… there ain’t no words
For the beauty, the splendor, the wonder of my hair.
—Galt Macdermot, Gerome Ragni, and James Rado, “Hair” from the 1968 musical, Hair
You can tell all my pets
All my blondes and brunettes
—White version of Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s “Lulu’s Back in Town” as sung by Dick Powell and Mel Torme
You can tell all my pets
All my Harlem coquettes
—Black version of Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s “Lulu’s Back in Town” as sung by Fats Waller
I. Hair as Sin and Hair as Style
Entanglement, an anthropological and journalistic account of the business, art, and meaning of hair across the globe, among other things, tells two contrasting stories: the first is about the bonfires in New York and London in 2004, Orthodox Jewish women burning their sheitels, human-hair wigs covering their own hair as prescribed by their religion. The wigs hide the women’s hair which is meant only for their husbands. The wig-wearing is not a deception as much as it is a revelation of religious piety. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, a 94-year-old rabbi living in Jerusalem, had declared that the wigs, made mostly from the hair of poor Indian women, were prohibited “[tainted] with the sin of idol worship.” (85) One of the main sources of Indian hair is Hindu temples like Samayapuram where faithful women undergo tonsure, an act of renunciation, in preparation to pray to the Hindu goddess, Mariamman. Tonsure sheds cut the women’s hair (and men as well) for a small fee and the hair is then kept under lock and key. It is more valuable than money. (63-65) Previous Orthodox Jewish rulings had declared Indian hair to be suitable for the wigs but suddenly Indian hair was pronounced “unclean” and “impure.” So, the Orthodox Jewish women, in obedience, had to burn the wigs. They could not simply be thrown or given away. They had to be thoroughly destroyed, so no Jewish woman, by accident, would wind up with one of them. As human hair wigs are expensive, and many of these women bought top-of-the-line quality, it was an enormously costly sacrifice, even more for the Jewish businesses that made and supplied the wigs and the Indian merchants and sellers who supplied the hair. But if Orthodox Jews do not want wigs made from the hair of Indian women, there are plenty of others who do.
Tarlo establishes the difference in these two episodes best when she writes, “If Jewish sheitels are about maintaining continuity with the self, the world of black hair is about the opposite. It is about the endless possibilities of transformation.”
The second is about the Muslim women in Senegal who are enamored of cheveux naturels, human hair wigs, hairpieces, and weaves. Cheveux naturels are extremely expensive in this country, costing more than most of the women make in three or four months of work. They are purchased on the installment plan or by a group of women pooling their money together to buy pieces for each other as a sort of cooperative or by sexually wheedling boyfriends or sugar daddies, who, on the one hand, speak against the wigs and hairpieces but on the other wish for their women to look attractive and the deceptive hair does, in fact, make the women better looking. From a man’s perspective, it is nearly impossible for a woman to have too much hair on her head. (Perhaps it is the deception of it that men do not like, a woman stripping off hairpieces at night, the sheer artifice of sexual attraction.) The imams have condemned the false hair for its cost as a wasteful indulgence, for its display of vanity, and because “it prevents women from performing ritual ablutions correctly as the water cannot get properly to their heads.” (151) One woman told anthropologist Emma Tarlo that “‘Cheveux naturels is completely contrary to Islam.’” (151) The same woman was wearing false hair at the interview. Apparently, her piety, such as it was, was not so compromised by the weaves she wore that she felt compelled to forego them. Why should God care whether a woman wears wigs! The Senegalese women pay little-to-no attention to the stern disapproval of wig-and-weave wearing. They love their false hair. Hair is more than a pose, it is hope, it is the fulfillment of how one would like to be. In an earlier part of Entanglement, a Black woman is described as “a hair addict” because she buys hair every week, despite the considerable cost. (137) Buy enough hair and you can become a kind of fairy godmother transforming your inner Cinderella. Perhaps imams condemn what they feel is an addiction. The adoption of Cheveux naturels is a vice and an illness, as the imams see it. If that is true, their prohibition is a lost cause. There are instances when people defiantly choose to be wicked and sick. Tarlo establishes the difference in these two episodes best when she writes, “If Jewish sheitels are about maintaining continuity with the self, the world of black hair is about the opposite. It is about the endless possibilities of transformation.” (133)
So goes the tales of two religions, two sets of religious women, two different income groups, and the incredible compulsion for millions of women to wear hair that they did not grow.
