Great Hair

Paul Mooney cameo notwithstanding, I was still reluctant to see Chris Rock’s Good Hair back when it was the buzz of the Toronto Film Festival.  I mentioned to a friend that I was scared that he’d have this amazing platform to say something about the politics of beauty for black women in a white world, and he’d go for the laughs instead.  But then someone told me about the James Brown/Al Sharpton thing (click on this link for a spoiler) and I couldn’t resist.  So I bought my ticket and watched it and laughed my ass off.  Raven-Symoné (Cosby grand-kid) turns out to be one of the funniest people ever.  But then a couple days later, I got kinda mad.  Because he’d done exactly what I’d dreaded:  he took a really big issue and mostly went for the laughs.  And I also think, maybe, did more harm than good.  Because now every white man or woman who sees this film thinks they *know* black hair.  And they don’t.

I’ll skip the sordid tale, but by way of a very winding road, I caught wind of a documentary that pre-dated the Chris Rock affair, dealing with black hair.  After having seen Good Hair I was now dying to see a serious take on the whole thing.  However, I didn’t know the name of the film.

Luckily Google is probably God or at the very least, the anti-Christ.  Using an incredibly vague search string I managed to track down the film I was seeking–Black, Bold and Beautiful:  Black Women’s Hair.  To my great joy, the Toronto Public Library had a copy of the film and so now I’ve finally gotten to watch this bad boy.

The film is only 40 minutes long and so, while the film maker does touch on some really great stuff, there’s simply not enough time to get deep into it.  I almost feel like each possible incarnation of a black woman’s hair—weaved, braided, dreads, locks, straightened, natural—could warrant a two-hour film unto itself.  Kudos though for the really raw talk between a number of high school students about why they do or don’t wear their hair natural.  One teen boy with locks even talked about his feeling that it started at slavery with the “half-breed” kids of slave-owners who had “good hair.”  A woman named Amuna talks about her parents’ feeling that natural hair wouldn’t work if she was trying to climb the corporate ladder. Luckily she isn’t trying to do so—she works in not-for-profit.

Even without a really in-depth look at the politics of hair, the film resonated a lot more honestly for me than Chris Rock’s dogged insistence on declaring the weave the only thing black women are doing.  I guess in Hollywood, where everyone has to pretend they have long hair unless they’re being political, that is the case, but that’s not the story down here in the real world.

Black, Bold and Beautiful was made in 1998, so we’ve had a decade as black women to feel more comfortable in our skin—or in our hair, as it were.  And there have been shifts.  I don’t think that in corporate North America, braids would have cut it back in ‘98, and now, I think in some spaces, you can do it.  But afros are still kinda hard to get past a hiring committee; unless it’s a very conservative looking one—not a big, joyful afro, but one that’s braided down and tamed.  “Tamed” was a word that Amuna (probably my favorite woman in the film) used to refer to what goes on with little black girls and their hair.  She talked about the hot comb and I started laughing out loud.  I remember so well sitting in the kitchen trembling with fear while my mother hot combed my hair (for those who need an explanation, you heat an iron comb on a stove burner and comb it through the hair).  But of course to tremble too much was a bad idea, because then I’d get burned.  But times changed, and I moved on from the hot comb.

When Janet Jackson was at her zenith, I had Jheri curls and because it’s far too thick for that style, my hair broke off steadily for a year until, by the end of fourth grade, I had a hairstyle that was less Jackson family and more Grace Jones circa 1986.  We tried to make it kinda fly and avant garde, but I knew that I basically looked like a boy.  Finally, in fifth grade, when my hair had grown back in a bit, I got it relaxed and I’ve never looked back.  I’ve had a few years of braids but it’s mostly been about the relaxers.  The “creamy crack” as it’s referred to in Good Hair.  And I really like my hair.  It’s taken me about a hundred years to find a style that works for me but now I really like it.  But somehow that doesn’t seem to be enough.

Aisha, a teenaged girl in Black, Bold and Beautiful, talks about black women being “foreign” to themselves if they aren’t wearing their hair natural.  On one level her statement just makes me irritable.  I don’t feel foreign to myself.  But on another level, I have to admit, there’s this part of me that feels like I’ve copped out in some way.  Like I’m not willing to make the statement that wearing my hair natural would make.  But that’s one of those things that kinda bugs me—that wearing my hair natural would automatically make some sort of statement when I’m just trying to look my best like everyone else.

I guess it comes down to this push and pull between the reasons behind what you do with your hair as a black woman.  Are you relaxing your hair because you’re trying to conform to a white standard of beauty or are you relaxing your hair because it’s easier to manage that way?  Or both?  I’d venture to say that for most black woman it’s door three.  But I just think it sucks rocks that we even have to think this hard about it, that there’s even a conversation to be had.  Don’t get me wrong, I want to have the conversation, because I think it’s really, really hard to never see around you, realistic representations of beauty in your own skin colour—that’s fucking hard to put up with.  But it also makes me tired that the conversation needs to be had at all.  It would just be so much cooler to live in a world where there wasn’t the white beauty comparison in the first place.

(Funny side note, there’s a song featured in Black, Bold and Beautiful, called “Luscious, Luscious” is by the 3-woman group called Women A Run Tings.  I used to go to church with one of the band members back in the day.  She’s doing solo work now.  I love films made in Toronto.)

So I feel like I’m going to end up coming back to this topic at some point.  I feel like another film needs to be made.  But for now I can assure you that my hair will look the same next time you see me.

5 Responses to Great Hair

  1. Michelle says:

    Great post-once the library isn’t out to get me I’m going to rent this doc!

    I was raised in a primarily white culture, and not even seeing “black hair” until I moved to Toronto. I briefly dated a guy here who was actually told me he was told to cut his afro before being allowed to work at his school as a teacher. (he fought and won the right to keep it)

    I was told recently someone required a “professional and polished” individual and that my straightened hair was a good indicator of that, as opposed to my regular curly hair.

    Really, I long for the day we are judged for our actions and not a fickle outward appearance.

  2. Pat says:

    Re: your Blog’s sub title: I recommend more fibre.
    Also, as a guy, I really dig brush cuts on women of any colour…not to mention they are easy to maintain and eliminate the whole predicament you ponder. Don’t you hate it when someone starts a statement with “not to mention”, then goes on to mention something?
    Keep it loose……..

  3. Pingback: One Giant Step… « HeavyMe

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