“I’M TALKING ABOUT MY NAPPY HAIR!”
—Lucille Clifton, “Homage to my Hair”
“Call the fire department! Call the police!”
When very young, I sometimes yelled this.
It was an indictment, a plea.
I was begging my mother not to comb my hair.
Or at least be better at it.
My mother has a different hair texture than mine. While she did not have hair as fine and soft as my grandmother, she struggled with hair that quickly rejected the disciplining of the hot comb. I have a print of Paul Goodnight’s “Links and Lineages” that depicts three generations braiding each other hair in a colorful tapestry of Black female intimacy and beauty. Such pleasures exist in many families. Mine—not so much. I inherited my father’s kinky hair and my mother’s tender-headedness, and this unfortunate combination produced One-Girl Political Protest Plays. I might be exaggerating slightly how bad she was at combing my hair, as shame at my 6-year old drama queen tendencies may encourage me to be an unreliable narrator. (After reading this, my mother reminds me that my great-grandmother Slugo also thought my hair was unmanageable, and she sympathized with my mom even though my great-great-grandmother used to cut knots out of Slugo’s hair with scissors).
By the time I finally had a relaxer at age nine, it was a relief for both of us.
I continued to have chemicals in my hair with varied results (I had a leisure curl for a long time in the futile hopes I could look like Whitney Houston) until I was confronted with the reality many young Black women experience when they go away to colleges or universities—the small college town rarely possesses Black hair salons. And like many in my situation, I found a classmate who braided hair for extra money. Her dorm room was a comforting Black space closed off from the curious eyes of classmates who had never had much contact with Black people, let alone had any understanding of Black hair. I returned to a relaxer briefly before graduate school, and I do not even remember why I made that decision. Eventually, I would spend a number of days in the living room of a woman from Nigeria, watching bad daytime talk shows, and chatting with her children as she braided my hair. It was only when I was looking for another hair braider I could not find, driving down some random North Carolina street and encountering Confederate flags instead of the address I sought, that I made the impulsive decision to shave off all of my hair. I took a break, I naively thought, from thinking about my hair. But the radical (to some) act of shaving off my hair as a Black woman in the South meant my lack of hair was a constant conversation topic. After a few years in barbershops, I began transitioning to locs. I have now had locs for almost twenty years.
I inherited my father’s kinky hair and my mother’s tender-headedness, and this unfortunate combination produced One-Girl Political Protest Plays.
To have locs is to embrace and violate norms of Blackness. Noliwe Rooks explains in Hair Raising that Black hair can also be a site of intergenerational struggle in different ways than I have described—her mother rejected her desires to straighten her hair in an embrace of black nationalist aesthetic pride, while for her grandmother, relaxed hair would be an advantage and “one less battle that would have to be fought.”¹ For some people, locs and other natural hairstyles are an embrace of Blackness. But other Black people believe I should try chemically to treat my way to “good hair”—straight, shiny, long, strands. As someone with very tightly coiled, dry hair who commits the unfeminine sin of sweating when hot, both chemicals and the hot comb always produced very brief mimicry of that standard. And yet many people also consider locs and other Black natural hairstyles unprofessional. In their worst imaginings, they are unsanitary.
Black people use any number of phrases and words that are foreign to others and everyday language for us—kitchen, protective styles, sister locs, edges. White friends did call attention to this difference from elementary school to college, sometimes asking some version of “don’t you wish you had normal hair?” At the time, my answer to that question was anger and anguish at living in a western world that often tells Black girls that we should seek to transform ourselves into something closer to Whiteness in order to be attractive.
Over the last couple of decades, books that were not available when I was young, such as bell hooks’ Happy to be Nappy, Sharee Miller’s Princess Hair and Don’t Touch My Hair!, Carrolivia Herron’s Nappy Hair, Cozbi A. Cabrera’s My Hair is a Garden, Alonda Williams’s Penny and the Magic Puffs, Natasha Anastasia Tarpley’s I Love My Hair!, and Silvaine A. Diouf’s Bintou’s Braids have encouraged black girls to embrace their hair texture. Of course, Black boys and men also experience discrimination because of the texture of their hair or natural hairstyles. Many people were appalled by the sight of a White woman who sheared off the locs of sixteen-year-old Andrew Johnson at a wrestling match in 2019, and a teenager in Texas was told he could not participate in graduation ceremonies because of his locs.² But because boys and men are more likely to wear their hair short in ways that are socially acceptable for masculinity, hair is not quite as consistently a defining feature in the kind of discrimination Black men experience, and aesthetic hair norms do not so frequently set them completely apart from normative standards of attractiveness.
