Permed/Relaxed? Natural? What’s the Solution? The Critique of Black Hair

I Am Not My Hair by India Arie

The texture of hair is a commonly discussed topic within the Black community, especially for women. Most Black women see hair as their crown and glory; something that is worthy of pride, however there’s much critique. This critique of appearance is readily seen within the community, and even in the Black Arts and Post Soul eras.

In the song, I Am Not My Hair by India Arie, there is a portrayal of this common theme surrounding hair and its texture. The song opens open up with women laughing at Indie Arie because of what she had done to her hair. The song develops with Arie’s journey of her different hair styles, eventually going into the choir which simples states “I am not my hair, I am not this skin, I am not your expectations no” her response to the fact that hair is such a determinant. The women talking and laughing continues with some women agreeing with her hair choices, while other criticizing. The second verse describes how the writer feels about society’s view of hair and about a woman who has lost all of her hair because of chemotherapy, but performing in front of the camera confidently.

Growing up with my mom and grandma owning a hair salon, I can really say that I understand the views of women regarding their hair. Hair within the African-American (especially Black Women) community can also be linked with privilege. Regarding Arie’s song, women are very critical about their hair, no matter how it looks. Being nappy or natural to some is very unappealing to many because of the amount of work it takes to maintain.  India Arie’s own journey travels not only through time but also through hairstyles and stages in a female’s life. Within the transitioning of this song the author realizes that it is not the importance of the way the hair looks, but about what is beneath; what lies within. She speaks of a woman who has lost all of her hair, yet performing in front of thousands on television. This type of confidence deters from physical appearance, and moves to the whole individuals.

Within John Killens’ book, The Cotillion, the main character Yoruba is seen being put through very crazy practices in order for her to be the perfect black woman in her mother’s eyes. Her mother is very infatuated with not only “keeping up with the Jones’” but being better than many of her “lower” counterparts. Yoruba’s mother portrays this societal view that appearance is everything, which is true to an extent. Her mother leaves no room for Yoruba to actually embrace the fact that she is black, and to embrace all of being black, and being one with her people, which at times she struggles with.

From hearing India Arie’s I Am Not My Hair, it can be noticed that black women can wear their hair in an array of fashions: straight, curly, an afro, or natural. There’re varying views regarding hair and exactly what “Good hair” is. There are individuals who feel that those who use perms to straighten their hair have “good hair.” Others also think that individuals who wear their hair in its natural state have “good hair.” Having naturally good hair within the Black community is something that most want; hair free of tangles and nappyness. Urban Dictionary states that good hair is “A popular term in the African-American community, used to describe a black person’s hair that closely resembles the hair of a typical white person (i.e. soft, manageable, long, as opposed to “nappy” or “bad” hair). The closer your hair is to a white person’s, the “better” your hair is.”

In 2009, model Tyra Banks aired an episode called “What is Good Hair?” on the Tyra Banks Show. This episode featured many different Black women and children and their differing views on what it means to have “good hair.” She episode shows the critique that African-American women have for their own hair. Along with the critique, there seems to be so much controversy within the African-American community about women wearing their natural hair, as previously stated. View the videos below as they show some very important facts and startling information behind children’s perception of their own hair and the history of black hair within the African-American community.

Video clip from the Tyra Banks Show, episode: What is Good Hair?

The history relating to African-Americans texture of hair is actually quite startling. Not only were the roots of the situation regarding heritage, but it was about survival and opportunity for many African-Americans with the 19th and early to mid 20th century. Tyra Banks also invited the Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps, the authors of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair, who gave some historical insight on the way that African-American men and women.

The term “good hair” did not originate as a term of beauty, contrary to popular belief; it was a term that was derived as hope for survival. This term, good hair, evolved out of slavery, women and men who had silkier hair, like that of the master’s were more likely to end up in better situations. These individuals were more likely to be freed upon their master dying or being a house slave, which gave them more opportunities to better resources and things that they weren’t permitted to do such as education. Byrd and Tharps remark in their closing that once slavery ended, these terms and behaviors were still embedded within our cultural psyches and reason there is a lot of controversy today.

