Theory Teacher's Blog

Good Hair…

Last week, I assigned my first-year-seminar students the new documentary by Chris Rock, Good Hair, which explores the multi-billion dollar “black hair” industry. He begins the movie perfectly with an anecdote about his child asking him why she doesn’t have good hair, and the question that logically follows is “why would she (or any black woman) think that about herself?” His documentary is thorough, including interviews with scientists, hair-care professionals, actresses, and even people in India where a lot of the hair for weaves comes from. Chris Rock has done his homework, and he tells an entertaining story full of hilarious wit. The movie was actually recommended to me last fall by some students in my “race and ethnicity in U.S. literatures” class when we were reading Toni Morrison’s classic novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), which explores the double-standard of beauty that has historically been so psychologically damaging for black people’s self-image in America. So, upon my students’ advice, I watched the movie last spring, enjoyed it immensely, and decided to show it in my first-year-seminar class this fall.

However, watching the movie a second time, I’m not so sure this was a good decision, so this blog post will actually try to imagine something better than Good Hair (pun on “better” and “good” intended.) But before I explain the reasons for my doubts, check out the trailer for the movie:

The problem with Chris Rock’s documentary is that it focuses almost entirely on how wacky the hair industry is. Some might easily misinterpret the movie to be suggesting that black women are a little crazy for spending so much money on their hair and for subjecting themselves to potentially dangerous chemicals. The two typical reactions among white students are “oh, how weird” and “I wonder if my black friend’s hair is real.” This is not exactly the reaction I was looking for. If I were showing this movie alongside Morrison’s novel, then the students might have a better context for it, but this year I’m teaching Elizabeth Nunez’s Prospero’s Daughter (2006) instead, and it’s just not as good of a novel for all sorts of reasons I won’t go into today.

So, let me break down my two issues with Chris Rock’s movie. First, it gives very little information about the historical context and the possibility for an alternative. Only a few seconds are given to the “black is beautiful” movements of the 1970s that valued more naturally black hairstyles such as the Afro and dreadlocks. There was a time when black magazines such as Jet, Ebony, and Essence and other black-owned companies promoted a more positive image of black people, but most of those companies have been bought out by larger multinationals who no longer seem to care about positive cultural work for their communities.

Second is that it focuses on the symptoms of the situation rather than the underlying social structure that produces those symptoms. Now, don’t get me wrong, Chris Rock does talk about the underlying social structure (he’s a pretty smart guy, after all), but just for a few seconds, in contrast to the hour and some minutes that he devotes to the wacky-ness.

We might contrast Chris Rock’s movie with the Souls of Black Girls documentary that actually does focus on the underlying racist social structure that leads to “self-image disorder.” Check this clip out:

To give an example of the image of blowing hair and sex appeal that the Souls of Black Girls documentary is talking about, here is Beyonce and Jay-Z’s well-known “Crazy in Love” music video. It is not surprising that Beyonce’s videos (especially “Single Ladies“) have won so many awards. They are totally awesome and utterly mesmerizing. (Kanye West was right about Beyonce’s videos being the best — I mean, come on, let’s be honest here!!!) And it’s also not surprising that of all the members of Destiny’s Child the one whose facial features and skin color are most European is the one who became the superstar — I don’t think it wasn’t Beyonce’s voice.

However, though I appreciate what the Souls of Black Girls project is doing, I’m still not completely satisfied. For instance, they focus mostly on teenage anxieties about self-image, without thinking ahead to the realities adult women face after high school. For instance, the job market. Many black women believe that their chances of getting a good job improve if they have European-style hair. And unfortunately, in most cases they are probably right to think that. Similarly, we all know what would happen if Michelle Obama ever showed up to a public event with natural hair; the mainstream media would throw one of its ignorant hissy fits (which is just one reason among hundreds of other reasons why we shouldn’t pay any attention to the mainstream media.)

And so, I think we can see that often hair is not just a cultural issue. It’s policy. For example, click [here] to check out an MSNBC news story from last week (OK, sorry, so I guess sometimes we should pay attention to the mainstream media, but only if we do so critically) about a young man barred from his high school’s homecoming dance because he had dreadlocks. The school’s principal actually instituted a “no dreadlocks” policy, which is (in my opinion) simply racist because everyone knows that dreadlocks are actually healthy, and straightened hair isn’t. Apparently, America is still afraid of “black hair” (or perhaps just afraid of its political implications.)

But at the end of the day, I’m not satisfied with any of the things I’ve just talked about. Chris Rock’s movie is too mocking and lacks historical depth; the Souls of Black Girls focuses too intently on the negative; and the MSNBC story has (not surprisingly, since it’s MSNBC) nothing intelligent to say. And none of these stories acknowledge the good reasons why black women (or people in general) do what they do to their hair. Anyone will tell you that fake braids are not just stylish and cool looking, they are also healthy and make hair easier to manage. And Afro’s may be natural, totally dope, and mad sexy, but they can also be a pain in the ass to care for. And at the end of the day, what’s wrong with trying to make ourselves look cool, sexy, or just interesting? The point is not to simply contrast “natural” with “un-natural.” We’re talking about hairstyle, so “natural” has nothing to do with it. It’s not like we walk around naked, right?

