Last Friday when I was getting ready to go to Atlantic City for my Nana's funeral, I set out on an evening mission to get my hair done. I couldn't look jacked on the day we layed Nana to rest in peace, so I took the bus over to 107 and Columbus to the little Dominican spot I've been going to for the last 5 years. Even though the staff has rotated, the management has been the same and I trust them to relax, cut and do whatever else I need for next to no money at all.
Yet, I arrived to find my trusty spot SHUT DOWN. Gates closed. Several pieces of neon pink and green posterboard: "For Maria and Josefina, 917-***-****" "Marta moved to 108 and Columbus" "Johanny now at Mirror Image." All of a sudden, the prospect of straightening out my inch think curly roots, saving the rest of the hair with a deep conditioner, and trimming my jagged split ends at 6 pm on a Friday night for next to no money at all began to slip away. Fast.
Hesitation and nervousness ensued as I walked up the block and peered into the other Dominican shops looking for familiar faces that I could perhaps trust to put chemicals in my head. I called my roommate. He suggested a shop one of his friends goes to higher up in Harlem. "Is it black people?" "Yeah..." "I already know it's gonna be expensive." I called and indeed it was. More money for just the relaxer than I had planned to spend on everything including tip. I told him, "This is what Chris Rock should have made a movie about."
Lately, you just can't get away from the chatter about Good Hair, Chris Rock's docu-comedy on black women and their hair. He's been on Oprah (twice) and Tyra, pushing a conversation that usually takes place amongst ourselves (cue Barnard BOSS meetings) into the mainstream. All of a sudden EVERYBODY knows that good hair - the weaving kind - comes from India. And that good hair - the kind that sits on my head - comes from a relaxer (and a good blow out from the Dominicans, though Chris doesn't talk about that).
The politics of hair amongst black Americans reaches deep into our roots as slaves. If we were taught that white was right, then we had plenty of dichotomies amongst ourselves to separate who could function (read: pass) in the white world. Light skin versus dark skin, and straight hair versus nappy hair in particlar, all play into the politics of who amongst us gets ahead in this white American world first.
It is easy to track this trend in the world of arts and entertainment. All of our foremothers who really had any great commercial success were lite brites with good hair (think Katherine Dunham, Josephine Baker, Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne). And most of the women interviewed by Chris Rock in this documentary are also lite brites who admittedly choose to wear a weave, in part, to continue to fit the mold.
What becomes clear to me from the film, is that black women in the public eye feel the need to perpetuate a certain aesthetic established in an era where a kinky 'fro did nothing for the advancement of black people. They choose to look and dress a part for their professional careers, which trickles down to the girls and mama's around the way. But what if they just stopped spending $5000 on their Indian lace front? I wonder would the mama's around the way stop putting Just For Me in their 4 year old's hair?
One of the most interesting points in the movie is the discussion of the economics of the black hair industry. Chris Rock finds out that "Keke" will lay away and spend just as much money as Beyonce for her weave. The financial toll is so extravagant that some women would rather have their hair done then to pay the rent. And why? Why is there a need to maintain a particular look at the expense of one's livelihood? And better yet, why aren't we making the money that we so fiercely spend on our own hair? Why do we allow Asian-Americans to control our own market?
I'm trying to get at the complexity of all the issues at hand. Something about these women in the public eye not feeling the need to wear a weave or straighten with a perm to fit some standardized white image of what is appropriate for a professional in corporate America, Broadway and Hollywood. Yet at the same time, feeling the freedom to choose these hair options if they want because it is actually what makes them feel most beautiful. It is about black people as a community, choosing to make economically sound choices in which we don't allow the maintenance of our hair (and thus overall physical appearance) override our most basic of needs - to eat, sleep and live. It is about recognizing that our hair is our Crown of Glory but it is also just hair. (This is where I need help y'all). It is about letting go of this emotional hold that possesses us when it comes to making decisions about how we will style our hair. It is about realizing that hair is one of God's many miracles, because guess what? It grows back.
That night I was pacing Columbus Avenue below 110th street I seriously contemplated for the second or third time in my life, just chopping off my relaxed hair. But then I thought about the serious adjustment I would have to make to accept such a shockingly new self image, when I am so confident in my current one. One that is admittedly traditional and fits into the mold. I'm that light skin girl with long pretty hair. I come from a long line of them (Nana, Grammy, Mommy, Auntie and cousins). Perm or no perm, we all have "good hair," which is maybe why none of us have ever felt the need for extravagant hair care measures. But I thought about the new way of life in which I would become even less of a slave to the needs of my hair. And then I thought about how other people would have to accept my new image. I thought about the different men I would attract. I stood on the street corner and thought about a lot.
And then I took a deep breath, walked to Duane Reade and bought a box of relaxer.