Thursday, December 31, 2009

Straight and Narrow

Being a black woman in the US, it's almost impossible to avoid conversations about hair. Growing up in the south, all of my childhood memories are peppered with 6 hour sessions in hair salons, either with me sitting in a beautician's chair with a cloud of heat-filled smoke surrounding my head or with me plopped down on the neighboring coach flipping through old issues of jet magazine that was missing half of the pictures as the ladies had ripped them out and stuck them on their mirrors ( "I want the new Halle Berry do- that's FLY"), waiting for my mom to finish. Given all of this, it seems impossible that at the age of 23, I managed to escape this institutional bondage to rock my "nappy" locks happily. My morning hair routine rivals a black dude and I'd like to say that I reinvest those precious moments into my day. But still, I feel like some open letter to the masses is due so that I can live in PEACE. At least once a day, I'm asked "What are you going to do with your hair!?! Are you gonna dread it!! You gonna press it! Ooooo! Why don't you do that!?" I feel like my hair is on some kind college exit interview.

So to the cheering squad of folks on Team: Get Your Hair Straightened, who think my hair and everyone else's is nicest when subjected to the unrelenting heat of a pressing comb, I say, don't hold your breath. You may deplete the oxygen feeding your narrow mind. Sure, when you suggest it once, it's harmless, but when it's your daily, weekly, monthly refrain, I begin to question your world view and subsequent ignorance quotient. Yes, I just referred to you as shallow and narrow minded. It's shameful that despite the Evolutionary Road that African Americans have traveled, there seems to still be one area where we might as well be monkeys walking in the hunched over position.

Hair has always been at the top of a list of qualifiers in the African American community. It's right there under skin tone and before body type. It puts you either at the bottom or the top of the social totem pole. The question of why is far too complicated to answer in a blog entry. Not that anyone really could. Everyone must make their own individual peace about it. Especially since I don't think we'll be coming to any collective decision any time soon. Further, we must surround ourselves with people who understand and are of culturally sound mind, understanding the "long" and short of it. And occasionally that one person that we find worthwhile to "educate." I wonder if Madame CJ Walker anticipated all of this when she invented hot combs and perms and stuff. Did she anticipate that there would be a faction of people, down the line, who would rebel against this technology and consequently live lives subject to scrutiny. I'll go ahead and say no. I'm sure, however, that she had heard one too many people utter the words "good hair." I have to wonder what she thought. Probably what I'm thinking. Anyone who has succumbed to that school of thought has consequently neglected the beauty of their own heritage and said to the world "My views on beauty rival that of a neanderthal." Perhaps India Arie said it best.

"Good hair means curls and waves, bad hair means you look like a slave." And perhaps that's it. We'd rather look like some ethnically ambiguous chick than anything that represents our ancestors? No? Well, get your story straight. Because your ignorance is maddening and puzzling, and I refuse to keep addressing it in the new year.

This is my hair manifesto. And I couldn't avoid writing it. I didn't intend for it to solve anything. As I approach a long overdue hair trimming, I hope that the dead hair falling from my head will go in peace and without the marching orders of a hot comb. If such things are impossible, at least my final words will cause my close minded friends...and family to examine their outlook and see past the "naps" to the root of the problem. I'm hopeful that in 2010 we can not only turn the chapter on a new decade but also on this topic of dialogue. Could someone PLEASE bring to the table, new topics for discussion on race relation. You've got at least a million to choose from...

Happy New Year!

1 comment:

A'Lelia said...

Dear Ms. Wartel,
Thanks so much for your insightful thoughts about hair. Like you, I've also written a "hair manifesto." Here's the link to my "Five Point Hair Manifesto" on
You are so right that hair is an issue that seems to have no resolution in our community, but I am encouraged by the many young women like you who are finding peace with their hair and asserting themselves.
As Madam C. J. Walker's great-great-granddaughter and biographer, I just wanted to share some information with you. I know it's become gospel to some to believe that Madam Walker invented the hot comb and perms, but that belief is an urban myth. Madam Walker never sold or marketed chemical perms. She did use hot combs--which she thought were an improvement over other metal devices called "pullers," which she thought flattened the hair and made it look lifeless--but she did not invent them. Infact, hot combs were sold in Bloomingdales and Sears catalogs as early as 1890, when Madam Walker still was a washerwoman in St. Louis and more than a decade before she went into the hair care business. Her primary goal was to help African American women have healthy hair rather than straight hair. While it seems hard to imagine now, she was going bald because she lived during an era when most Americans lacked indoor plumbing, electricity and central heating. Hygiene was very different and most people bathed only once a week, if then, and washed their hair even less frequently. As a result, many suffered from severe scalp disease and baldness. Madam Walker's vegetable shampoo and "Wonderful Hair Grower" were her most popular products.
In answer to your question about what Madam Walker may have thought: Yes, Madam Walker actually did think about the hair straightening controversy. You and your readers can learn more about her thoughts--and she her quotations--in my December 18, 2009 interview on the Black Girl with Long Hair blog at
If you'd like to learn more about Madam Walker's business, philanthropy and political activism, I'd recommend the following books:
On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker by A'Lelia Bundles
Hair-Raising by Noliwe Rooks
Hope in a Jar by Kathy Peiss.
All three books are based on extensive, scholarly research and include documentation for all the information.
Best wishes for a happy new year.
A'Lelia Bundles