Video clip from the Tyra Banks Show, episode: What is Good Hair?

In this link above, we hear some startling information. Tyra brought children and their mothers which proved to be very interesting conversation. (For the whole episode, click HERE) All of these children were beautiful and arguably have “good hair” however there was once child who preferred to wear here Hannah Montana wig because she felt as though people liked her better with it on. Prior to this clip, the mother’s were on the stage, and her mother talked about how she tells her daughter that she is beautiful, and that she does not need to get her hair relaxed. She has a tighter curl in her hair, though when straightened is very long.

Video clip from the Tyra Banks Show, episode: What is Good Hair?

This issue of hair may seem very simple and unimportant to people that are not of cover, but like aforementioned, it is something that is embedded into our psyches, and passed down through many generations. It appears that this, the struggle of black hair, and the critique that African-Americans specifically women, are affecting them psychologically from early ages.

One of the children, Malia (who is half African-American and half Latino), said that when she sees someone with hair like that (pointing to an afro wig) it makes her think of someone of lower class. This is extremely startling, no child that is 5 years old should hear anything like that! It indeed has a great psychological contribution because her mother made up at the age of 11 that she would have a child with a man of another race, due to hair. Her reasoning behind this was the fact that she was teased, picked on and called names such as “bald headed” and “nappy headed.”

Though we see that there is a lot of critique regarding natural hair, having “good hair” is not always a great thing. Kalayshia, age 5, appeared saying that she wants her mother to cut her hair off so that the children at school will stop teasing her. By just looking at her hair, you can notice that it is very long, to her waist and not seemingly course. Her mother even professed the fact that not only does her daughter come home from school crying because of being picked on, but she has also had other students to pull out handfuls of her hair.

In Danzy Senna’s, Caucasia, the two sisters, Birdie and Cole are completely different. Cole is of a brown complexion with courser in comparison to Birdie’s light complexion and “good hair.” Birdie and Cole were of mixed race, and due to complications the family split up, with each parent taking the child that looked like themselves. The mother had no knowledge of black hair and the daughter walked around looking like a mockery because of the mother’s lack of knowledge. However, there is an emphasis that is put on the connection between hair and race. Hair is also a form of identity, as can be determined through my various resources, even Caucasia. Birdie resents her father because of having to pass as a Jewish girl with her mother. She strongly embraced her roots, both White and Black, because they were apart of whom she was holistically.

When typing in the term “African-American hair” there are many results that come up. Some individuals with straightened hair, some chemically others heat, there are individuals who have natural hair exposed. All of these women are smiling or have a fierce countenance. The pride of being African-American and black exhumes from them, also the freedom of choice. These women look happy that they are able to take pride within themselves. As seen in the previous media, we are now in an age where African-American women are allowed to express their own unique beauty, instead of conforming to the Eurocentric hairstyles.

Trailer for Chris Rock’s documentary, Good Hair

There is no way that I can begin to even speak on the topic of hair, without mentioning Chris Rock’s famous documentary, Good Hair. Chris Rock travels all over the United States interviews individuals about what it means to have “good hair.” An interesting thing about this trailer is that not only does Rock interview everyday people, but also celebrities. Famous individuals such as Rev. Al Sharpton, Dr. Maya Angelou, Raven Symone, and others help him along his journey of discovery regarding hair. This document speaks of the many processes that African-American women undergo in order to get “good hair.” There is also critique within this documentary as Rock goes around California trying to sell individuals natural, African-American hair with no success. There were even beauty supply storeowners that mentioned how no one wants nappy hair; it is all about the straightened, processed hair.

Throughout history and time, the Black Arts Movement and Post-Soul, there is a steady critique of African-American regarding their hair. It seems to be very questionable whether or not this natural hair is the glory of a crown or worthy of a perm.


Works Cited

Killens, John Oliver. The Cotillion; Or, One Good Bull Is Half the Herd. New York: Trident, 1971. Print.

Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. New York: Negro Universities, 1969. Print.

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