Hair” “Bad Hair”
The relationship between politics and African-American hair is tenuous at best. Any researcher would be hard pressed to find another race or group of people whose hair factors into its politics. Indeed, such a notion borders on ridiculousness. It is difficult to imagine a group of people such as the Serbians, who faced extermination because of a political situation involving their race (Bowen 3), attempting to utilize their hair to any sort of political advantage. The same notion applies to African-Americans. There is no denying, however, that the hair of African-Americans has affected their regard socially throughout their tenure in the United States, and that certain hair types and textures have an enduring social meaning to this day. However, this paper will demonstrate that whatever social regard there is for the various hair types and textures of African-Americans has little impact politically, since: it produced little effect in the politics of the Civil Rights movement, that hair which is most desirable is most like the political oppressor of African-Americans, and there are extreme measures that African-Americans routinely go through to make their hair less African-looking.
This topic is important within the context of African-Americans and their plight in the United States because, for the majority of their time in this country (and especially since chattel slavery was abolished outside of the penal system), African-Americans have suffered from a surfeit of distractions. Quite simply, if these people tended to focus less on appearances — whether in the form of hairstyles, clothes, body types, vehicles, etc. — and more on their true social, political, and economic problems, they could have more of a political presence. However, African-Americans have almost always suffered from factionalism since they were initially brought to this country, a fact which probably stems from the tribal tendencies existent in Africa when they were first sold into slavery. Whether that factionalism has pertained to tribes, setting in the plantation in which slaves labored, football teams, gangs, cities or hair styles, such differentiation has merely lessened African-American solidarity. Any preoccupation with hair styles in 2014 is a similar manifestation, and has little impact politically other than to weaken the political prowess of these people.
The closest African-American hair came to intertwining with any sort of political ambition was during the 1960’s and 1970’s during the Civil Right movement and the time period which immediately spanned afterwards. During this pivotal two-year period, many African-Americans made a deliberate attempt to embrace their African heritage and to distance themselves from the influence of Westernization in the United States. It is important to realize that this socio-cultural movement took place within the context of a larger political movement in which African-Americans were attempting to procure basic civil liberties that were afforded to other groups, yet not them, in America. Socially and culturally then, the focus on Africa was manifested in a variety of ways — by wearing traditional African garb, by attempting to learn traditional African languages an other aspects of African culture, and by representing oneself as a definite descendent of Africa. Because of the lascivious and depraved raping and killing which took place during slavery, the dark skin color that characterized most Africans no longer characterized the physical quality of all African-Americans. However, the hair of those of African descent is distinct from that of other people in the world. It is knotty, kinky, and not naturally straightened unless one’s genes have been mixed with that of other ethnicities whose hair is straight.
As such, the wearing of one’s hair in an Afro — which is distinctly African-American and perhaps even distinctly African — became immensely popular during the aforementioned time period. It became a political statement in that it signified one’s African heritage and was a critical point of distinction in terms of one’s physical appearance from Western culture and those of European descent. However, Afro’s were merely symbols — this particular hairstyle did not serve any sort of political purpose other than to give the appearance that the wearer of that hair style was attuned to his or her Afrocentricity and distancing himself or herself from Westernized influences. Because this hairstyle was merely a symbol and just a part of physical appearances, (much like the Black Power salute, dashikis, ankhs, etc.) there were people who merely wore their hair in this style because of this fad and who had no political convictions. There were those who embraced the aesthetic of Afrocentricity, yet who adored Caucasian women or men as intimate partners, hamburgers, and other facets of Western culture that represented or directly were their oppressors. Thus, even during the most intense political moment for African-Americans in the history of their tenure in America, hairstyles were nothing more than a symbol of a socio-cultural fad that produced no true political effect. Instead, political effects were and are still achieved by mobilizing the masses, feeding people, and taking care of their basic socio-economic needs so they can be of use in the political process.
Another reason why, despite whatever social and cultural perceptions that persist about African-American hair, these notions are of no political use is because of the very nature of some of these perceptions. The tenets of “good” and “bad” hair (Lester 201) have persisted throughout the African-American culture as an inescapable cultural meme ever since they were brought here enslaved and the first mulattos were produced by avarice, lawlessness, and the profligate loins of Caucasians. To briefly explicate this meme, that hair which is closer to being straight — whether in the form of wavy hair or curly hair, virtually anything aside from the naturally kinky hair that typifies those of African descent — is termed good, while that hair which is of natural African descent and is not straight is termed “bad.” The counter-implications of this meme are readily apparent. The hair that which is most esteemed in the African-American community, which is considered good, is that which is straight and more likely to be found on peoples of mixed ethnicities, mulattos, etc. (Baraka 54). Moreover, those of mixed ethnicities tend to have lighter shades of skin than those who are African and whose heritage stems from African-Americans only. So the significance of this meme and of the regard for African-American hair is that hair which is closer to hair of Europeans, who have historically functioned as oppressors of African-Americans in myriad ways, shapes and forms, is deemed better and more desirable. There are certainly no political connotations in this regard; if there is one, it would be for those of Eurocentric ethnicity who have successfully exploited this notion and propagated it before far too many African-Americans. However, the fact remains that hair is similar in texture and style to that of Europeans, and which is found in most other ethnicities which also have straight hair, is considered better than hair that is distinctly African in its texture and style. As such, there are no political ramifications of this belief in a way that contributes to improving the political situation of African-Americans; if nothing else, it is merely another mechanism to oppress, confuse, and segment those of African-American descent.