• • •
II. Blondes Have More Fun, Especially If They Wear Artificial Wigs
In Billy Wilder’s 1966 film, The Fortune Cookie, a striking commentary about race in America among other things, Black actress Judy Pace plays Elvira, a barfly girl, who offers her wares to football star “Boom-Boom” Jackson (played by Ron Rich), drunk and depressed because he thinks he has seriously injured cameraman Harry Hinckle (played by Jack Lemmon) during a game. In the scene which takes place in a Black bar, Pace shows off her new blonde hair-do, varying the tagline of the then-popular Clairol hair dye commercials by saying, blondes have more fun. (The tagline was “Do blondes have more fun?”) Of course, Pace is wearing an outlandish blonde wig, “towers of horsehair,” as the women in my family referred to them.
They were popular among Black girl performers of the day, think Diana Ross and the Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, the Shirelles. I thought the performers, most of them very young, wore these outlandish wigs to appear older. (White girl performers wore them too, the Shangri-Las, Dusty Springfield, Leslie Gore, Brenda Lee.) Before anyone thinks that women jazz performers were more sedate, check out the cover photo of Carmen McRae on her 1972 album, The Great American Songbook. It is not possible that that much hair could be growing out of that woman’s head! I saw Sarah Vaughan perform some years ago and she kept moving her wig around as if it were a hat that was making her much too hot, as she was perspiring heavily. In that same year or nearly so, I saw Nina Simone in performance snatch her wig from her head and throw it into the audience. It was quite the gesture!
It is understandable why women performers, working nearly every night, would wear wigs. They are convenient. One does not have to worry about getting one’s own hair styled and coiffed every night, a hairstyle that had to survive sweat, cigarette smoke, constant chemical treatments, bad diet, stress, lack of sleep, and the motions of sleep itself which ruins most hairstyles. The wigs were not meant to fool audiences into thinking they were the women’s own hair. They were too obvious. They were not meant to deceive but to make visible something that was concealed. They might have been meant to tell the audiences that the women themselves were something like designs, structures, architecture, works of art, not sexual candy but gender abstractions, the wigs underscoring, even celebrating, the artifice of the performance.
Black male performers of the day, think James Brown, Sammy Davis, Jr., Johnny Mathis, and Nat “King” Cole who wore chemically straightened hair and could not readily resort to wigs, had considerable challenges in keeping up appearances for the sake of the show. Processed hair, as it was called in my boyhood, had its dangers. I remember many a boy, when I was young, walking around with purple stains on his scalp, the color of the medicine used to heal the sores that resulted from too much barbershop processing or trying to do it yourself.
I saw Sarah Vaughan perform some years ago and she kept moving her wig around as if it were a hat that was making her much too hot, as she was perspiring heavily. In that same year or nearly so, I saw Nina Simone in performance snatch her wig from her head and throw it into the audience. It was quite the gesture!
