Thursday, August 27, 2009

I am not my hair?

I woke this morning intending to skip blogging today. Several deadlines looming, including one for a storytelling cycle I've recently become a part of that has me a bit spooked, if only in a good, productive, "get off your ass and write" kind of way. It's the second day of rain here in Chicago, and summer's almost over anyway, which just adds insult to injury. And I'm nursing a sore tricep--working on building strength so I can balance upside down on my forearms is slow going. So I was going to skip the extended pointed journaling and try to get right to work.

But then my blessed, thoughtful sweetheart sent me this article. I squealed with interest, I read it quickly, and I thought, "yeah, I can't just skip this. I think I have to write about it." I'm not going to take for granted that the knowledge of black hair's volatility within the black community is as common knowledge as it is within my own heart and mind. It's as likely as not that "the black woman's hair question" is a brand new concept.

I chemically treated my hair one way or another for years, in large part, because I didn't know I could do anything else with it. My senior year in college I cut my perm (aka relaxer) off and went natural. It was the most liberating thing I've ever done, and I felt at my sexiest when my hair was that short. Sadly, I have no digital pictures of my hair at such a close, sexy cut, but those people who knew me when I wore it short will testify it was something like this.

I often wore sharp-edged stone and acrylic necklaces, too.

I started locking in 2005. I'd been back in Chicago a year, had been letting my 'fro grow in, but decided I wanted to do something to it, with it. I met a woman with absolutely stunning locks who put me on to a great book about natural hair care, and in March I took the plunge. That was four years ago. My locks are about shoulder-length now, the longest hair I've had since I was probably twelve, and they are a good two inches longer than the disgruntled photo of myself attached to this blog. (The face I'm making always cracks me up--so cranky!) I locked because I loved the idea of taking care of my own hair, as opposed to having to pay someone to do it for me: I liked the connection between my body and my soul, and frankly, I was a broke grad student and couldn't afford the time or money to visit the beauty shop and have it cut every three weeks just to keep it looking clean. I've since fallen madly in love with my locks, as an expression of a historical and cultural identity, as well as just a pretty cute style. And I love that there's no chemical at all that goes into my hair to make it do what it do. It happens by itself. Quietly.

I like the idea posited in this article that black hair is as often as not just what someone feels like doing with their hair, that it need not always be a fist in the air. It began that way for me, but it's changed now. I would love to say that black hair is not a political statement; I'm just not sure that it's true. If someone can get away with calling one of the First Daughters into question for wearing her hair in twists as a questionable representation of America, how can black women not feel like how we wear our hair is a political statement? (true, very few of us are in as much limelight as Malia Obama, but you get me.)

The thing that makes it a political statement is that there are always other people looking at you and trying to figure you out based on what they see. I feel this way about myself, all the time: whether I'm being sized up as an easy mark with a wallet full of cash, a single lady who might go home with him, someone who might stop and sign her petition, a teacher who won't enforce the College's attendance policy, or a woman who looks black but sounds white, I feel like somebody is always measuring what's on the outside and trying to determine what's on the inside. This is the thing that makes hair--like it makes language usage, or education, or dress or body language--a statement of politics and not just personal expression. I haven't read enough Malcom Gladwell to know what's the science behind what I'm putting down here. I'm just saying that whether you want them to or not, somebody's always going to assume something about you based on what they see. A lot of the times, they'll be wrong.

I also used to feel an incredible amount of consescencion toward black women who chose to chemically straighten their hair. I couldn't bear to think of what they were doing to the structure of their hair, what standard of beauty they felt they had to cater to, what they had been brainwashed into thinking was beautiful--which was not who they were--that they would try to become by straightening their hair. I know about the fact that for some women it's just more convenient to wear your hair relaxed, and that there are some women who feel like they want to but just can't break away from the thing they've been doing. And I get it. But dig the other side of that coin: my mom used to say to me, "Jessica, you should let your hair grow long. Black men love women with long hair. They like to run their fingers through it, you know? Reminds them of a white woman."

yeah, let that one sink in a bit.

Now, I've written before about the things my mom says and how untrue they are, how she's taking injury she suffered at the hands of someone else and trying to pour it into me so that I won't face the pain she did. But seriously? I'm going to straighten my hair so that it can remind my loved one of someone who's culturally and racially not me, of what is generally percieved as the paragon of the cultural standard? What the fuck!

So now, I try really hard to love black women and their hair, regardless of what choice they've made. It's easier if I hope that they're choosing to straighten their hair, and not feeling without the option of going natural. But I try really hard to let that "set your own standard" idea be true. I'm still pretty burdened by the amount of women I see with fake this glued to their scalp and acrylic that dangling from the tips of their fingers: but I guess that's just about personal aesthetics.


east side bride said...

I *love* your profile photo. It has made me smile every time.

Laura said...

Haha! I almost forwarded you that very article... and then I figured, "She's probably already read it." What strikes me as interesting is the comparison between the fuss over Malia's twists as not "representing America" and the much fuss that was made over Chelsea Clinton's wild adolescent mane... pre-straightener, smoother, blow-dryer.... whatever concoction of products she uses to get that luscious, smooth mane. Chelsea was raked over the coals for her wild curls that seem untamable (and shouldn't every real woman be able to tame her hair??? please note sarcasm)..... but those were merely cruel comments are her awkward adolescence. They were not racially infused as the comments about Malia's twists were.

And what's with the fuss over Michelle Obama wearing shorts? Damn, if I had her legs, I'd wear Daisy Dukes strutting over of AirForce One!!!

A Los Angeles Love said...

Hair is a powerful social marker for women with curly "white" hair too. Even if it's seen as less of a political statement, my ethnic girlfriends (primarily Jewish and Latina) with "wild" hair have certainly faced workplace discrimination. Women with curly hair are seen as "exotic" and "sensual" and therefore unprofessional (mentors have said as much to many of them in review meetings). It's a more subtle discrimination than the everyday politics of natural/not black hair, but I'd also wager that it's rooted in the fear of the "other" and the association with black hair.

Speaking on a purely practical level, I don't get it, and it saddens me to think about the enormous internal pressure women of color face. This of course comes from a girl desperately wanted a jew-fro like her friends had and who lost 8 hours of her life getting braided extensions when I studied abroad in Kenya. Those 8 hours - not worth it (except for the cringe-inducing photos).