Finally, perhaps the most convincing piece of evidence for the fact that the social and cultural regards for hair in the African-American community has had virtually no impact politically for these people is the extreme measures that African-Americans have gone to in order to modify their hair. As previously, stated, the primary reason to modify one’s hair is to make it “good” — or to make it closer to that of Caucasians (Haley 410), many of whom have been part of the political problems that African-Americans have faced in the U.S. Therefore, the many attempts that African-Americans have made to alter their hair in its appearance and texture so that it resembles that of their oppressors is not political maneuver by any means, and probably served to socially and culturally oppress these people as well. During the early part of the 20th century one of the most ubiquitous means of altering African-American hair to make it appear more like that of Europeans was to obtain a conk. Conk’s would temporarily straighten the hair of African-Americans, and were immensely popular among African-American men. With slick, straightened hair, African-Americans could whip it back like Caucasians or part it to the side in manners that the latter would routinely do. What is significant about conks is that the process was extremely painful. African-Americans were willing to go to extreme measures to endure tremendous pain (Neal 202) so that they could look more like their oppressors. Virtually no one can say that there was any political objective achieved by this process.
In the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s, around the time the Black power movement and that propagated by the Black Panthers was systematically stifled with the influx of crack cocaine, one of the most common means of altering African-American hair to make it resemble Caucasian hair was by obtaining a jheri curl. Jheri curls did not necessarily straighten African-American hair, but it made it unnaturally curly — in much the same way that certain Italian people have long, curly hair. In appearance, therefore, jheri curls were certainly distinct from that of conventional African hair. However, jheri curls were also inordinately wet. Part of the appeal of these curls and the process that made one’s hair so curly is that it required an intense degree of moisture. In fact, there were specific products designed to spray moisture one one’s jheri curl in order to keep it wet and slick. Were jheri curl’s to dry, of course, the natural texture and look of African hair would reappear. Jheri curls were drippy, flashy, shiny, and a host of other attributes that made them popular during the aforementioned time period. But there was nothing political about them, and they did nothing to impact the political objectives of African-Americans other than to serve as distraction.
However, the segment of the African-American population that has routinely struggled the most with their hair and regularly attempts to straighten it so that it will resemble the hair of Caucasians is African-American women. Although there are some African-American women who wear their hair naturally or twist it up into locks, the vast majority of them get perms or relaxers. Some even believe that their hair factors into their success in life and their careers (Jacques-White). These hair treatments effectively straighten the hair of African-American women, which has, “long been considered by many black women to be their crowning glory” (Louis). As such, it can grow down their shoulders in a lengthy fashion that it would not be able to do otherwise. Moreover, the way that it grows down their shoulders is the way that hair grows down the shoulders of Caucasian women and other people with naturally straightened hair. However, the maintenance required for such a hair style is considerable. These perms or relaxers must be reapplied every couple of months or, for those who are more wealthy, in a matter of weeks. If they are not, an African-American’s hair will again dry out and revert to its classic kinky African features that characterizes the hair of most Africans. There are also detrimental effects that these perms and relaxers produce on the hair of African-American women, which is another reason there are needs for maintenance. Although these hair styles make these women look more like Caucasians, there is no political purpose that they serve.
In summary, the hairstyles of African-Americans have regularly been an important manifestation of social and cultural concerns. Very rarely, however, have these concerns intersected with political ones. For the most part, the various hair styles and ways in which African-Americans have worn their hair have only served as a social distraction. Instead of focusing on political issues that affect these people and the various forms of oppression that they could contend with via a nationalist perspective (Jones 83), a preoccupation with their hair is only another means of factionalism to which these people have always been subjected. The social and cultural concerns about hair, therefore, merely serve to lessen the degree of solidarity existent between African-Americans. Furthermore, virtually the only time that hair has been involved with any sort of political concerns for African-Americans was during the Civil Rights movement when it was fashionable to wear one’s hair in an Afrocentric manner. Even then these hair styles were little more than symbols, and not express manifestations of the sort of hard work required to alter political circumstances. The cultural meme of “good” and “bad” hair also denotes that hair has not had any significant political effect for African-Americans, since “good” hair is the hair that is most akin to that of African-Americans’ oppressor’s . Lastly, all of the elaborate ways that African-Americans have chosen to make their hair resemble Europeans proves that if anything hair has been a political tool for Caucasians to assimilate African-Americans, and not to actually help African-Americans.
Baraka, Amiri. The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books. 1984. Print.
Bowen, John. “The Myth of Global Ethnic Conflict.” Journal of Democracy 7(4): 3-14. 1996. Print.
Haley, Alex. The Autobiography of Malcolm X New York: The Random House Publishing Group. 1964. Print.
Jacques-White, Lorraine. The Politics of Black Hair: The Impact Hair Has Had on The Life of the Black Woman. http://atlanta.cbslocal.com / 2012. Web. http://atlanta.cbslocal.com/2012/08/19/the-politics-of-black-hair-the-impact-hair-has-on-the-life-of-the-black-woman/
Jones, LeRoi. Home. New York: William Morrow & Company. 1967. Print.
Lester, Neal. “Nappy Edges and Goldy Locks: African-American Daughters and the politics of Their Hair.” The Lion and the Unicorn. 24(2) 201-224.
Louis, Catherine Saint. “Black Hair, Still Tangled in Politics.” The New York Times. 2009. Web.
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