Back in the mid-80s, watching Oprah Winfrey’s bouncing and behaving hair was like a dream come true. I never knew that black hair could do that. I rushed to a salon, telling them to duplicate the Oprah ‘do on my head, and they did. The bad part is that just like what once happened to Oprah, my hair fell out. I was left with no hair on my head to duplicate any ‘do.
Nina Simone sings “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and actually I once thought my true soulmate was a bald man. But the inside love (that’s me) does have black hair. Learning to love myself and my hair is a never-ending project, so much so I’ve decided to make it my concentration of study at the graduate level.
I was sitting with some friends of mine at a Montreal university pub, talking about what I often do – hair. One of them said to me, “why don’t you do research on hair.” I thought she was crazy, and that I would never find information on the topic, but I was wrong on both counts. I had been thinking and talking about hair for so long that I was sure my first thought as a baby was a kinky one. It was a natural choice for me to do research on hair.
I found out that everybody is talking about black hair these days. It’s like when Dr. Ruth came out talking about sex and everyone was discussing it. I don’t know who started the black hair talk, maybe Jesus himself, but black hair is top pick of writing topics, music, documentaries, and Internet sites.
With the growing sophistication of technology, and the millennium on its way, I decided to catch up with the times and do my master’s project as an Internet site.
Finding a metaphor for the site was easy. I had spent a lifetime searching for the perfect salon. A salon with hairdressers that paid more attention to your head than the telephone. A salon that encouraged you to feel beautiful naturally. A salon with top-rate service, but low-rate prices. With the dream world one can create on the net I built a virtual one called Salon Utopia.
There’s a receptionist, Betsy, who greets you as you enter. Hairdresser Mariame fashions the inside of your head as well as the outside. Music plays in the salon that makes you want to let your hair down. There’s a resource room with a head full of information about black hair. And a hairnet café links you up with a selection of other sites about hair. Most importantly, just like any good hair salon, there is a freedom to chat and an opportunity to participate in an on-line discussion about hair politics.
The on-line community, linked through Excite Communities, is the vital part to the research coming out of this site. The most active elements of the site are the calendar and the discussion threads. Both aspects have been up and running since November 18, 1998. The calendar acts as a bulletin board for everyone who is part of the community, and visitors as well. The community is like a clubhouse, where members and visitors are free to check out at all times of day and night what is going on. Member «nubchewy» includes information about her magazine, and most important is the discussion section.
The profile of the community and the members involved in the on-line discussion is quite diverse, and a bit ‘sketchy’ to explain, because on the internet, you can be whoever you want. I believe the make up is like this: out of 17 members, which makes `The Politics of Black Hair` one of the top communities under political issues in Excite Communities, there is one Asian male, three Asian females, all of these people coming from Canada, two black men, one from Canada, one from the United States, five black women (including myself) from Canada, but Rootswoman I`m not too sure of her race or location, two mixed race women, one from Canada, one from the States, a white woman from Canada, two more black women from the United States, one with a great name like SafFroNfox, and a mar2sad that I don`t know anything about. I hope that adds up. Mainly I found the members of the community through word of mouth, flyers at events about hair, and through search engines. I also sent hundreds of invites to everyone on my email mailing list. The people tend to be mainly of the same class as myself, the educated, middle to upper class. Unfortunately, these are the people who mainly have access to the internet. And although I`d hoped for a more international spread of members than just in North America, some people have told me that certain characters in my website address make it difficult to access in Africa, for example.
Speaking of Africa, Tojane, one of the members of the group, has an interesting anecdote about hair there. She says: «Here is a little tidbit of politics that takes us beyond the side of the Atlantic. Back home, in Nigeria, locks have very definite meaning. The only people who wore them were either crazy, a part of a certain caste (outcaste) of society, or a “rastafarian.” I went back a couple years ago, and had a lengthy discussion with my aunt about them. She just couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want their hair free. Of course, she had a long, flowing weave in her own hair.» Tojane talks further about wanting to put locks in her own hair, and Alice Walker promoting taking the «dread» out of the word «dreadlocks.» It seems like she was utilizing the community to sort out her own hair issues, and get sharing and feedback on such a visible topic as hair.
This is the kind of discussion that has been going on for many months in the on-line community. «Ask the Administrator,» and «Locks.» have been the most popular discussion threads. Through the research in the on-line community I have managed to do what so many researchers dream of, debunk some of the myths of their subject. Some of the myths of natural black hair is that it`s difficult to deal with, Alice Walker herself even says this in a kind of loving way. But Tojane gives a different perspective. She wears her hair natural and actually sees it as «fun» rather than «hard.»
Other myths about natural black hair include black men. There are many black women who believe that they must have long flowing hair like Tyra Banks, Naomi Campbell, or any of those other (I will admit) beautiful women on the runways. But a black man from the United States gives voice to men that don`t desire black Barbie dolls, or fake breasts and fake hair: «Speaking from my current state of consciousness, I love black hair. By black hair, I refer to hair belonging to people of color – of African descent. I prefer it in its natural glory, with all its “kinkiness,” curls, “naps,” bends and loops. I must admit however, I haven’t always felt this way about black hair. At one time I was swayed and influenced by all those straight hair, blond blue eyed, pale-skinned commercials. I wanted my hair to move when the wind blew just like my t.v. favorites. Black entertainers also upheld the image of whiteness by frying, and dying, and relaxing hair that was meant to stand firm, stand tall…God has given each one of us a certain uniqueness. And there’s nothing wrong with experimenting with fashions and styles, but to alter ones looks to appear more acceptable to another culture is a form of self-hatred.` Say it again, Sam as they say.
