In 2007 radio host, Don Imus referred to the the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hoes.” This public comment brought light to the observable marker black women must defy. Imus’ insensitive, derogatory comments caused an uproar of backlash and his immediate release from his CBS radio program. Leslie Moonves, the former President and CFO of CBS released a statement addressing his firing and said, “there has been much discussion of the effect language like this has on our young people, particularly young women of color trying to make their way in this society.” Imus’s comments are an illustration of the ideologies many individuals still have regarding black women’s bodies. Black hair is an indicator of black peoples political and social marginalization. The coily, frizzy, and textured hair on Africans has been an impediment on their human status since they arrived in America. Hair was and still can be another feature that rationalizes the unequal treatment of colored people.
It is important to realize that a black female’s identity cannot be addressed in full without connecting the importance of her hair. Hair styling is used as an expression of beauty, personality, and even status. Historically, hairstyles have been in response to different aspects of life. Black women use hair to manifest their personal identity, while also presenting a timeline of the evolving history people of color have had to endure. From the afro to braids, sew-ins, wraps, and pressed hair, black women’s hair is especially malleable. In its natural state, black hair has a diverse range of textures and takes shape with a multitude of curl patterns. When examining black hair, there has been an entire system created that classifies the various textures: curly 3B, curly 3C, kinky 4A, kinky 4B, kinky 4C are all common categories black women will use to describe their hair type. It is important to acknowledge the multiple hair types among black women’s hair because each require a specific upkeep that ensures the survival and growth of their hair.
The malleability of black woman’s hair allows for a diverse range of symbolizing self. Its transverse adaptability allows the artist to create looks that symbolize numerous metaphorical relationships with the black female experience. From control, protection, and tameness to mess and inconsistency, hair has the power to tell an uneven story. Afro-artists like Lorna Simpson, Alison Saar, Solange Knowles, and Sonya Clark are all examples of black females who are making strides to equalize their non-Eurocentric identity into the mainstream. Each of these artists have used the politics of hair to pave an insight to the distinct cultural identity that is authentic to the black woman.
Contemporary Media’s Acknowledgment
Red carpet hair in the past has been defined by long, smooth, and bone-straight hair—this definition has begun to be extended as many public figures of color begin to embrace their natural looks. This awakening within prominent individuals has allowed the everyday women to see themselves and address the social and political misconceptions surrounding black hair. The recent outpour of acknowledgement to black women’s hair marks a pivotal moment in history that is reshaping the way outsiders perceive the black woman and how black women are perceive themselves. Celebrities are beginning to shed their seamless facades and using their platforms as influential individuals to bring recognition to a community that so badly needs attention. Black female actresses and artists are creating a stage that highlights black culture and leaves room for discourse surrounding black female identity.
The issue of skewed perceptions due to hair choice has always plagued black women in and out of the work place. This issue became headlines following comments a TV host made about actress Zendaya following her Oscar red carpet debut with dreadlocks. The host said the star must have smelled of “patchouli” and “weed.” Zendaya took those comments with huge offense and took to social media to address the issue. Many other celebrities have been involved in the fight for shedding the stigmas associated with black hair. Viola Davis took viewers of the hit TV show, How to Get Away With Murder, by Shonda Rhimes, into a raw and real moment when she stripped down into her natural look. Davis’ character, a powerful attorney, sat and wiped away her make-up and then shed her wig from her head. This commanding scene sent social media into a frenzy. It’s very rare to see in the media a powerful black women so natural.
Solange: Don’t Touch My Hair
While black men have the same hair textures and patterns as black women do, the black female’s experience with their hair is much different. Each woman must experience their own “hair journey” to become acclimated with their natural hair. Performance artist Solange has said, “growing up, being a young girl, transitioning to junior high school, then into adulthood, the hair journey of a black woman is so specific, and it’s really hard.” As I mentioned, black women’s hair requires a tremendous amount of upkeep to ensure longevity and growth, so this transition from childhood to womanhood marks a time when they must realize how to care and manage their hair. This ends up becoming deep emotional significance in a girl’s life because she must figure out what style she wants to maintain. It is most typical for young girls to have harmful chemicals introduced to their hair to relax their natural hair. Women and girls across the country take extreme measures to defy their natural hair so that it may be straight.
Solange is a contemporary visual artist who is currently challenging the past denunciation of black hair by condemning the inferior notion black hair holds and embracing black aesthetics in her art. In Solange’s case, hair identity has had a strong resonance in her life. Solange, a native Houstonite, was raised in and out of a hair salon. Her mother was a hair stylist and brought Solange to work most days. Growing up in close proximity to various black women getting their hair done has had a lasting inspiration on Solange. She continues to embrace natural hairstyles while introducing viewers to a number of intricate braided and beaded styles. Solange is just one of the many black women shaking off the singular definition of beauty. In Solange’s visual album titled, A Seat at the Table, she advocates for individualism while also exploring black heritage. She is encouraging the power of the black woman, while confronting prejudice, and exploring and reclaiming what it means to be black in America today.
In the first verse of Solange’s song titled, Don’t Touch My Hair, Solange relates her hair to more than an entity on her head, but rather apart of who she is. She sings,
“Don’t touch my hair
When it’s the feelings I wear
Don’t touch my soul
When it’s the rhythm I know”
As I think about my personal experiences with my hair and the “hair journey” I have had to take, I know I am still on that trek. Acceptance is not something that magically occurs at adulthood, but a process that takes time. I have ups and downs with my hair. At times I want to chop it and then the next moment I’ve added 15 pounds of braid-in hair. My natural curls continue to call me during the hot and humid months, but I just never know if I’m gonna pick up the phone.