The legacy left by the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960's and 1970's is manifold. There are, of course, affirmative action, voting rights, the fair housing act, and other legal improvements. The gains made during those years have been invaluable, as well as tenuous. There is, however, another side to that legacy. The after-effect that lingers on, even for many of us who weren't alive then, is the tendency to overpoliticize. Now, I don't mean that I'm one of those doe-eyed, fuzzy-headed "we are the world" folks who think that life isn't a political affair. Far from it. I, like many other African-Americans in the 1990's, think of most aspects of life in political terms. Race, gender, class, religion -- nothing escapes my political microscope. I often catch myself pondering the political significance of television, music, art, and even sex, just to name a few.
There is one thing that I don't politicize. That is, not anymore. Hair. We all know what a firebrand hair can be among African-Americans. I'm not saying that I'm any exception. I won't pretend that hair has never been a big issue for me. It's just that I've come to terms with hair. I've made peace with my hair and everybody's emphasis on it. I've only been able to do so through some serious observation, reflection, and analysis, self and other). In my road to hair recovery, one of the most important things I thought about was the notion of hair messages. I have thought at length about the messages that we infer from and read into hair. That led me to the realization that we have more problems than just being "hairstruck," in the traditional sense. You know those folks who judge the viability of a potential mate on the merits of their hair. It has to be a "good enough grade" of hair to impress others and to "make pretty babies." Don't even laugh. I've actually heard that line more times than I care to admit. Being the educated, socially conscious, and politically aware brothers and sisters we all know we are, we tend to think of the traditionally hairstruck as completely ass-backwards. That's not too far off the mark. What most of us fail to realize, however, is that there is more than one variety of hair obsession. You don't have to have the good hair bug to be hairstruck.
You see, it goes both ways. While some of us are obsessed with hair being "too black," others are equally obsessed with hair being "black enough." Quite frankly, I am more disturbed by the latter. Before you even raise those eyebrows, think about it for a minute. Those of us who consider ourselves to be Afrocentric, to be in touch with our blackness, also like to think of ourselves as educated and enlightened (or maybe I should say "endarkened"). So, it seems hypocritical that so many of us are constantly judging everyone else's blackness. It's as if we're all trying to "out-black" each other. The most ironic part is that the people most concerned with the outward blackness of others are really the least Afrocentric on the inside. I don't know how many times I've seen a brother wearing dreadlocks on his head and a white girl on his arm. And I know way too many sisters with short naturals, dreads, or twists, looking as black as they possibly can ("ethnic apparel", the whole nine), who socialize and date exclusively white. I'm sure you've seen it, too. All this emphasis on outward, physical blackness is reactionary and insubstantial. I'm not saying that everybody with a natural or Afrocentric hairstyle is just playing a game. However, there are some who are doing just that. What it boils down to for those types is that they're playing the role of the exotic "Other," fulfilling fantasies of blackness.
Is that what blackness is all about? Maybe in the minds of some whites. Does looking more black make you more real, more authentic, more conscious? Does not looking black enough make you a sellout? I know that, time and time again, I've been questioned as to my blackness simply because of how I look. I also know that the people who are the most vehement in challenging my identity are some of the most confused, self-doubting African-Americans out there. They can't put together my light skin, curly hair, and somewhat "vague" features with my spiritual, cultural, political, and intellectual blackness. Rather than evaluating themselves first, they are quick to claim that I'm not "really black." More often than not, my hair is the focus of such claims. I suspect that many a meaningful exchange has been lost on obsessions with hair, blackness, and self-doubt.
Don't think that I'm asking you to feel sorry for me. I'm not into that tragic role. It's not my thing. I know there are just as many people who treat me a little better just because I have what they see as "good hair." Likewise, many of my friends have seen the other side of the politics of hair. Again, I'm not just talking about the traditionally hairstruck. The very same people who assume that I'm a sellout because of my hair won't be seen with a woman (or man) without hair that's long enough, "good" enough, or done enough. Many of my male associates are guilty of just such hypocrisy. One of them even had the nerve to tell me that I "need to do something more Afrocentric with (my) hair." Did I mention that I don't use any chemical processes whatsoever? He actually thought that it would be "blacker" to straighten my hair. Shortly after that episode, the same man told my roommate that she needed to grow her hair and get a perm, because he was "tired of looking at it." I know some "real, conscious" brothers who have dropped their significant others like bad habits when they cut off all that precious hair. We're reading mixed messages into hair.
