EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was first published on thegrio.com
Before gymnast Gabby Douglas’ feet could touch the floor in a historic performance at the 2012 Olympics, her precious prize had already been tarnished by black folk getting all in her hair, literally. These black folk were upset that Gabby’s hair wasn’t properly done.
Never mind the wunderkind was sweating while flying to unimaginable heights to snag an honor no black person had ever achieved: an all around individual Gold medal in gymnastics. I was angered over the rowdy twitter chatter of the hair police and so glad the young heroine wouldn’t be distracted by the “hairsterical” taunts of this malicious pep squad.
I mean if they wanted to get metaphorical about “hair” then all they had to do was look. Were they oblivious to her tiny frame coiling like “Kitt Curls” on the balancing beam? Did they miss her “locked” body “twist” itself up in the air? Did they ignore her graceful “waves” and her “split (second) endings” in breath-taking floor exercises? You want hair? We got hair! But please, none of the madness that she wasn’t cosmetologically correct!
When I saw Gabby’s innocent smile and beautiful face, she bore striking resemblance to another young girl who had fiercely pursued her dream decades before: Oprah Winfrey. I immediately tweeted a photo of Oprah holding a microphone when she was about Gabby’s age. Ironically, the day after Gabby was crowned, Oprah faced stern rebukes for appearing with her natural hair on the upcoming September cover of her O Magazine. Oprah said she likes to “let loose” in her spare time.
But why do we recoil at black women’s choices about how they wear their hair? As if some hair is better than other hair, as if some hair is preferable to other hair. Well, sisters, let me let you in on a public secret: There ain’t no such thing as “good hair.”
Hair politics are pretty ancient. A multi-billion dollar industry grew from the urge, first expressed thousands of years ago, to flick insects or mud from mangled locks by taking a fish bone or carved whale rib to remove the debris.
So many of us – perhaps too many of us – have set off like Christopher Columbus in search of “good hair,” and like that confused pioneer, we’ve ended up lost on foreign shores claiming something as ours that really doesn’t belong to us. Plus we’ve got to resist seeing ourselves through the eyes of those who didn’t love us to begin with, who sought to subdue us by making us believe we were inferior in every sense.
Some brave black women have fought such colonizing ideas about hair. Think of Grace Jones with her legendary gleaming skull, Susan Taylor with her elegant and flowing braids, and Whoopi Goldberg with her lovely locks featured daily on national television.
And it’s not just a black thing. Some Asian women are warned against wearing pigtails because they’ll look like peasants. Scarf squads trail some Middle-Eastern sisters lest a lock of hair slip into view. Some married orthodox Jewish women shave their heads only to buy wigs (sheitel) sanctioned by the Talmud. And Christian women have been set up by the Bible (1 Corinthians 11:15) for Hairanonia –the fear of not having a “crowning glory.”
Gabby’s critics forced me to reflect on my “hairstory,” and to recall my critics. When I was one of a few blacks girls in grade school, a white girl named Blondie teased me about my kinky hair as her braids slapped my face when she spun around to play with other classmates. In the late sixties, I cut my ties with “colonizing” styles by clipping away my perm to wear an Afro. I was shocked and saddened when some of my Afrocentirc sisters told me that my natural was too nappy!
So, after blow-outs and hot picks didn’t spare my Angela Davis-lke ‘fro, I lightly permed my natural hair to be at one with my Kente cloth sisterhood. I grew so tired of their relentless gaze that I took to wearing African hair-wraps called Geles.
Over the years, I’ve changed my hairstyle to reflect my evolving belief that my hair should please me regardless of what others think. When I turned 50 I had my hair twisted; by 55 I was back to perms and sometimes weaves. I suffer from a mild case of Alopecia and wear blended and occasionally full wigs. At 60, I claim full follicular freedom: I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of my hair.
I pray the same for Gabby. I hope the uplifting words of Serena, Beyoncé, Gabrielle Union, Michael Eric Dyson and Oprah echo in her ears as she goes for more gold at the Olympics. And as the torch of the 2012 games is eventually extinguished, I hope the flames of our self-hatred and our hairanoia will likewise die out.