Saturday, March 14, 2009

Black Girl, Light World IV

Come Away With Me

My father prays to God
that I would straighten my hair
a relaxer, a pressing comb, a flat iron,
anything but this!
but I tell him that God gave me this hair.
It seems He has already spoken.

I once turned my hair into the enemy, the devourer of my children, to be hunted down, tamed, managed, and suppressed. But it rose again, month after month; like Kunta Kente, generation after generation, a name that held the meaning of our roots. It resisted being turned into a socially and professionally accepted Toby. It refused to accept the lie that heaven equals length and circle shaped follicles and it embraced the Shulamite as a dark-skinned wonder, though still insecure in her beauty. She--like me--forgets that her Lover never once mentioned the the tents of Kedar. He only He only ask that she come away with Him. Come away.

So when my father prays to God
that I would straighten my hair
a relaxer, a pressing comb, a flat iron,
anything but this!
I tell him that God gave me this hair.
It seems He has already spoken.

The above is a poem I wrote for my Adv. Poetry class (a lot of material for this blog seems to come out of that class). It's still in the editing stages do this *series* of blogs is hair and as a subject that has actually been a focus of mine academically for a year or so and personally for the past 6 years (since I went natural). I went natural basically because my cousin Ricky convinced me to. While at the time he was a major pothead, he was also embracing his African-ness, and locking his hair, etc., basically "going all Afrocentric" as some have put it. His older sister Duwana was also the first woman that I actually knew who had natural hair. So I came home from Vero with a new desire to accept myself as I was. This also coincided with my introduction into Gothic subculture and I think the two fed off each other (rebelling against generally accepted standards of beauty).

At first I still got texturizers because I didn't really know how to handle my hair but as of two years ago I'm about as natural as it can get. For once I haven't even colored my hair. Before this becomes confused, I am not against hair straightening, in and of itself. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I experiment with my hair texture, color, and style with abandon, I will encourage anye and everyone else to do so, and I will try just about anything once, usually twice. My problem with relaxers is that this phenomenon in the African American community comes from a culture of racism and self-hate.

It's not that one day someone woke up and said, "Hey, I wanna try a new hairstyle, I'll get my hair straightened!" If that were the case I would be totally for it. Why not have fun trying different things? The problem is that historically black people, and by extension black features/phenotypes, have been associated with evil, barbarism, stupidity, poverty, unprefessionalism, and basically any other undesirable trait you can name in the Western societies. In an effort to further themselves in society, black people began to try to divorce themselves as much as possible from some of the more obvious features, hair being one, skin color being another, though that was more difficult and dangerous (we could talk all day about skin lightening creams, made to "even and brighten skin tone" but that's another discussion). And it's not as though this is just a problem in the African American community (watch this ad).

If you want to look at the historicity of the above statements, here are some links:

One of the first ways other Black women respond when I point this out is by saying, "Look, that's not the reason black women straighten their hair now. It's just easier to manage and it's apart of our culture now. It has nothing to do with wanting to be white." In fact, I had a conversation about this recently and that's exactly what the lady I was talking to said. But a few minutes later she was talking about how it was time for her to get another perm and she (jokingly) said something to the effect of "I leaned my head against the wall in class and I could feel a pillow under my head... I felt my hair and was like 'it's straight African American under there, that is not what you want.'"

Let's go over that again shall we?

  • "It's straight African American under there..." one would hope so, both she and I being African American
  • "That is not what you want." why... not? Aren't you African American? Why do you feel the need to erase evidence of that fact?

And I think this reveals the true nature of the issue, which is:

#1 The fact that the majority of African American women straighten their hair cannot be divorced from it's origins as a way
to conform to white standards of beauty, especially since it's not as if racism and colorism have been erased from our society,as much as we wish it was so. It's not just--or I would propose, even mostly--about "management"and ease.

#2 The "manageability" argument is racist anyway. For thousands, of years Africans "managed" their hair by braiding it, locking it, shaving it, and using other methods that are intrinsically African, because of the uniqueness of out hair texture. It was not until we were taken away as slaves that managing our hair became a problem and that was only because white people didn't know how to manage our hair and we lost that kowledge in the struggle to survive. It did not fit into their cultural standards of manageability. And that's okay! Not how we got to the West, or our subsequent treatment, but if the majority of a people have straight to slightly curly hair it's understandable that they won't know what to do with coily hair. But that doesn't make the hair unmanagable--impossible to manage-- that means that someone is ignorant of the techniques used to "manage" it.
Plus manage is such an ugly word. It implies that whatever it is that needs to be managed is wild and undesirable and needs to be caged, sedated, toned down, repressed, etc. I do not believe that this is even a godly way of thinking about our hair, much less healthy.

(to be continued...)

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