hair however I want to wear it. Over the years, it has become less and less political for me. It’s freeing in a choice. It has also been a learned practice to avoid internalizing the judgement of some black women about the appropriate presentation of my hair as well as managing the curiosity of non black folk about the nature of my hair. I wear my hair in braids, twists, afros, blowouts, and pressed (by flatiron) for years. It’s my head and my hair. I whip it back and forth.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

Syreeta McFadden is a contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and an editor of Union Station Magazine.

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