Whatever Wilder might have been hinting at by having Judy Pace sport a blonde wig that was fairly similar in style to the tresses of Judi West, the White female lead in The Fortune Cookie, is not my concern here. (West very likely wore hairpieces too.) I wish to return to the comment about these wigs being “towers of horsehair.” People freely admitted that the wigs most Black women wore in the 1960s and 1970s were not made of human hair. Most Black women could not afford wigs made completely of human hair, so many wigs circulating in the Black community of my boyhood were made of animal hair (yak, for instance, but the constant rumor was horse or goat hair, which was probably true) or a synthetic hair invention of the Japanese called Kanekalon. (When I saw Simone in 1970 throw her wig to the audience, it was surely not made of human hair, as it would have made the gesture expensive. She did it more than once, as I learned, and human hair wigs cost at least ten times what a synthetic wig does.) As Tarlo relates, by the late 1960s, synthetic wigs began to make a big push in the market. They were, in fact, preferred by many women as more durable than human hair wigs and less likely to burn. (187, 190) The human hair wig market crashed for at least ten years before making a comeback in the late 1970s. It is interesting that, at the time of the natural hair movement among Blacks (the “natural” or the “bush” of the early 1960s such as actress Cicely Tyson sported in the 1963-64 television series, East Side, West Side to the “Afro” of the late 1960s), there was an opposite impulse toward something so artificial as the synthetic wig. But every movement always produces its own counter-movement.
I knew a lot of Black women in those days who wore synthetic wigs. Many of them also adopted Afros too. Like Simone, they sometimes wore synthetic wigs to cover their Afros but I do not remember any doing Simone’s big reveal. Simone clearly wanted to make a statement about re-birth, redefinition, about discarding her past appearance with straightened hair, showing her new self with natural hair. Going natural, adopting an Afro during the Black Power/Black is Beautiful era was a political as well as style statement about opposing White beauty standards. When I first met my wife in the early 1970s, she was wearing an Afro. After we had been married, she began to chemically straighten her hair again. Tarlo, in her chapter on Black hair, despite witnessing heated debates about wearing natural hair at various Black hair gatherings she attended, found that most Black women saw natural hair as one style among many that they could adopt. Natural hair was good as a break from the chemical relaxers; it was good for a different look; it was good because it made wearing a wig easier. It was something that a woman could do, now and again, to switch things up, for variety. For most Black women it was not a political commitment. When I asked my wife why she changed her hair, she was both resigned and slightly annoyed. “I don’t believe in politically correct hair,” she said. “White women do what they want to their hair including getting it dyed, permed, and straightened. Why can’t I do what I want to mine? And if Black people quit issuing dogmas and edicts about what they think other Black people should be and do, the race would be a lot better off.” Here endeth that lesson!
The key question is, as Tarlo aptly put it: What is natural hair? More to the point, what is natural?
And wearing natural hair was not by any means easier than having it straightened, wash-and-wear ease, as many believe. As Tarlo relates, one natural hair advocate listed the products she used regularly for her hair: “cider vinegar, two pre-shampoo products, shampoo, conditioner, hair mayonnaise, oil, leave-in conditioner, end protector, revitalising (sic) styling spray, and filtered water” plus “a Denman brush, a wide-tooth comb, rollers, duck-bill clips, end wraps, a silk scarf, a spray bottle, a hood steamer or plastic cap, a hood dryer, ceramic straighteners and a hand-held dryer.” (154) Tarlo calculated that this woman spent eight hours a week on her hair. So, going into natural hair whole-hog, with the zeal of a health faddist, would not save a woman much money or much time.
The key question is, as Tarlo aptly put it: What is natural hair? More to the point, what is natural? The Black women who chemically straighten their hair feel they are wearing their natural hair as it is, after all, growing out of their heads. Why is treating it making it less natural? African women have been treating their hair in various ways for thousands of years. Black women who buy human hair wigs and weaves feel these are perfectly natural. They are human hair, after all! They grew out of some woman’s head. As Tarlo pointed out, animal hair wigs are certainly “natural;” women refer to some hairstyles as “ponytails,” “pig tails,” and “rats” which reflect our relationship to animal hair. (338) (Some Jews and Muslims are concerned about hairpieces and brushes made from boar’s bristles but that is another story.) And what difference does it make if someone wears a synthetic rather than a natural hair wig, whether the person is attempting to conceal illness or display exaggeration and extravagance? It must be remembered, as Tarlo stated, that ”… African hair … has the slowest growth rate and is more prone to breakage than any other type.” (175) Wigs and hairpieces are forms of compensation to increase Black hair’s expressive possibilities.