It was only when I was looking for another hair braider I could not find, driving down some random North Carolina street and encountering Confederate flags instead of the address I sought, that I made the impulsive decision to shave off all of my hair. I took a break, I naively thought, from thinking about my hair.
But texts created for young people are by no means the main cultural purview for explorations of Black hair. Black hair has been an endless source of creativity for Black writers, artists, and performers. Their work recognizes that part of what it means to be a Black woman with hair texture uneasily contained by predominately White normative models of feminine aesthetics is dealing with the fantastic, speculative imaginings about Black hair—and consequently, Black women. Such fictions carry many costs.
Part of the fantastic work of Black hair regulation is the establishment of truth and fact unsupported by the actual lived experience of black women. Repeatedly, Black women have lost lawsuits about hair discrimination because of the idea of mutability. In addition to allegedly prohibiting sexual stereotyping, discrimination often turns on the illegality of discriminating against people for characteristics—like skin color—they cannot change. To these jurists, hair is ever changeable, and the styles frequently worn by Black girls and women such as locs, braids, and twists, are issues of choice and not an unchangeable characteristic of hair. But the looks generally considered the most “professional” —at times, the explicit requirements for hair to be “worn down,”—are styles only possible for many Black women with hot combs and chemical relaxers. To these employers and jurists, such demands are not injurious.
I feel as if everyone who makes such rulings should be forced to have a small bit of relaxer on their heads for a while, not covering the entire scalp, just a bit of it. We could just creep into their chambers with a container of Dark and Lovely relaxer and place a little in their kitchens (for those of you not in the know, this is the hair at the nape of our necks), armed with a timer. Of course, that would physically hurt them. Perhaps experiencing pain and discomfort would make some people pause at the ease with which it can be culturally and professionally mandated for cosmetic reasons.
Repeatedly, Black women have lost lawsuits about hair discrimination because of the idea of mutability. In addition to allegedly prohibiting sexual stereotyping, discrimination often turns on the illegality of discriminating against people for characteristics—like skin color—they cannot change.
Black women may have a higher risk of developing uterine fibroids and breast cancer from regular relaxer use.³ The tightness of braids and weaves can also produce alopecia, tightness demanded because of the desire to eliminate the edges of Black hair.⁴ Many African Americans know how uncomfortable and painful relaxers can be, but accept it like many things women do to conform to aesthetic standards, even if they can have health costs. Waxing can make women more vulnerable to STDs, infections, and scarring. High heels are unquestionably bad for people’s feet. But relaxers, weaves, and other techniques to mask black hair texture have the distinction of disproportionately being an aesthetic demand placed on Black women.
As Ingrid Banks reveals in interviews with Black women about their hair, such norms many people consider such injuries an acceptable form of body regulation if Black people wish to inhabit schools or workplaces.⁵ Little girls can be sent home for sporting Afro-puffs that do not lie flat like ponytails. And Black women can be fired for wearing neat styles that are appropriate for their hair texture. In the most famous legal case about Black hair regulation, Rogers v. American Airlines (1981), a worker sued because the airline would not let her wear cornrows. The airline magnanimously “suggested that she could wear her hair as she liked while off duty” and “permitted her to pull her hair into a bun and wrap a hairpiece around the bun during working hours.” Rogers stated that the hairpiece caused her headaches, but the court stated that “if any hairpiece would cause such discomfort, the policy does not offend a substantial interest.”⁶ I somehow doubt that if a policy meant the judges would have headaches all day that they would see that as part of an acceptable work environment.
But what if we flipped the script for the universe we inhabit? In the essay, “Another Hair Piece,” legal scholar Angela Onwuachi-Willig encourages us to imagine “an alternate racial universe” in which Black people are the normative standard for professional grooming policies. The policy reads:
Appearance: Extreme or face hairstyles are prohibited.
Males: Hair must be worn in a short style and must not extend below the top of your shirt collar. Ponytails are prohibited.
Females: Hair must be worn in braids of any kind, including cornrows, twists or a short style that does not extend below the top of your shirt collar.⁷
Onwuachi-Willig is recasting a case, Jespersen v. Harrah’s Operating Co., in which a White woman sued for discrimination for a policy, that amongst other things, required that women’s “hair be teased, curled, or styled …” and “worn down at all times, no exceptions,” and that they wear make-up. Jespersen did not reject the hair grooming requirement but did reject to wearing make-up. She lost her suit and the ruling was widely condemned. The cosmetics industry in the United States is worth about 90 billion dollars, and while there are wide variations in how much people spend, people who identify as women tend to spend more on make-up.⁸ Moreover, research shows that women are perceived as possessing more competence at work when they wear some make-up. (Trans women who may not by chance or choice pass as cisgender have other forms of discrimination at play.⁹) The “makeup tax” at a place that explicitly requires it for women clearly places an additional financial and time burden on them.
