October 2012, Previous Issues

Do we have to have “good hair” to have good hair?

Few groups takes as much pride in their hair – or spend as much money on it – as African-American women.  Just as men argue about their favorite sports teams, black women love to argue who has better hair.

“Good hair” is a term familiar to every black woman. It is not just a reflection of their style, but a foundation of their identity – of how they think of themselves and how they want others to perceive them.

The pursuit of “good hair” helps bind our culture and community. But “good hair” is also a problem which undermines us because it reflects qualities typically associated with more fair-skinned individuals: Hair that is straight and smooth, not natural or nappy.

As a result, the definition of beauty that many African-American women embrace – an idea that goes to the very core of their identity – does not reflect the best part of our history but the worst. It continues a legacy in which black children grow up associating beauty with other cultures. It is time we recognized that “good hair” is not a symbol of pride but a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

When it comes to hair, all women can relate. Whether you are white, black or Asian, we all agonize over how to wear it; toss and turn about what color it should be; and, cringe at the thought of cutting it too short.  A typical person has about 150,000 hair follicles on the scalp. However, that does not mean that all hair is created equal. Black people’s hair is thicker, curlier, and often frizzier than Caucasian and Asian hair. It is easier to change into a variety of styles but it is also more prone to damage.

Perhaps this difference is why hair has always held a central role in African culture. During 15th century Africa, hairstyles were used to indicate a person’s marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth and rank within the community, according to historian Jacob Huey.

When Africans were transported to America as slaves, hair remained important, even as styles changed. Historians have found that field slaves often hid their hair, whereas house slaves had to don wigs similar to those worn by their masters. During slavery, whites valued light-skin over dark as a means of psychologically breaking those who were enslaved and creating divisions among them.

Lighter skin blacks were believed to be superior because they resemble their masters, who perpetuated this idea, often by treating lighter skinned slaves better. Light-skinned house slaves, for example, worked in much better conditions than those in the fields. This caused tension long after emancipation as African-Americans absorbed and perpetuated the advantages of light skin and other aspects of “whiteness.” As Bridget J. Crawford of Pace University Law School observed, “Black women in this country live with the legacy of message — from slavery to the present day — which is that the hair with which an African-American is born is less than beautiful.”

In  the early 1900s, Madam C.J. Walker received a patent for developing the “hot comb” also known as a “pressing comb.” This device was the first of its kind to be marketed by a black woman to other black women, and it completely changed the hair game. The hot comb allowed black women easy access, it required no chemicals and within minutes it created just as much change to your hair as the perm. It promised a limited time of straightness.

From those humble origins sprang an enormous industry. African-Americans now spend more than half a billion dollars a year on hair care and personal grooming items, according to an annual report published by Target Market News. Much of this money is spent by black women to change the appearance of innate traits such as eye color as well as the color and texture of their hair. Most do not alter it to enhance their natural beauty but in order resemble women of different races and cultures. Permed/processed hair, blond highlights, blonde weaves and color contacts are all attempts to look more white.

Although some African-American women may not agree, I firmly believe that we are subconsciously incapable of recognizing and identifying our own beauty. We do not know who we really are and why we conduct ourselves the way we do when it comes to hair and beauty. It is as if we are going through a perpetual identity crisis. “Black women are in a frenzied search to shed the ancient racist shame and stigma of ‘nappy hair’ by aping white beauty products,” argues Earl Ovary Hutchinson, a nationally recognized black journalist.

I am not writing to change the minds or habits of the black women, but to restore awareness of natural worth. We must know our history so we can be aware of how the past has and continues to shape us. Only then can we make fully informed decisions about the future. Hair is, and should be, important to black women because it is our crown. But we must remember that what we were born with is just as beautiful as any other group of people’s hair. It should be recognized and embraced.

— Laquita Foreman