So, we see some Black women with dreads, some with Afros, some with frizzy hair, some with hair as straight as a board, long and lank, blonde, brunette, and auburn. I suppose today, for this and other reasons, a Black crooner could sing the “White” lyrics of “Lulu’s Back in Town.” If it mattered.
• • •
III. The Business of Hair, or Every Woman a Rapunzel
As Tarlo makes clear, hair is a hot commodity, that is, false hair that a person puts on his or her head. For women, as I mentioned above, head hair is beauty, sexual capital. It never hurts to have a lot of it. In fact, if you have a lot of it, you are likely to be appealing to men and the envy of other women. A woman can never have too much hair, on her head, that is. (It can be problematical for a woman to have a hairy body. Typically, women want a lot of hair on their heads but nowhere else on their bodies. But the story of women with hairy armpits, hairy arms, hairy legs, hairy genitals, mustaches, beards and the like, and what the massive business of epilation is about and the fetishization of hairy women in pornographic films is a story for another time.) So, for women who do not have as much of it as they would like, because of illness or disease or bad genes that resulted in thin, unruly, unbecoming hair, buying better hair is the thing. The demand for human hair is high, much higher than the supply. After all, hair has to be grown. To grow shoulder-length or back-length hair takes a long time. Tarlo writes, “[Hair] may grow easily in every part of the world, and in every climate; it may not require a complex balance of sun, water and fertiliser (sic) to help it on its way; but it is slow-growing compared to other crops and has a complex life-cycle.” (41) Head hair does not all grow at the same rate. At least ten percent is in a transitional or a resting phase, not growing at all. We all shed hair every day. As Kurt Stenn put it in Hair: A Human History (2016), “… while one shaft on your head may be growing, another may be shedding, and a third anchored and resting.”
The length that human hair grows in a year is not enough for making wigs or extensions. Tarlo explains, “A decent crop [of hair] requires a minimum of two years to grow, whilst the cultivation of the really valuable lengths of over fifty centimetres (sic) requires at least four years.” (42) Hair extensions attached to the head usually last four-to-five months. Human hair wigs worn every day last about a year. Generally speaking, poorer women in Asia, eastern Europe, and South America supply hair for middle-class and wealthier women in the United States and western Europe. It is apparent that those women could never grow enough hair to satisfy the demand. But the buying and selling of hair in the world is not so easily understood as that.
Trading in hair is no business for the faint-of-heart or less than cunning. One needs to know several languages as trails of hair circulate among many different countries. Navigating ethnicities and nationalities, religions, and customs requires the abilities of both a spy and a diplomat.
Women are not only the source for hair but also make up most of the workers in Asian countries who make wigs and hairpieces. They work for low wages, but most are glad to get the work, for without the hair industry there would be no work for them or no work that they would find respectable. The work and money give them a sense of autonomy. Moreover, they become expert craft persons, being able to tell from touch whether the hair is Indian, Chinese, Korean, or North African. (Tarlo reminds us that in the typology of race, hair texture was an important marker, except that it was never quite consistent.) They become adept at making waste hair (shedded hair in combs that many poor women sell or hair on barbershop floors) useable, painstakingly separating tangled, gummed together strands to make columns of hair for wigs and weaves. They are expert at dying hair products, know which hair absorbs dye best, can do the tedious work of creating hairpieces and wigs, which often take days just to make one or two. Women also work as hair peddlers, buying hair from women, but it is more likely a man who will do this. Hair is hustle and women in the business hustle hard.
Trading in hair is no business for the faint-of-heart or less than cunning. One needs to know several languages as trails of hair circulate among many different countries. Navigating ethnicities and nationalities, religions, and customs requires the abilities of both a spy and a diplomat. Cheating and conning are common. Dealers are constantly trying to pass off hair as something that it is not: Dyed hair as the real thing; coarse grades of Asian hair as finer-textured European grade; animal hair as human hair; hair from corpses as hair from the living; hair from sick women as hair from healthy women entering a convent. Stealing shipments of hair is common; it is a crime that is hard to trace; police, unfamiliar with the denizens of the hair industry, sometimes find it difficult to track down culprits, and punishment from perpetrators is not severe. After all, it is only hair.
