I stopped blogging for a week because I was swamped with life, so I couldn’t follow through on my black history month posts. Hair is a topic I wanted to address at some point, and after reading negative reactions to Viola Davis’ hair at the Oscars, I figured this was appropriate.
A (white) friend of mine posted this on Facebook last night:
I seriously doubt they meant any malice. I think this is a prime example of the fact that white people never have to think about race or why things are the way they are. They can just exist. For people of color, race is everywhere. Even in something as seemingly insignificant as a glib comment about a weave.
First, let’s talk about the hair itself.
Afro-textured hair, black people hair, kinky hair, whatever you want to call it (well, not whatever you want to call it: wooly, bushy, crispy etc. will get you smacked) is the result of flattened hair follicles. Very straight, Asiatic hair is round, white people hair is more oval, and black people hair is flattened, resulting in a variety of ribbon-like, spiral, curly, or wavy textures. Because of the curl, oil doesn’t travel easily from the scalp through the length of the hair, resulting in a drier appearance. Also, African hair is less dense, with about 40 less hairs per square centimeter when compared to Caucasian hair. All of these things make African heads more suitable to the hot climates of the sub-sahara. The coils allow air to circulate at the scalp. Additionally, the hair retains it’s relative shape and appearance when dampened by sweat, unlike straight hair that sticks to the skin and lies flat when moist.
Before the Atlantic slave trade, hair was a source of pride and bonding for Africans. Women would spend hours, or sometimes days, shampooing, oiling, braiding, twisting, combing, dressing, and accessorizing the hair of family members. Typically, older women would pass along their skills to younger family members. Loose hair was the mark of social deviants or the mentally deranged, and having your hair prepared was a mark of love, respect, honor, and family. Unlike today, hair wasn’t a source of revenue but a bonding experience.
At the height of the slave trade, captured Africans were typically between the ages of 10 and 24, too young to have learned hair-dressing skills from their elders. Even if they had the skills and specialized tools of their homeland, horrendous, exhausting working conditions 12-15 hours a day, 7 days a week, left little time for personal care or grooming. Unlike the long, healthy, immaculately prepared hairstyles of their ancestors, slaves wore their locks in tangled, matted heaps. They turned to sheep fleecing tools, leading to scalp infections, dandruff, and lice. Field slaves cut their hair very short or shaved their heads, the men wearing hats and the women wearing scarves and handkerchiefs to protect their scalps from the sun. House slaves were expected to be neat and presentable. The men oftentimes wore wigs to mimic the hairstyles of their white masters while the women wore simple plaits and braids. However, some female house slaves were ordered to cut their hair if deemed to be competition for the lady of the house in an act to defeminize their appearance.
By the 19th century, Sundays had been set aside as a day of rest for slaves to socialize and go to church. Blacks discovered lard and other animal fats to moisturize the hair. With constant reminders that dark skin was inferior and kinky hair was undesirable, slaves experimented with dangerous techniques to both lighten their skin and straighten their hair. Women began heating butter knives to temporarily straighten the hair and add curls. To permanently straighten hair, a mixture of lye and potatoes was used which immediately burned the scalp. In some cities, such as New Orleans, afro-textured hair was all but outlawed in public, forcing women to cover their natural hair in public if unwilling to burn their hair with knives or boil their scalps with poison to achieve an appearance more acceptable to whites.
After slavery, blacks wanted more than anything to be accepted into society as equals. That meant continuing to strive for the approval of whites. Skin lightening advertisements became common and new techniques for chemically straightening hair became available. Madame C.J. Walker, America’s first self-made female millionaire, built her fortune on the scalps of black women. Straightened hair mimicking styles popular with white women were, for blacks, a mark of class, education, and wealth. Only the poor and lower class would dare wear braids and cornrows, an image that has never left the public consciousness. Even today, powerful black women rely on chemicals to imitate white hair. From Michelle Obama to Oprah to Condoleeza Rice, black women continue the tradition. So common is the image of powerful black women with unnaturally straight hair aided by chemicals, weaves, and wigs, Ursula Burns made the news when she became the first black CEO of a Fortune 500 company wearing her natural coils.
Since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the popularity of natural hair has ebbed and flowed with changing fashions and political climates. Still, a sizable portion of society has no idea the work (and danger) involved in taking black hair from it’s natural state to something on which white people can bless with their approval. Add to that the mental wear and tear inherent with being told that you alone are not good enough, what grows out of your head needs to be covered up with a wig or dressed up with some weave for a special event, and a glib comment about “needing a weave” takes on a new character.
It’s 2012. Would you say to Viola Davis “Why are you so dark? You need to whiten your skin a little bit for the Oscars”? Because telling her she needs a weave to be pretty enough for white people is saying just that.
Besides, it’s just hair. I don’t care if you’re bald or natural or relaxed or weaved. Hair is just as much a fashion statement as a pair of shoes and anyone should feel free to choose whatever style they feel comfortable with. I just take issue with comments that imply the only styles you should be comfortable with are the result of 400 years of oppression and brainwashing.