My grandma always said, “If you want to know a black woman, you touch her hair.” She said that is where we carry everything — all our hopes, our dreams, our pain.
When India Arie’s hit song, “I Am Not My Hair,” first came on the radio, I felt an immediate disconnect. Obviously, she hadn’t talked to Mama Mae! Didn’t Miss Arie know that our hair defined who we are as a black woman!
Or so I had been raised to believe.
But the more I listened to it, the more I began to understand what India was trying to say. Now when the song comes on the radio, like so many sisters, I feel a sense of pride and empowerment. How freeing it is to release all that ties us into something as shallow as hair?
We have let it own us, obsess us, name us and claim us. And finally, India Arie made a declaration of liberation that we can shout, believe and bob our nappy, natural, permed, press and curled, locked or shaved heads to.
I am not my hair!
I don’t mean to be anti-revolutionary. In some respects, we have come a long way when it comes to our hair. Most of us realize how ignorant it sounds to categorize as good or bad. Many of us have discovered that decades of applying chemicals to it can’t be a good thing. And for the most part, I think little black girls today have a healthier perception about hair and have lots more natural and healthy acceptable choices than we did when we were kids.
That being said, a lot of hang-ups about hair remain in our heads, put there by a number of things. Every black woman has had a defining hair experience. We’ve lost our hair, had horrible hair cuts or were somehow, real or imagined, unfairly judged by our hair.
And let’s face it: Our days can be completely ruined if our hair ain’t right.
Before Michelle Obama won the hearts of almost every sister in America, she HAD to get her hair together. It just wasn’t gonna happen until those edges were straight. Condoleezza Rice, for many years, was the most powerful female politcal figure in the country. And we couldn’t get past having conversations about that hair.
I’m not going to lie. Sometimes I am my hair. Because when it looks good, I feel great, and when it doesn’t, I usually don’t. Right or wrong, it’s important to me. And that’s not really a bad thing, is it? It doesn’t have to be long, ’cause I will cut my hair in a heartbeat. It’s never permed ’cause a curly, wild style often fits my mood. And sometimes a ponytail is simply all that’s going to happen that day. But keeping it clean, healthy and looking nice is a priority.
People who help homeless women have discovered that allowing them to get their hair done is key to boosting their self esteem and their spirit. If you have a little girl, watch how her personality changes when her hair is done.
According to the story that comedian Chris Rock tells at the beginning of “Good Hair,” the documentary he produced, co-wrote and narrates that premiered here this week, his young daughter, Lola, came inside from playing one day and asked him, “Daddy, why don’t I have good hair?” That question launched Rock and director Jeff Stilson on a nearly global inquiry into the meaning and history – not to mention the prodigious financial significance – of hair in the African-American community.
Before we began to understand and take pride in our natural beauty, girls were teased and taunted if their hair was short, broken off or nappy, so much so that it literally destroyed their self worth. We have been compared to a European standard of beauty for so long that we sometimes let our hair take on a life of its own. And sometimes we let it control our lives.
Even my niece once asked why she couldn’t have inherited my type of hair instead of her mother’s. It gave me pause because I remember many a time wishing I had my sister’s hair – thick and determined to hold a curl, while my lightweight hair would give even the best curling iron a run for its money.
Obviously we haven’t come full circle, but we’re better than we once were. I don’t have daughters, so the only hair issue with my boys is when I can’t find their brush. It leaves a lot of time to concentrate on my own hair and doing what I can to make sure it represents me the way the way I want it to. Because there have been times when a lot was going on that was out of my control, and a good hair day gave me the boost I needed.
Unlike the sister in the news whose weave stopped a bullet from penetrating her scalp, I can’t say my hair has ever saved my life. But it has made my day a time or two.
Nikki Woods is the senior producer of “The Tom Joyner Morning Show.” She is based in Dallas.