For many black women, hair tells the story of their roots

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 9, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- Black women can tell hair-raising stories about their trials and tribulations with their hair.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, proudly wore a smaller, Angela Davis-type Afro during her 1970s college days at Yale University and the University of Virginia, but later she abandoned the natural look.

"I was a revolutionary," she said. "I had a natural, which I enjoyed. But the upkeep, it took too much time."

Today, Lee has a combo hairstyle of both smooth, straightened hair and braids, and thinks that how a black woman's hair looks is very important in the working world.

Straight or natural, cornrows or close-cropped, dreadlocks or pressed, black women's hairstyles represent a personal or political statement, an expression of freedom, a lifestyle choice or an approach to American corporate culture.

Comedian Chris Rock trains his lens on black women and their follicles in "Good Hair," a new docu-comedy film out in theaters this weekend that delves into the women's attitude towards their hair, the amount of money they spend on it, and how their hair reflects who they are.

Rock said that he was inspired to make the film after his young daughter raved about a young white friend's hair, then asked, "Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?"

Inherent in her question were tangled attitudes about identity, cultural authenticity and the nation's complex socio-political and racial history, said Mark Anthony Neal, an African-American studies professor at Duke University and the author of "New Black Man" and "Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic."

Historically, for many African Americans, "A lot of it has to do with it fact that the ability to be seen as American and not foreign or 'other' had a lot to do with their look," Neal said. "Because skin color couldn't change, hair became a way to articulate a sense of American-ness. If kinkiness marked them as foreign, the ability to straighten hair marked them as more acceptable to the mainstream or 'American'."

During slavery, African Americans of mixed white, black and Native American ancestry were seen as more valuable and more attractive because their lighter skin and straighter hair was closer in texture to whites. After slavery, many blacks internalized this barometer of attractiveness when measured against the majority culture's standards, Neal said.

Middle- and upper-middle-class African Americans in turn founded social groups and churches where the test for admittance was skin lighter than a paper bag and hair that could be combed without tangling. Later, those same standards of beauty were elevated in American culture in advertisements, television shows, videos and movies, and on fashion runways.

Such cultural pressure led to a long-standing trend of black women placing a premium on their hair. It's no coincidence that Madame C. J. Walker became one of the nation's first black female millionaires in the early 1900s by producing and selling a line of beauty and hair care products aimed at black women.

Today, African Americans spend an estimated $9 billion a year on hair-care products in an effort to fry it, dye it, lock it up, weave it, or make it lay flat and smooth, according to industry estimates. Still, black women often debate whether certain hair styles -- cornrows, locks or Afros -- hold them back in professional work settings such as financial and legal firms or in broadcast media.

It hasn't hurt congressional Delegates Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and Donna M.C. Christensen, D-Virgin Islands, who both display close-cropped, chemically unprocessed "natural" hairdos.

Still, it's a serious enough concern that one woman wrote to the "Ask the White Guy" blog at the DiversityInc.com Web site and asked whether her natural hairstyle would prevent her from climbing the corporate ladder.

The "White Guy," Luke Visconti, replied: "There's no doubt in my mind that Black people have been overlooked for promotions because of natural hair or darker skin color. Psychological tests show that people most trust people who look like them. Since white men run most corporations in this country, straightened hair and/or lighter skin is going to be an advantage (disturbing, but let's keep it real)."

Orien Reid-Nix, a 63-year-old Philadelphia-area resident, made waves in the 1970s by sporting a neat, evenly-rounded Afro when she was a consumer affairs reporter for KYW-TV and later WCAU-TV. There were only a handful of black women on TV newscasts at the time, and even fewer who wore Afros or non-chemically treated hair -- a trend that continues today.

Reid-Nix felt black and proud, but her mother wasn't thrilled. Reid-Nix recalled her mother giving her a big hug and a kiss during a visit to Atlanta, then taking one look at her Afro and saying, "You look like the devil."

Some think that black women's focus on their hair does indeed hold them back in some areas. Jim Ellis, who created an all-black competitive swim team in Philadelphia in the 1970s that was the inspiration for the 2007 movie "Pride," said the reluctance of many black women to learn how to swim is because their hair tends to return to its natural, tightly curled state when it gets wet.

That's a problem, Ellis said, because blacks drown at higher rates. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, blacks drown at a rate 1.25 times higher than whites do. Black children between 5 and 19 drown at a rate 2.3 times higher than white children in that age bracket, the study said.

Times have changed since media professionals such as Dorothy Reed, a reporter for San Francisco's KGO-TV, was suspended for two weeks in 1981 for wearing cornrows on the air, and since 1971, when the management of New York's WABC-TV initially threatened to take reporter Melba Tolliver off the air if she didn't change the Afro hairstyle she wore while covering Tricia Nixon's wedding.

Recording artist India.Arie's hit single "I am not my hair" was a lyrical declaration that the politics of authenticity as measured through hair texture needs to end.

"There's been a shift in attitudes about natural hair beginning with the black pride movement of the 1960s, when people wore their Afros and took pride in that. In the '80s and '90s, blacks embraced natural styles, twists and locks, and that kind of thing," Neal said. "I think it's still a hard sell in corporate America, especially on air, and executives are suspicious of what audiences will read into those hairstyles. There's a fear that they'll be viewed as less than professional and less capable of having the intellectual ability to be in the classroom or in front of the camera."

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