Sunday, July 15, 2012

'Good' or 'Bad' Hair--See if I Care: The Dilemma of Hair Grade, Length, and Style in the African American Community

Within the African American community, being perceived as having ‘good hair’ has served as the ultimate compliment in African-American cultural dialogue, perception, and acceptance for decades now.  Some would even assert that this has been a divisive tool of distinctiveness that has plagued the African immigrant, via the North Atlantic Slave Trade, since their arrival in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619.    The ‘good’ or ‘nappy’ hair debate, an hierarchy within a larger social hierarchy, has had a negative impact on the culture of African Americans.   Not only has the complexion of a black American’s skin caused dissension amongst people of similar ethnic backgrounds as well as offering privilege and ridicule, but it has also constructed a psyche of self-worthlessness and inadequacy that is counterproductive to the enrichment of a race’s heritage. 
           The aforementioned hierarchical structure, specific to African-Americans, mentioned should be addressed because of the psychological effects, as well as social, and political—which is maybe the most important nuance of the American hierarchical structure because of its overwhelming influence on the ‘hierarchy’ as a whole, because it is the major problems that persists that continues to damage the Black American’s psyche when pertaining to self-worth and societal acceptance. It is difficult to separate one’s perceived ‘grade’ of hair from their  complexion in that both of these physical attributes are so permeated into the African-American’s psyche when pertaining to interpersonal relationships, both internal—as in friendship, fraternal inclusion, and even romantic endeavors and external(i.e. perception of and critiquing of beauty). So, in assessing the political differentiation and acceptance that coincides with the involvement of African-Americans within the United States’ political landscape, the text will often reference an African-Americans’ skin hue as an aside to Black Americans’ hairstyles and hair grades and the politics thereof, and the social commentary and symbolism that is associated with those hairstyles.

            When first critiquing the relevance of hair in the African American political landscape, one must first acknowledge the construction and connotation of the hierarchy of hair within Black America.  Because the body is objectified in mass media, and appearance resides at the top of the American social hierarchy, assimilation and acceptance can only be achieved through the identification with the dominant majority—white America.  With the aforementioned stated, it is important to state that there is no more powerful exhibition of assimilation than to have physical traits of the controlling sociopolitical class.  To identify with white America, the African American is unable to totally integrate, without being victim of xenophobic attitudes, because of the noticeably darker complexion of Blacks, as well as facial characteristics (i.e. lips, nose, and hair texture), but if one’s hair maintains more similarities to the hair of a European American and dissimilarities with individuals of African descent, they can achieve a level of social mobility that affords them opportunities of socioeconomic and political advancement that is not achievable or as easily accessible to the more African-looking black American.

            For so long in America, the more Eurocentric looks and African-American maintained, the more acceptable they were in mainstream America.  From the historic “house nigger” to the light- skinned Dorothy Dandridges and Lena Hornes, Black Americans with ‘good hair’ (i.e. straight, curly, or wavy),  the goal of many African Americans has been to present these type of Blacks to America as a representation of our best and brightest.  That particular looking African American (Thurgood Marshall, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois) offered white America a visual aid of assimilation, a voyeuristic display as to what, not only Black people could be as far as equality in specified/individual talent and intelligence, and physical characteristics of similarity that resembled that of the dominant majority.  To understand the significance of black hair in America is to understand the juxtapositioning that exists between white and Black Americans in a society in which the dominant culture, particularly the appearance of the dominant culture, is so permeated in the psyches of the subordinate, or minority, class of people that reside in the U.S.A.  It is a necessity for the Black American, particularly in the political realm, to be as close to ‘white’ as he or she can get, be it ideologically or physically.  To be the antithesis of the aforementioned can cause difficulties and even be detrimental in social relevance and participation in the sociopolitical arena.

                        Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as

                        not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable, not helpless, but

                        licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but

                        innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment

                        of destiny (‘Playing in the Dark’, Toni Morrison).

If one can look the part of an American, then maybe they can adequately play the role of an American.  To look too African, can summon the memory of the stereotype of the shiftless Negro who cannot exist in an intelligently civilized society.  In essence, the more one maintains similarities to their European counterparts, the more worthy, at least physically, they are to be afforded the opportunity of societal, financial, occupational, and political assimilation. 