Another myth I managed to debunk with this web community is that white people do not care about black hair politics, and that they do not have their own hair issues. The white female member of the group pointed out an interesting article appearing around March in The New Yorker about hair colouring, history and white women. That article also lead her to relate to some of the issues in my website.
The contribution of the white woman in the community lead me to think, is black hair and its politics just one those `black things,` or is it part of a larger cultural issue (can`t do question marks on this keyboard). The answers, like they often do, came from the website and the members. Tojane looked to the media and positive images of black women in the mainstream popular culture to explain black women representation. She says it best: «Until we start seeing positive images of BLACK women in mainstream popular culture, we will continue to aspire/pain ourselves to that white ideal that has been affecting us for centuries. Now-a-days, its in to be not too black, to have “good” hair, and figures that fit within this societies ideal of who we are. Black women have yet to appear in positive ways on TV, in our magazines and on the fashion runways (if they exist at all). When they do show up, their skin tone and hair texture are used as props in themselves to push the exotic image that we tend to fall into sometimes–hypersexualized and hard. Either that, or we are chocolate images of our white counterparts. Aside from this there is a virtual absence of positive Black female images. This could be said of all women of color. We tend to remain silent or remain sex objects for male spectators.»
In many ways nubchewy through the community has a chance to agree and share with Tojane when she talks about locks. `I know that a lot of sisters who have
perms say “I would wear my hair natural if I could get long locs right away” but they are still dealing with that ‘having hair hanging down’ issue.» What nubchewy says echoes in many ways Tojane`s sentiments that many black women are buying into and being sold the white woman as beauty ideal myth. This is more than just a `black thing,` it has social, political, and economic ramifications that affect our lives as viable members of our non-virtual communities.
Economics is a big issue, work and black hair was an important topic in the community which generated two interesting stories I will note. One woman who lives in Toronto said: «My own father warned me that I would be “unemployable” since braids do not fit the corporate image. As a black man, he has always expressed a deep distaste for black women who wear natural hair. Women who maintain a short afro are called “mannish» or “lesbians” and women with braids or dreads are “radicals” This view is strongly held outside the black community as well. My white friends express a fascination with the process of braiding, but clearly do not consider it to be an ideal hairstyle. It is exotic or strange. I wear my hair in ways that it is comfortable to me, but I am aware that working in a corporate environment in which the very few black women who are there sport conservative, relaxed styles. Will I pay a penalty for having natural, braided hair all year round? I think, sadly that the answer is yes. Secretly, I admire black women who wear short afros, but I don’t think I would be brave enough to face the criticism and derision that comes with such a choice.»
The woman from Toronto raises some realistic points in a virtual way. Another story from nubchewy displays the drastic lengths some people will go to to avoid having employees with natural hair. «I work part time is a computer trainer for professional adults. When I went to the first job interview and the callback, I wore my natural hair in neat cornrows with a bun. I was offered the job but told that I must complete a 2-week unpaid trial run to ensure that I had the right stuff for the job. In desperation, I had a sistahfriend of mine braid my hair for me so that it could last 2 weeks. At the end of two weeks, the boss (a white, Jewish woman) told me first thing in the morning that I had done excellent work and that the company
wanted to “reward me” for working so hard without pay. The reward was a
so-called day of pampering and the company would foot the bill. She said, and I quote, that it was time I “stopped looking like a University student and started looking like a professional woman.” I would be sent out that very same day with the receptionist (the only other black person in the office) to get a new suit, new shoes, makeup, a manicure and get
my hair done.` Nubchewy had to negotiate with the receptionist, who wore a blonded Jherri curl herself, what to do with her hair. The boss really wanted her to perm her hair, but nubchewy refused and compromised with braids, which she ripped out a few weeks later. Nubchewy proudly wears a wild `buckwheat` afro as she puts it, and still has her job, because in the end, her excellent job performance outcurled even her hair.
These things that have happened to the black women of the community are awful. But don`t be fooled that the politics of black hair is a `black people`s thing.` There are other races that have black hair too, just not quite, never quite, like black people. A female Asian member of the community makes comments on Asians (and blacks) and their hair politics. She `wonders why Asian women get perms to look like poodles, and black women straighten their hair to have something that looks like an oddly shaped bob – she also mentions that women of colour strive for a Caucausian aesthetic and when will it end
a denial of ones spiritual essence. Some would even say that it is a form of self-hatred.»
While I’ve been putting together Salon Utopia, I’ve gone through braids, to a natural look, to twists, to neo-dreads, to blow-dried straight, to cornrows, to braids again, and my latest style is an afro with a band. I have learned a lot through hair, great stories, great hairstyles, how to do a website, read many good books, and seen interesting movies. Last but not least, I’ve met many interesting people – through the net, at conferences, and at hair documentaries. But the most important thing I’ve learned is that on this journey of ever-increasing self-love, hair, and education, like the thousands of strands of hair on my head – I’m not alone.