I think what I like more than the mockery of Chris Rock’s documentary or the angst of the Souls of Black Girls project is this music video by India.Arie “I Am Not My Hair.” It beautifully deconstructs the racist social structure that affects black women’s self-image, but does so in a positive way that nurtures a different way to be — a way to be that’s “better” than “good.”

So, that’s all I have to say, but to conclude this blog post, I want to give a shout out to my friends M—, D—, H—, and N—– (you know who you are) for all the information that helped me write it.

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September 26, 2010 - Posted by | feminism, race

6 Comments »

  1. Steve,

    Saw this on Facebook and decided to leave a comment about the legal issues that “Good Hair” raises. A number of women have sued for employment discrimination based on workplace policies that prohibit braids and dreadlocks. The interesting thing is that it is illegal for an employer to prohibit an “Afro” hairstyle, but they can prohibit braids and dreadlocks. One of the cases on the issue, from 1981, held that an employer could prohibit braids because braids are an optional hairstyle and are not a predominately “black” hairstyle. The court cited Bo Derek’s braids in the movie “10” as support for its conclusion that cornrow braids were not a predominately “black” hairstyle. Anyhow, for a good critical overview of the legal aspects of this issue, see this recent Georgetown Law Review article:

    http://www.georgetownlawjournal.com/issues/pdf/98-4/Onwuachi-Willig.PDF

    Thanks for such an awesome post. And cheers!

    Comment by LAJ | September 27, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks, L—, for bringing your expertise as a law school professor to the blog and for adding a heavy dose of reality to discussion. You rock. And that article you mentioned has some disturbing stuff in it. Wow.

      Comment by steventhomas | September 28, 2010 | Reply

  2. Thank you for blogging on this issue!
    I find it funny when people say they put extensions, weaves, wigs, chemicals, or heat equivalent to the sun on their hair because (according to them) their natural hair is “unmanageable”. From what I have noticed, it is not that their hair is “unmanageable”, but that they are not familiar with how to take care of their natural hair tress. I have had my natural Afro textured hair for over five years, but during that time period I was unaware of how to properly care for it until two months ago. Thanks to the online natural hair care community, I now know what my hair needs in order for it to be healthy. In addition, I’ve stopped describing it with negative adjectives. It’s a shame that it took me over five years to learn that, and that there was a plethora of blogs and vlogs, nurturing a community of learners with Afro textured hair. Your blog entry only motivates me to do more research and networking with people in my situation because having knowledge about the science behind my hair texture, and what it needs is what will sustain my lifelong commitment to being natural.

    My hair is who I am; one could say “hairitage” as it is so commonly referred to by natural haired bloggers. From my childhood to my early twenties I have realized that I was subconsciously conditioned to have an aversion to almost anything naturally African. This is my personal experience, and it is not everyone’s story. Different people go natural for a variety of reasons, but this, aside my health, is why I decided to go natural.

    Sorry for the ramble, and again thank you so much!

    Comment by Kinks | October 26, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks Kinks. Awesome comment. I agree about the need for all of us to cultivate a positive culture and attitude about different kinds of hair. I think the new “I Love My Hair” skit that Sesame Street just made is a nice start to get this out into the mainstream, and so is bell hooks’s children’s book “Happy to Be Nappy.” But there’s definitely more to do and more to say.

      Here are links to articles about those:
      http://abcnews.go.com/WN/sesame-street-writer-inspired-daughter-creates-love-hair/story?id=11908940

      http://loveisntenough.com/2008/06/04/book-review-happy-to-be-nappy-by-bell-hooks/

      But on the other hand, I’m not sure natural is the be-all, end-all goal either. The human world we live in isn’t natural (it’s not as if anyone is out there hunting with spears); it’s a creative, experimental world. That’s what I like about India.Arie’s song is that it tells the story of a person growing, learning, changing, and becoming.

      I know there’s some debate about this song. Based on your viewpoint that we ought to celebrate our natural hair, we might critize its chorus for claiming the soul is all that really matters, not the hair. And I think that would be a valid criticism, because India.Arie’s song is very individualistic and seems to be sayinig we’re all individuals, so the hair doesn’t matter. And I think your point is exactly right that the hair DOES matter. Our naturalness ought to be considered beautiful, and it’s a little silly to imagine that this is just an individual thing. It’s also a cultural, social thing — we don’t live alone, we live in a world with other people.

      So, I would agree with that criticism of Arie’s song (if someone had made it, and I have to admit that right now in my comment I’m paraphrasing a whole bunch of conversations I read on FaceBook about India.Arie’s video and about my own blog), but the message that I take from her song is that, in addition to our naturalness, our creativity and self-expression also ought to be valued. That’s what I meant in the last sentence of my blog where I suggested there’s a better way to be than merely good. We can be great, we can be fabulous — and that’s a creative way of being…. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m still working this out.

      Comment by steventhomas | October 26, 2010 | Reply

  3. I always fall upon your blogs even in other classes!

    Comment by Maigos Vue | February 15, 2012 | Reply

    • I’m curious, Maigos, what other class led you to stumble over my blog again. And what else are you reading or thinking about? Please share your ideas!!!

      Comment by steventhomas | February 16, 2012 | Reply


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