"The type of black woman who would wear red (hair color) has confidence
The long hidden controversy among African-Americans publicly exploded
in November when seventeen-year-old Michelle Barskile in North Carolina
was turned down for her sorority's debutante ball. Several weeks later
Ruth Sherman, a white elementary school teacher in New York, fled her school
after heavy fire from some black parents. The issue for both women was
hair. Barskile's offense was that she wore her hair in a dreadlocks style
that her sorority chapter deemed unacceptable. Sherman's offense was that
she read passages from the book Nappy Hair to her mostly black and Latino
students. The parents claimed this demeaned blacks.
The two women discovered that few things generate more anger and passion
among black women than their hair. Some black critics say that black women
are in a frenzied search to shed the ancient racist shame and stigma of
"nappy hair" ="bad hair" by aping white beauty standards. Others say that,
like many non-black women, black women are hopeless captives of America's
fashion and beauty industry, which is geared to making them more attractive
and pleasing to men. Many black women counter this by saying that they
are merely seeking their own identify or "to look better."
"Get gorgeous! Steal the spotlight with this glamorous upswept design."
They are all right. But the great hair obsession among many black women
reflects the still deep and compelling need by African-Americans to identify
with and accept America's values and standards. The beauty care industry
has skillfully fed that compulsion with fantasies of physical glitter and
social glamour and turned them into mammoth profits. Hair care product
manufacturers have sold many black women on the notion that their hair
is the path to self-esteem, success, and sexual allure. A century ago the
legendary Madame CJ Walker built a multi-million dollar empire on the premise
that black women want to look like white women and that "good hair" is
the key to independence and prosperity.
"Elegance, spiced with Southern flavor begins with a mane awash in a
light golden blond shade."
The hair care industry is gargantuan today. In 1996 beauty care manufacturers
racked up more than $10 billion in sales, and hair care products by far
topped the sales list. Americans shelled out $1.5 billion for shampoos,
and more than $1 billion for hair conditioners alone. Blacks bought an
estimated one out of five toilet and cosmetic products sold, and one out
of three hair products sold.
The dozen or more black magazines devoted exclusively to hair dwarf
that of the number of general interest black publications. The hair magazines
are so wildly popular that many librarians are forced to put them under
lock and key to prevent them from being pilfered by patrons. The five giant
hair product manufacturers, Proctor & Gamble, Helene Curtis, Alberto-Culver,
Bristol Meyers, and Johnson & Johnson dominate the hair care industry
and are household names among black women.
"A perfect evening entrance begins with a flawless hair design."
The Afro or natural hair look of the 1960's and the braid craze of the
1990's are touted as examples of black women rejecting white beauty standards.
They aren't. The Afro style was short lived, always more a chic fad than
a revolution in black consciousness, and was tied to style and fashion
trends. Today's braided look is even more tightly tied to style and fashion
trends with none of the pretensions of the black pride of the 1960's. Even
many black women who sport the bald look are fixated on matching the proper
clothes, make-up and ear rings with the style. Most soon tire of these
hair fads and retreat back to the straightening comb, fashion braids/extensions
or a perm.
The great hair obsession is driven by the painful need of many African-Americans
to conform to the dominant values of American society. And beauty, fashion
and hairstyles are the most popular and perverse expressions of those values.
Barskile and Sherman learned the bitter truth that many African-Americans
still believe the fiction that good hair makes you, and nappy hair doesn't.
Dr. Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The
Crisis in Black and Black" (available at all bookstores!)
Copyright 1998 by Afrocentric News.