And it doesn't stop at length or texture. Coloring has become more viable for a lot of women. Hair color is something of a fashion accessory in the '90s. It's also a source of controversy. The biggest uproar has been over black blondes. Going blonde has become one of the latest trends for black women. Mary J. Blige has been seen on magazine covers from VIBE Magazine to Sophisticate's Black Hair, sporting that famous blonde wedge. Likewise, T-Boz (of TLC) and actress Jada Pinkett have popularized blonde hair among black women.
Naturally, the hair police are up in arms. They look at the blonde trend as self-hatred and assimilation. Didn't you know that any black woman who wears blonde hair only wants to look whiter? Well, I have a novel idea for the hair police (and the blackness patrol). What about versatility? Black women are masters of versatility. I was talking to a good male friend (actually an "ex") about this article. He said that versatility is what makes black women so sexy and dynamic. He's right. We can do anything and be anything. What's more we can can wear anything and make it look good. Anyway, white women don't have the monopoly on golden tresses. In reading the beautifully illustrated Africa Adorned" I came across a fascinating fact about women of ancient Kmet. It turns out that our Egyptian ancestresses (of the royal variety) were known to braid yarns of gold into their own hair. Augmentation is nothing new to black women.
That brings me to the ever-raging debate over
weaves, braids, and hairpieces
If that doesn't get done to death, I don't know what does. While I must admit that some women get a little carried away with the whole hair augmentation business, I still think it's just an accessory for most women who choose to use it. One of my oldest and dearest girlfriends (we go back to the seventh grade) has worn braids, weaves, and hairpieces from time to time. She's one of the most focused, directed, centered, and just plain together black women I've ever had the fortune to know. She just likes to change her look on a regular basis. Her hair is a fashion accessory to her. Why shouldn't it be? It's her hair. She's a positive force in and for the black community. A little extra hair shouldn't take away from her value. If she feels more attractive and feminine with her choice of hairstyles, so be it.
Femininity is always an issue when we deal with hair. Just as some women project their femininity by adding hair, others do the same thing by wearing short hair. Sadly enough, there are plenty of people who are ready to question a woman's sexuality because of her hair. One of my friends says that a lot of older people have her pegged as a lesbian because she wears a short natural. They think she "wants to be a man" or that she's trying to look "butch." They can't understand why a "real woman" would want to run around with hair that short. And no perm to boot! Imagine the nerve. Likewise, I recall the days when my hair hung halfway down my back. I basically had gotten attached to it and didn't want to cut it. But, of course, the hair police were hot on my trail. I was told, more than once, that I didn't have to have all that hair to be feminine and attractive. I don't go around thinking of my hair as a badge of my femininity and sexuality. It's my hair and I want it to look and feel it's best. That's not complicated.
The politics of hair are, however, quite complicated. Quite frankly, they're a little more complex than they need to be. I know that appearances form our first impressions of people. I know that we all value our impressions to varying degrees. But I also know that if we're going to accomplish anything as African-Americans, we need to place more emphasis on achievement and cooperative effort, and less on style. This is especially true in a murky, post-modern climate. What we look like is becoming less important to who we really are and what we can really do. I'm certainly not against politicizing ideas and phenomena in everyday life. Hell, I practically live for that kind of stuff. I am, after all, a child of the 1970's. Go ahead. Point out the politics of the black church. Analyze the politics of gender and economics. Politicize music and television and film nearly to death. Just don't get caught up in the act of politicization itself. Have some purpose. Don't try to make someone squirm because they don't pass your blackness test. Listen to people before you arrive at any conclusions as to what they're all about. Like the old commercial used to say, "Don't let the smooth taste fool you." Let's get back to substance. You can change the world (at least your world) wearing an Afro or a perm. You can make a difference wearing dreads, a weave, or a short natural. Just remember that when the revolution comes around, we won't have time to do our hair.