            It seems that it would be difficult for an African American to be taken seriously by white constituents and voters if they maintain the prototypical physical characteristics of African Americans (i.e. ‘kinky’ hair, wide noses, thick lips, and dark-skin), yet, in the modern political era, those characteristics are what most of the prominent Black politicians possess. If we look at the most notable Black political figure in America today, President Barack Obama, we notice that for all practical purposes he visually looks like a Black man.  Though he is half Black and half white, Obama’s hair is of an average grade; not nappy or ‘bad’ but also not exceptionally ‘good’.  Though he is a product of miscegenation, he does not exhibit any noticeable European physical traits aside from his lighter skin complexion.  The mere fact that he resembles any normal Black American male in America may make him more palpable in the political arena than if he had a head full of curly or wavy hair or, on the contrary, dreadlocks, braids, perm like Civil Rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton or the infamously powerful Afro.  President Obama’s ability to represent the positivity of Blackness in America (i.e. intelligence, education, articulation, family-oriented) caused whites and Blacks alike to accept the visual representation of Obama because he seemed to “descriptively represent their demographic characteristics” (Morrison 221).  Because of Obama’s visual, he neither alienated whites nor created internal envy amongst Black Americans because of his mixed heritage.  For the most part, the voting public did not put much stock in his ethnic background because not only did Obama not bring it up often, but he did not look the part of a mixed-race individual.
          Throughout U.S. History, most of the prominent Black American sociopolitical figures have had ‘nappy’ hair, for lack of a better term.  From Marcus Garvey to Martin Luther King, many of the nation’s Black leaders have kept their hair natural, not relying on chemicals to straighten, curl, or relax their hair as to make it look more European.  This is peculiar in the sense that it is an unsaid truth that most African Americans prefer their hair, or the hair of other Blacks, to be ‘good’ or at least manageable.  The hierarchy that exists because of hair texture in the Black American community is obvious and consistently referenced whether in beauty or barber shops and is the major descriptor when describing someone other than what their skin complexion may be.  The irony of the Black leader wearing his or her hair natural is a lingering conundrum that neither I nor the sociological experts can explain.  Interestingly enough, the mere existence of the Black political figures wearing their hair natural may be a form of resistance to the totality of assimilation in this country.  Of course there are Black politicians who have what African Americans describe as ‘good’ hair (i.e. Jesse Jackson, former Virginia governor Douglas Wilder, former mayor of New York City David Dinkins), but many that are on the national stage have darker skin and kinky hair like the prototypical Black American.

            In fact, it is more beneficial for an African American politician or social/civic leader to be of a darker skin complexion and have kinkier hair because of the acceptance factor.  Though it has been mentioned in this text that many Blacks want ‘good’ hair or lighter skin so that they can more closely identify with the dominant white culture, it is also noteworthy to mention that being a Black public figure who resembles the prototypical Black American is a positive in garnering votes and respect from the Black community because, ironically, though Blacks may want to look European, they also trust the Blacks who ‘look’ Black.  For instance, light skin with good hair often leads Blacks to believe that the person who possesses these characteristics is either the offspring of a mixed relationship or there is white ancestry in their bloodline—even though most African Americans have European blood in their bloodline, even Native American for that matter, and therefore may not be as trustworthy as the dark-skinned, nappy-haired Negro running for or holding office.   Considering most Black politicians are Democrats and serve in districts, cities, or states with a majority Black voting base, it is almost a necessity that the politician not only look Black, but they must look as Black as the majority of their voters.  It is not as if their voting base will all be of a lighter skin hue and have ‘good’ hair, so it would benefit them to identify with those with ‘nappy’ roots and chocolate skin.
             By physically identifying with the political base of the Black community, wearing one’s hair natural, or having what is to be considered ‘nappy’ hair or not ‘good’ hair is a tool of empowerment for the Black sociopolitical figure in that by having ‘bad’ hair, the politician is reinforcing his or her ethnicity and bringing pride to the Black American and endorsing an afrocentric-look-of-sorts in hopes of forcing the dominant white American culture to accept the Black American for who he is and what he looks like.  Historically, kinky haired Negro, often times of a darker hue, was publicly denigrated for his physical attributes by both Black and white Americans, particularly for the texture of his hair-- all of which was the antithesis of the white American. Yet, in the 70s and 80s, the 'bad' hair was accepted, or atleast presumably so, in the Black community, but most Negroes still revered and reveled at the 'good' hair on a Negro's head as if it was a genetic and sociological anomaly.  So, is it the hair that makes the Negro 'good' or 'bad' in the American perception and psyche of the American public?  I am not sure, but the billion dollar industry that is Black Hair Care in the U.S. would beg to differ, wouldn't it?
                                                                                                -Gee Joyner



  1. Interesting perspective and way to look at it. Though appearance doesn't matter as to how a politician will perform, it matters to the voters. It always has and always will. I mean look at JFK and how many say he won..

  2. I don't think America at-large pays any particular attention or concern to African American hair unless it's dreaded, braided, twisted or is in a large natural textured hairdo. Locally you will notice the Fords don't go over well. Julian Bond comes to mind too. And in New York there's straight haired Charlie Rangel who has always had his share of detractors. So politically no I don't hair or skin color matters. Black is Black.

    The reason there is a billion dollar black hair care industry is because the African American woman is the only woman on this planet whose worth is judged by the lenght or texture of her hair.