• • •
Growing up, I heard more than a few Black persons, and there were some who thought deeply and researched tenaciously about such matters, pronounce that Jesus was Black. This, in spite of the fact that every Black church I visited as a boy was bathed in White iconography. In fact, the insistence that Jesus was Black may very well have arisen because of this White iconography one saw every week during worship service. No self-respecting Black person wished to pray to a White god or a White Jesus, so, subconsciously, one had to oppose or ignore it. This was not easy, which may have been why some Blacks became Muslims, Baha’is, or some other faith where the iconography was non-existent or less oppressively pervasive. On the other hand, at times it seemed as if there might very well be a White god, for what else would explain as well the position most Black people found themselves in at the time. That view was perverse but funny in the way a good blues lyric sometimes was.
In any case, the idea that Jesus was Black is based on one verse of New Testament and it involves hair. Revelation 1:14 reads:
“[The Son of Man’s] head and his hair were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire …” (KJV)
The verse following mentions “his feet like unto fine brass,” which is used as supporting evidence (brass is brown) but the key word is “wool.” Racial typing was not only dependent on skin color and head and eye shape, but also on hair type. Black people’s hair was always described as wooly, considered a legitimate scientific description of a hair type. Take your pick among classic authors like Twain, Beecher Stowe, Melville, London, and somewhere in their works when they are describing a Black character you will find the word. A random example that underscores how widespread the unflattering stereotype was: a minor nonfiction children’s book of 1902, Our Little African Cousin by Mary Hazelton Wade, used “woolly” to describe African hair on the first page. As Tarlo suggests, as woolly became the standard description of Black hair, “smooth” and “straight” became identifiers of European (White) hair, as Whites were the opposite of Blacks in the typology of races. In this way, Black hair came to be seen as degraded, its texture inferior. Technically, all hair is wool or fur insofar as it functions for the human body. Humans shed hair in their evolution from primates because as our brain grew larger, sweat glands were better at regulating the brain’s temperature than heavy fur was. In this way, all human beings are hairless apes. Tarlo poses this question about today’s hair trade, implying how it reinscribes the racist hair typology of the past: “And why is European hair so highly valued whilst African hair types feature mainly as a base fibre (sic) to which hair extensions can be attached?” (161)
In the instance concerning Jesus’ race, Blacks have taken racist terminology and turned it to their advantage or their racial aggrandizement. If Christ is described as having hair like “wool,” then he must be Black because wool refers only to Black people’s hair. Despite a certain cleverness, there are numerous problems with this formulation:
1. Were the King James translators aware of wool as a signifier for Black? If so, why would they have translated the Koine Greek word as “wool”? If not, it means that at the time of the King James translation, wool was not inevitably or inescapably a signifier Black.
2. The passage seems to emphasize the color of Jesus’ hair rather than its texture. There are two analogies about its whiteness, wool, and snow.
3. As there is much mention in Revelation about Jesus as the Lamb of God, wool could be another way of referring to Jesus as the lamb of God.
4. Revelation is describing the transfigured Jesus, not the earthly or historical savior. The description is not meant to interpret him as a human being but as something transcendent.
When my children for a time wore Afros when they were in elementary school, they were called “Brillo heads,” an especially unflattering way of referencing the African’s wool, no doubt. I suppose this interpretation of “wool” in Revelation is a way of finding solace in the way other people describe you.