But when we factor in hair costs, African American women spend a stunning nine-times more than other women on hair products.¹⁰ Harrah’s policy would place more of a burden on Black women whose hair cannot easily be “worn down” other than with braids, locs, a hot comb, or chemicals. Many people would consider it outrageous to force (non-Black) women into hairstyles that their hair texture cannot easily conform to, or by forcing them to cut their hair. Onwuachi-Willig suggests we would have to occupy a fantastic, different universe in order to imagine a world that decenters aesthetic standards that place Black hair outside of the norm.
The Rogers case was decided in 1981, after a rise in celebrating natural hair throughout the 1970s. The eighties saw a return to processed hair as an ideal. Black girls and women would continue to learn that hair unlike their own may give them access to economic possibilities, and, perhaps better lives. This was played for both laughs and pathos in Whoopi Goldberg’s star-making one-woman show in 1985. In the skit, “Little Girl With Blonde Hair,” she places a white shirt on her hair and asks the audience if they like her “long luxurious blonde hair.” With a child’s voice, Whoopi speaks to the audience about what her “blonde hair and blue eyes” will enable. She’ll “be White,” and this will enable her to have a “dream house, and dream car, and dream candy” and live with Malibu Barbie and Ken. (Many viewers who watch her performance would see the specter of the experiments by Black psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark famously used in the Brown v. Board case, with Black children showing a marked preference for white dolls because of the meanings they ascribed to them.) The little girl fantasizing she has blonde hair learns from television that White people can “go somewhere exciting,” which stands in contrast to her (Black) mother. She works “all the time.” And “don’t even know nobody exciting and nobody exciting know her.” Her mother does not look like anyone on television (even the Smurfs), so the little Black girl desires not to look like her mother. This iteration of children’s play is comic but haunting. The pleasure of children’s imaginative play is their ability to make everyday props or thin air into something real. Whoopi’s mimicking of sweet, Black girl play suggests a shift from the fantastic nature of children’s play, as she is imagining prosperity emerging from something some girls her age already have.
I feel as if everyone who makes such rulings should be forced to have a small bit of relaxer on their heads for a while, not covering the entire scalp, just a bit of it.
That some Black people view hair as the principal sign of what it means to be an attractive woman—even more so, as Banks argues, than skin color—is illustrated with painful beauty in Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel, Song of Solomon. The character Hagar longs for Milkman, a self-centered man. While she is clearly unhealthily obsessed with him, I wept for her on the day she tried to make herself beautiful for him and was caught in a storm. She had a soiled dress, a run in her hose, and disastrous make-up. But it was her hair that she focused on as she wept to her mother and grandmother. In response to Hagar’s claim that Milkman did not like her hair, her grandmother tells her that “It’s the same hair that grows out of his own armpits. The same hair that crawls up out of his crotch on up his stomach. All over his chest. The very same. It grows out of his nose, over his lips, and if he ever lost his razor it would grow all over his face. It’s all over his head, Hagar. It’s his hair too. He got to love it.”¹¹ The broken Hagar was an unreliable judge, but she was not wrong that it was possible for him to reject characteristics that he also possessed. For example, some of Banks’ interview subjects argued that men choose to date women with long and straight hair. These women are thus suggesting that there can be romantic and sexual costs, and not just professional ones, to choosing a natural hairstyle.
• • •
“Black women’s hair is epistemology, but we cannot always discern its codes.”
But I do not want to give the impression that all the discussions and explorations of Black women’s hair outside of children’s books are about injury. On the contrary, many explorations of Black women’s hair are playful and celebratory. Artist Lorna Simpson has focused on black hair in a number of works. When I was in high school, my art teacher gave me a T-shirt she must have purchased at a museum, and it was my first introduction to Simpson. The T-shirt modified her dyptic, “Flipside.” An African Mask is featured on the front of the shirt with the caption “the neighbors were suspicious.” On the other side, the mask is replaced by the back of a black woman’s head who is sporting a short natural, and the caption reads “of her hairstyle.”¹² I actually think the T-shirt worked as a performance piece in ways the dyptic does not. The pause caused by the reveal and breakup of the quote increases the dramatic irony.
