Chris Rock’s documentary film Hair, which explores the meaning of “good hair” among Black people, especially women, has sparked a good deal of controversy. It may have also opened up old wounds about the Black aesthetic and the definition of beauty in Black America. The controversy is rooted in the historical quest of Africans in America to define and affirm our identity in the face of the legacy of enslavement, cultural aggression and forced miscegenation in a hostile, racist society. In that regard, the internalization of the White to Black superiority to inferiority continuum has had serious consequences within the Black community. The colloquial expression “if you’re White, you’re alright, Yellow mellow, Brown stick around and Black get back” captured the popular understanding of how the Black/White continuum operates. Historically, if you were “light, bright and damn near white,” you might be treated better than darker brothers and sisters or better yet, maybe you could “passant blanc,” pass for White. There was a widespread belief in the Black community that whiteness equaled success. Some within the community were so obsessed with lightening up the race that they would forbid their sons or daughters to date a dark-skinned person – “marrying up” meant hitching your dreams for success to a lighter-skinned member of the race.
African features, those characteristics that distinguish Blacks from Euro-ethnics and other racial/ethnic groups, were considered “ugly.” The dark skin, thick lips, broad nose and yes, that “nappy” hair were considered badges of inferiority! This generation may be unaware that there was a time when brothers routinely “konked” their hair, utilizing a harsh, lye-based formula to get those naps out, to straighten and wave ones coiffure to look more like Dean Martin or Tony Curtis. One of the more memorable passages in The Autobiography of Malcolm X is when he recounts plunging his head into the toilet to quench the burning sensation of the konkolene on his scalp. In those days Brothers proudly strutted the streets with Do Rags adorning their heads to restrain the restless, Konkolene straightened naps.
For women, ever since the era of Madame C.J. Walker, the straightening comb and curling iron were the tools to tame that nappy head. And, then there were the “bleaching crèmes” to wash away the blackness, that dark complexion blocking access to the upper rungs of Black society and the White world. Nadinola Bleaching Cream was a hot commodity in the “beauty” products section of stores in my day. Indeed, I can recall lying awake with sweat rolling off my face from an abundant application of Nadinola! I never Konked my hair; I was afraid of the fire. But Murray’s Hair grease coupled with hundreds of strokes with a stiff brush to wave the naps was my attempted escape from the “curse of blackness.” For men and women, “good hair” and “good looks” were defined by a European/White aesthetic or standard of beauty
Back in the day, however, in the era of Black Power and Black Consciousness, hair became a symbol of protest against the longstanding internalized acceptance of a Euro-centric aesthetic/standard of beauty, and an affirmation of African culture and beauty. With the emergence of Black Power came an emphatic rejection of European culture as that which Black people should emulate and a renewed search for identity by connecting with our African homeland. “Black is Beautiful” became a virtual battle cry, a call to arms for a people who were calling themselves Negroes and Colored, to proclaim that “Black” would not “get back.” The sons and daughters of Africa, Black people, were determined to rediscover and identify with a rich culture, history and heritage. Going “natural,” embracing one’s features, including “kinky” hair, became a badge of defiance of European/White culture and a fervent embrace of all things African. In Harlem, the Capital of Black America, Brother Elombe Brath helped to set the trend by sponsoring African fashion shows where models dressed in African garments and wore their hair “natural” or in “Afros.” The idea spread like wild fire across Black America. The Afro, Dashiki and African garb became political symbols of a newfound Black identify.
This was an era when hair had meaning. For a time hair became a political symbol. Brothers would routinely harangue sisters, demanding that they throw away their straightening combs, go natural and stop “looking White.” Especially for sisters, going natural was a political decision, requiring the conversion from a Eurocentric definition of beauty to an African-centered aesthetic/standard of beauty. In an interesting reversal, I can remember very light-skinned sisters with naturally straight hair, (some who could have passant blanc), feverishly working to tease their hair so they could have an Afro! Suddenly to be Black was beautiful and the “in” thing to be. Even James Brown cleansed his hair of Konkolene, grew an Afro and pinned a song, “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
The embrace of an African-centered aesthetic/standard of beauty led to an acceptance of various ways Black people could wear their hair. Though braiding had been common- place in Black communities for generations, now this aesthetic form took on new meaning as a symbol of identity and pride. Extensions and dread locks also became part of a range of acceptable African-centered expressions of “good hair.”
Like most things that begin as symbols, however, Afros, braids, extensions and dread locks became more fad, fashion and style than political statement. Indeed, activists and organizers watched in amazement when some brothers abruptly abandoned their Afros and adopted the long, straight-haired Superfly look made popular by the character played by Ron O’Neal in one of the early Black exploitation films. James Brown, “Mr. Black and I’m Proud,” was one of the first to drop the Afro for the “new” style. These shocking retrogressions precipitated questions about the real content/substance of “Blackness.”
At the end of the day, people came to realize that you could have leaders like Mobutu, in the Congo, who Africanized titles and symbols of the nation but was a total stooge and a corrupt, self-serving puppet of the West. There were also “leaders” in the U.S. who wore African garb and had super sized Afros but were agent provocateurs, informants or just plain sell-outs. On the other hand, there were leaders, women and men, who may not have worn Afros and Dashikis but were seriously dedicated to the liberation of Black people. The lesson learned was/is that while African-centered appearance may be preferable, the content of one’s politics and commitment to the people is ultimately what matters.
Chris Rock’s film is useful because it provides an opportunity to reexamine the extent to which the Black community has reverted to an unconscious acceptance of a White/Euro-centric definition of “good” hair and beauty. A positive sense of self is still an important ingredient in the struggle for Black advancement, particularly among today’s youth/young people. What I can say with confidence is that the struggles waged decades ago were instrumental in opening up the range of choices Black people now enjoy in terms of hairstyles. By and large, no one blinks anymore if you show up on the job with an Afro, braids, extensions or dreads. That was not the case in the era of the 60’s. So, when you look in the mirror sisters and brothers and choose your hair style for the day, that freedom is a direct result of the Black Power, Black Consciousness, Black is Beautiful movements back in the day!
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com . He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.