• • •
V. Black Hair and Korean Hands
Recall the intense animosity that Black and Latino rioters displayed toward Korean merchants in Black neighborhoods during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992. The Koreans were seen as interlopers, aliens, much as Blacks saw Jewish merchants in the Black communities from, say, the 1930s through the 1960s. Most Korean merchants owned hair supply stores that catered to Black and Latino women. “How dare these racist Asians come into our communities to sell ethnic products to us! This is appropriation, theft, colonizing. We should be selling these products to our own.” (A similar complaint against East Indians can be heard in many African and Caribbean countries.) As Tarlow explains it, “By 1972 wigs had become Korea’s third most important export item, and it was through wigs that many Korean migrants and merchants surfed into America and established an economic foothold in urban centres (sic) up and down the country. They settled mainly in poor urban neighborhoods, where they soon became familiar with the tastes of African-American and Latino women keen to buy wigs and hair at discount prices. It is no exaggeration to say that Korean prosperity in the United States was built to a large degree on hair.” (192) Indeed, on Black hair. But the Koreans came here familiar with the hair trade, not just hairstyling and hair care, but the business of buying, selling, and making hair. They discovered that Black women spend far more on their hair than White women do. In business, you go where the money is. One can hardly blame the Koreans for doing that. And business opportunities in an ethnic or racial community are not necessarily the entitlement of that race or ethnicity. One Korean merchant Tarlo interviewed said his store sold over 20,000 different products for its Black customers. (135) The store provides goods and services the neighborhood wants. Beat the Korean at his game or shut up. A neighborhood is yours if you can gain it and keep it, not simply because you live in it. To be sure, Black neighborhoods have been designed historically for its residents to be powerless in its management. And of course, Blacks do the flip test: Could they set up a business in a Korean community selling a Korean-oriented product? Probably not. And the Korean ownership does not benefit the Black people in the neighborhood because the Koreans do not consider themselves to be true members of the community as they are a different ethnicity.
Few Black women are so poor that they are unwilling to spend considerable sums of money on hair, their own and that of other people, that they can append to their heads. Consider, the United States is the biggest importer of human-hair products but Africa imports a larger volume of synthetic hair. (210) Africa is far poorer than the United States. If African women had more money, Africa would probably outpace the United States in importing human hair. Chinese hair dealers agree that the future of the trade is Africa.
When my children were very young, my wife and I had them stay during the day with Black women “north of Delmar,” as they say. These women were very nice but they were what some would call very “ghetto.” They illegally ran a beauty shop out of their basement and they were obsessed with hair, straightening their hair nearly every day, putting on hairpieces, constantly looking at themselves in the mirror, and talking about hair all the time. I did not worry much about my daughters being abused with the women. I did wonder if the women were ever able to tear themselves away from their own and each other’s hair to pay attention to my kids.
Few Black women are so poor that they are unwilling to spend considerable sums of money on hair, their own and that of other people, that they can append to their heads. Consider, the United States is the biggest importer of human-hair products but Africa imports a larger volume of synthetic hair.
It is Black women like my daughters’ babysitters of long ago who own hair braiding and weave business in Black neighborhoods. In fact, these are the most likely business a Black woman will own in a poor neighborhood. I have been nowhere in urban America, or urban Africa or the Caribbean, for that matter, where I have not seen such shops where Black women stylists and weavers work on Black women’s heads, either in chairs or on the floor, painstakingly, as attaching and styling weaves take hours. They are marginal, financially precarious businesses, under-capitalized, with an owner who may have other employment in addition to the business and thus distracted in running it, not likely to be insured (and thus particularly vulnerable to failure from fire, flood, theft, and damage from rioters). Early during the pandemic, I drove through parts of north St. Louis with my wife and discovered that the only businesses that were open (surreptitiously yet unmistakenly), defying the order that all non-essential businesses had to close, were hair-weaving joints and small cheap clothing boutiques, businesses run by women. They could not afford to close, so they took their chances with the law. It is that kind of life for some people. Not the best, to be sure, but not the worst either, by a considerable measure. Just harder than it needs to be.
Hair is another story of haves and have-nots, takers and the taken, aspirants and the contemptuous, as we are reminded yet again that this world, for better and for worse, is what it is.