Her 1994 work Wigs is a collection of lithographs on felt, depicting various hairpieces. Like a number of African American artists, Simpson defamiliarizes the history of scientific racism’s use of the specimen. As we look at these hairpieces, from ringlets to a large black mustache to blonde hair, our suppositions about who might wear these styles denaturalizes our assumptions about real and fake, and what kind of hair—like a blonde wig—can be an object of curiosity. She continues to play with the typologies constructed by hairstyles in the 1988 piece, Stereo Styles, in which ten photographs in two rows depict the back of the head of the same Black woman wearing different hairstyles. Words in cursive divide the images: “Daring, Sensible, Severe, Long&Silly, Boyish, Ageless, Silly, Magnetic, CountryFresh, Sweet.” The words are not associated with particular pictures, so it is left to the audience to ascribe a characteristic to each style. These are mostly warm readings of Black women’s hair aesthetics and there are uglier words that others might use for some of the styles. But the list nonetheless encourages readers to understand the arbitrary but consistent assignment of character often attached to Black women’s hair aesthetics.
Simpson’s 2013 series, Ebony Collages, takes vintage pictures of Black people—mostly women—from the popular Black magazine Ebony and overlays their hair with whimsical, free-floating watercolors and collages of other images. Founded in 1945 by John H. Johnson, Ebony not only focused on Black news and culture—it traditionally modeled Black respectability politics. Black women with natural hair and features more associated with African ancestry emerged in a greater number of ads in the wake of the Black Power movement in the 1960s and 1970s, but by the 1980s the magazine returned to more Eurocentric standards.¹³ While representations of Black women with natural hair made a resurgence later, Johnson publications have had a complicated relationship to Black women’s beauty aesthetics. Simpson’s series celebrates the creativity of Black women’s hair and head wrap practices, while also evoking the pleasure Ebony has always offered with its representations of Black womanhood in a medium that has marginalized Black women. In an essay accompanying an art book publication of this series as well as other images from Jet, scholar-poet Elizabeth Alexander argues that Simpson’s work explores how “black women’s hair is epistemology, but we cannot always discern its codes.”¹⁴ And indeed, Black women’s hair practices say much about how they understand themselves and speak back to understandings of how other people see them.
The epistemology of black women’s hair is on full display in one of my favorite twenty-first-century treatments of the topic in the Black avant-garde television series, Random Acts of Flyness. In “Bad Hair,” creator Terrence Nance and writer/director Miriamo Diallo craft a surreal story of Black hair that refuses to be managed. A Black woman walks into a Black hair salon and the hairstylist says, “Pero, que pelo tan malo” (what bad hair!), her face twisted with disgust. She pulls at the hair and the hair pushes back at her hand, responding, “Back up off me! Who you calling bad?” In indignation, the hair leaves the head of the customer and walks out the door with, “I’m out! This is bullshit. Peace!” The hair ends up in an alley fighting with some other “bad” hair. Sirens sound and the hair is arrested. In sentencing, the judge states, “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such an indignantly abrasive curl pattern.” The hair is convicted on multiple counts and gets many years for offenses such as “general badness,” “a tendency to split ends,” and “criminal damage to a perfectly functional hot comb.” Incarcerated and feeling isolated in prison, the hair encounters a woman in the shower who provides a hair pick and moisturizer. The woman tells the hair to stop trying to “twist” herself into “good hair” and embrace the fact that she has bad hair. “Who are you?” the hair asks. And her mysterious mentor says, “The question is sister … who are you?” She is schooled on the etymology of “bad” hair, and when she is released from prison she rejoins a Black head, presumably to embrace herself as she is.
Black women with natural hair and features more associated with African ancestry emerged in a greater number of ads in the wake of the Black Power movement in the 1960s and 1970s, but by the 1980s the magazine returned to more Eurocentric standards.
This and other sophisticated treatments of Black hair for adult audiences speak to the continued need beyond childhood to disrupt the discourses surrounding Black hair, discourses that have economic, social, and psychological costs. Black women struggle with the judgment of not only schools but family when they make choices about how they style their children’s hair. While a number of legislators have moved to prohibit discrimination against Black hair, Black women nonetheless may risk unemployment by refusing hair. They might have to negotiate the expectations of potential and current romantic partners who embrace non-Black beauty standards. These works do the continued cultural work of transforming how we see not only Black hair—but Black women. I long for the day when the embrace of “nappy” hair is not seen anywhere as a radical act. But for now it remains an emphatic act of self-love.