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Social Studies


By Vincent Williams | Posted 8/12/2009

I have immense respect for Chris Rock, not least because of what he's tackling in his newest project. Over the past two years, the comedian has worked on a documentary, Good Hair, that examines the issue of black women and their hair. OK, seriously, I feel a little weird even writing the words, "black women and their hair." I'll go off half-cocked about religion, politics, sex, whatever, but the subject of black women's hair is one that you have to approach . . . very gingerly.

Perms, wings, extensions, naturals, twists, Nubian locs (which are dreadlocks but you don't call them dreadlocks, because, well, that's a whole 'nother story . . .), there's a whole array of hairstyles that black women rock, and, pretty much since the moment they got their hands on a straightening comb, controversy ensued over the implications of straightening. And when Madame C.J. Walker and her legendary line of hair products led to a new era of ubiquitous straightening, the arguments, pardon the pun, just heated up more. Add the whole concept of naturally straight hair or what some black people continue to call "good hair," and you've got yourself one explosive situation. What it comes down to is this: After Emancipation, the civil rights movement, and the subsequent Black Power/Black is Beautiful cultural paradigm shift, are African-Americans clinging to a Eurocentric standard of beauty and does the act of a black woman straightening her hair mean that she wants to look like a white woman?

Frankly, I've always done my best to avoid the conversation, 'cause, hey, not my thing. But Rock has relayed that he was prompted to make the documentary because his daughter asked him about her lack of good hair, and raising little black girls forces fathers to join mothers and confront this aspect of image by starting to put together some language to address the manner in which the black community relates to its hair. Whatever you believe about hair texture and hair length and all the bullshit that goes along with it, black folks have to figure it out so we can build healthy self images for these kids, because, seriously, it's 2009. Children have enough challenges without adding some stuff that should have been addressed many decades ago. "Good hair?" Really? Every time I hear someone say it, I feel like I'm listening to a Victorian Age time traveler visiting The Future.

For the moment, we haven't had to deal with a "good hair" question, but my daughter has made note of the differences in women's hairstyles, and she's got examples of the whole gamut around her. About half of her aunts and aunties have perms, and the other half have some kind of natural hairstyle. On the home front, my wife cut her perm out about 10 years ago and never looked back. (The funny thing is, my niece locked her hair a few years back following behind my wife, and now my daughter, when she expresses an interest in hair, thinks my niece's 'do is the coolest thing ever, completely ignoring Mommy.) Regardless of hair, all of the women in my daughter's life are good examples of womanhood for her to aspire toward.

Still, as vigilant as we are about the dolls and depictions of black womanhood she's exposed to, I'm under no illusions that my daughter couldn't come home and ask about "good hair" just like Rock's daughter did. We control what happens in the house, but others have already made innocuous comments about hair texture and hair length. We are well aware that discussions of little black girls and their barrettes and plaits and bows are fraught with innuendo and value judgment.

What do I think? Well, I think there are many other issues that I would argue are more important. Of course, part of the reason I don't think that much about hair issues might be because I'm a man. Fair enough. Do I think it's possible to tell something about a black woman's sense of identity by the way she keeps her hair? Sure, why not. Do I think the rule is cut-and-dried? Well, is anything? I certainly don't think Michelle Obama is mired in a morass of racial self-doubt, and, on the other side of the coin, I think Lauryn Hill is batshit insane. Again, I'd rather avoid the whole thing, but I'm being dragged by my hair into the debate, kicking and screaming.

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