The Respectability of Black Hair

Photo by   Jacob Prose   from   Pexels

Photo by Jacob Prose from Pexels

What does it mean for a black woman to be presentable in the world? Most often it involves everything but the authenticity of what it means to actually be a black woman. Hair must be beat into submission with slicking gels, wet brushes, and tight hairbands. Or better yet, braided and completely covered up with hair from some other woman deemed more beautiful and more acceptable. Being presentable as a black woman means buckshots are nowhere in sight, that your clothes don’t quite show too much of the curve of your round behind and that the loud and booming voice you possess is shushed into a more comfortable whisper. Yet, we would wonder why we often don’t feel seen. How can we be seen as black women when the very essence of who we are has been deemed, unacceptable? 

Many have been in an uproar about the H&M ad that recently showed a young black girl with hair that in many black homes would be considered unkempt. Her hair, a texture known to the black natural hair community as 4C, is a tight and kinky pattern often deemed the most undesirable in the spectrum and the least represented in cute ads about natural hair care. Although the ad was made to show children that had been at school all day and featured other young girls with messy hair, something about the young, black girl’s tight texted hair pulled into a short ponytail without brushing or gel sent the internet into a frenzy. 

It was reminiscent of the internet’s snide comments about Beyonce’s oldest daughter Blue Ivy’s hair when she was younger. Her hair too was of a kinky texture and Beyonce seemingly let her child’s hair live until it was strong enough to actually be styled and lots of people had a problem with that. So often in our culture, before a child’s final hair form has even settled, we are inundated with brushes, ballies, and barrettes. 

It’s easy to see that early manipulation of the hair can be very damaging causing hair loss and causing women to cover their hair for that fact. But something about being out in the world without hair that is suitable for others, really makes many people in the black community uncomfortable and I’d say that it’s often ingrained in us farther back than we remember. 

The phrase “Good Hair” made its way into the lexicon during slavery times. It was the reference to a looser, more European standard of hair. The French invented the pressing comb, later known as the hot comb that made its way to America in the 1880s and was the first assault to black hair. The moment that we were uprooted from our own countries, the bar set became a European standard of beauty that black people were never meant to measure up to. 

By the 1950s, we had figured out how to permanently straighten black folks hair with harsh chemicals to be more like white folks. I get it. In those times, there were so many things that we couldn’t even access and assimilation was truly the name of the game. But those outdated processes seeped into our parents’ generation as well. 

I had a chemical straightener before I even understood what the actual texture of my hair was. Every black girl with thick hair has her own journey. I received a “relaxer” as it became referred to because my mom had an ailment that didn’t allow her full range of motion in her hands and straighter hair was simply easier to manage. However, that led to a lifetime of “that’s just what we do,” we perm our hair. Until college when I got free.

When I first started to consider going natural it was 2008 and a lot of people that I knew were making the big chop. It felt like there were a lot of black women on my campus returning back to their natural hair state and so I began the journey of transitioning. For those of us that weren’t as fearless to cut all the product out of our hair at once, I started to let the relaxed part of my hair grow out. It was complicated. On one hand I had my natural texture at the root and on the other hand I had this straight, lifeless hair on the ends. Eventually, I just had to cut it off. 

But I remember when I was first starting out, asking my mom, “well, what is my natural hair like?” I had hopes of it being those perfect ringlets that I often saw represented on mixed women on television or on YouTube tutorials. I hounded my mom trying to figure it out and all she would say was, “it was really curly.” I couldn’t get a read on whether that was good or bad but eventually resolved, “if it’s too nappy, I can always just relax it again.” I know, but that’s the truth that I can’t believe now, but it was totally how I thought back then. 

Accepting my natural hair took work. It took learning the right products. Learning to have confidence in a room full of women with straight hair and/or weaves. It took turning off YouTube tutorials with people who had hair nothing like mine and experimenting for myself. But honestly, the relationship most black women have with their hair remains complex. 

There is so much discourse even within the natural hair community that for so long I didn’t even know how to classify my hair and wanted to be careful not to call it 4C if it wasn’t. I liked my hair more the longer it got because shrinkage with already short hair is kind of a bitch. Especially in the beginning, so many people would give you backhanded compliments like “I could never pull that off,” or “you’re so brave,” as if walking out the door the way God made you every day should be such a valiant act. Although in my mind I’ve grown leaps and bounds from the timid twenty-something who went natural over ten years ago, with the recent H&M ad, I was forced to confront where I am at this very moment in that journey of acceptance not just for my own hair but how I see others’.

I didn’t like how the little girl’s hair looked. And I wanted to dissect and understand the “why” in that feeling. I am not a person who always slicks my edges down or always has the neatest and perfectly coifed twist outs. I think a little frizz gives me character. So, was my own bias about black hair jutting out? Or was it just that it wasn’t a favorable way for the hair to look? I think natural hair is beautiful in all textures, but I guess I do still believe in doing something to it. There’s rarely a time when I have done nothing to my hair even if I just sprinkle some water in it or throw a headwrap on it. But to some, I have unruly hair that they could never see walking around with either. 

I know that my views on acceptability are directly related to my raising. I grew up in a house where you got up and got dressed. You wouldn’t dare go outside in a hair scarf and you had to brush your hair. But it takes getting older to start thinking about why you have to be so thoughtful about the way you look vs. your white counterparts. 

The reality is that black people have often been forced to move, behave, and dress in ways to not only be acceptable in the eyes of society but to also be kept safe. Wearing a hoodie and walking to the store in a neighborhood in Florida can literally get you killed. Rest Well Trayvon. So, in many ways, our parents have tried to “tidy” us up, in an effort to give us the best chance to be respected in a racist and unkind society, and in extreme cases to stay alive. 

Sure, here, we’re talking about hair, but it’s a much bigger picture of how black people and specifically black women present ourselves in the world. It was perceived that the beautiful young black girl was misrepresented and that there should have been more care for her appearance, but for what? For a white gaze? Or for a black one? What makes our thoughts and feelings on her hair any different than the schools and establishments that try to set limits on black hair? In 2019, you still have outdated bylaws and regulations that disproportionately discriminate against black hair. We’re all still recovering from the triggering video of a young man’s locs being cut off before a wrestling match.  

The reality is that many of our bias about our own hair is so deeply rooted that it’s hard to separate. “Is this just how I like to see hair presented or am I influenced by how others perceive the way the hair is presented?” And when we’re most honest with ourselves, it’s likely the latter further confirming the lack of acceptance for our authenticity as black people. As Burna Boy’s mother so eloquently put it, “you were African before you were anything else.” Before we were ever brought to places with standards where we couldn’t measure up, there were kinks, and coils and curls in all their unique glory. How can we ever truly find acceptance if we don’t show up as ourselves, unapologetically?