Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Good Hair

It's been almost three weeks since I saw Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair. I left the theater with such sadness and a sinking feeling in my stomach. I came of age in the 60's and 70's, a time when we began to reclaim ourselves in public and private as people of African descent with our own expression of human beauty. We reclaimed from shame many things, among them: dark skin, full lips, rounded noses, our culture, and our natural hair. Wearing my hair in a variety of natural styles for the past 30 some years has been one of the most freeing and feel good experiences in my life. There is nothing to hide, no rain or moisture to fear, no forcing its nature to adopt some other nature over and over again.

There was something surreal about listening to the many black women in Good Hair , most of whom seem bound to keeping their hair straight, long and full, if possible, and by nearly any means necessary. It felt like we could be in the 1930's, 40's 50's, the only difference being our methods of straightening. Even in the 60's Odetta stood alone. It saddens me greatly because it seems that so many black women still only experience their hair as attractive or beautiful, to the extent that it matches the straight hair of Europeans and others. As Chris Rock made graphic when he tried to sell black hair, 'nobody wants it.' I think I might have felt better if some of the women had talked openly about how they don't want it, how it's unattractive, undesirable, "not good" to them. The surreal factor would have gone down for me, because at least I would have had the sense of their being connected to the feelings of hair inferiority and ugliness that underlie the intense pursuit of different hair. But I didn't hear this, or any reflections about the meaning, like we did in the 60's and 70's. Why do I feel my kinky hair isn't good, can't be managed? Why can't I see hair beauty in an African (traditional) way, in the way I have?
In the movie, it all seemed light-hearted fun and stylistic.

My sadness has to do with the continuing ways we as African-Americans continue to be impacted by racism, and the ways we have internalized it, that is, subscribe to its values that alienate us from the goodness of our form of human expression. No one likes to admit this, and we are often disconnected from the underlying shame that still lives. But I am fully with Terrie Williams, author of Black Pain, on this. Our healing is limited as long as we keep operating as though the surfaces we paste over the pain are all there is, are good enough. Chris Rock's daughter came inside crying to ask her dad why she didn't have good hair. She was fully connected with the pain. Hair is just one of the aspects of African identity and culture that has borne generational shame, and I have not been immune, as I believe none of us has. But I've committed to being on a healing journey for my own life, my collective community, and ultimately the world community.

And despite my initial reactions to Chris Rock's film, I applaud him for shining this light, for opening this up, because I believe we are in a time in which we can go deeper into the shame-based pain and understand that it does not belong to us. Something shameful has happened but we don't need to own it, bind it to us, or recreate it with someone else. And then there's the issue of courage and power. One of the most brilliant expressions in the film, in my opinion, was "relaxed hair relaxes white people." But how will white people have the opportunity to learn how to relax around natural hair if we keep helping them avoid it. Keeping them comfortable is about power, but it does not empower us, nor does it help whites to look at the way they use their privilege to maintain one standard of goodness.

When I go outside on the streets of New York, Atlanta, even Winston-Salem, there are locks, twists, pullouts, cornrows,women in light Caesar cuts dotting the straightened hairdos. We're not exactly in the 40's and 50's hairdo-wise, but the idea of "good hair" still exists and except for the commercials, representation of black women on TV delivers daily doses of this toxic notion.


  1. This past weekend I viewed the film "Good Hair". Although it revealed a lot of dysfunctional thinking and behaviors among us (African-Americans) such as spending thousands of dollars on weaves at the expense of more important necessities such as education, food etc. I was encouraged by the fact that Chris Rock took the time and money to do this movie. It was very educational and enlightening as a viewer even if the people in the movie didn't seem to be enlightened during the filming. It will definitely make people think and question themselves. It is nice to have an African-American entertainer who is interested in looking closer at these kinds of issues.

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  3. Black women,for too many years have been the brunt of jokes, the bottom of the totem pole, yet we are often the most copied women in the world. Ghetto-Glam has made it to haute-couture. America’s creative expression is most often exercised from Black culture. Hip-hop is the new DADA.(Dada is a cultural movement that set the groundwork to abstract art and sound poetry, a starting point for performance art, a prelude to postmodernism, an influence on pop art, a celebration of anti-art to be later embraced for anarcho-political uses in the 1960s and the movement that lay the foundation for Surrealism.) Our language, clothing, dance, have been included in American expression. It is no crime to want to present to the public your best self. We want validation, vindication, visibility and we want to be taken seriously,not betrayed by a Black man acting like a minstrel while promoting his documentary “Good Hair”.On the Oprah Winfrey show Chris Rock and Oprah started the show by establishing the fact that all the permed hair on her head was hers.Whether it was or was not is neither here nor there for me, however when she scolded two Black women who questioned her,speaking condescendingly, “I don’t have to lie,I've had a hairdresser for 35 years,my hair doesn’t break off”! When an articulate Black woman working in Corporate America emailed her concerns about the movie,laughingly Chris Rock said; “sounds like Shirley needs a man!” Oprah feeling superior because supposedly she has no hair concerns laughed too.When his little girls talked about their hair he and his wife should have shared with them our Black cultural history as well as our contributions to American society. They should demonstrate Black pride at home. Share Pride and not dysfunction. Chris did not enlighten… he poked fun. He denigrated and exploited Black femininity so that his movie would be made.White Women have their mystery,keep their secrets in the name of glamour.Why can’t we!? My corporate “sistah’s” who move around the “plantation” all day need to fit in or they don’t have a chance at success. They compete with White Women therefore they are more comfortable straightening their hair. So What!? Wigs are common for Black and White women.Weaves create fashionable illusion and again Black and White women spend money on the process.So What!? Personally,I like to see Black women young and old with naturals, braids, twists, and dreds but I care more about the spirit in which they carry themselves than I do with what is on the top of their heads. White America loves it when Blacks “enlighten” them on what may or may not be wrong with us;as a matter of fact they reward the behavior by paying big money to the traitor who is willing to perpetrate exploitation in the name of comedy, art, or performance. It takes away their guilt over slavery and fuels their bias against us. In this regard, Mr.Rock is a success.Every White Woman who feels entitled to ask a Black Woman if “that is all her hair?” or believes that Black women want to look like them is testimony that we must find a way to save and uplift our culture through positive debate and discussion. No more “rooting” Black women. Chris is not a psychologist; he cannot fix the mind of Black women through buffoon therapy. Gale Fulton Ross www.fultonross.com

  4. Gale,
    I really appreciate your thoughtful and detailed response, and it is my hope that we can increase discussions of differences in a way that is beneficial. There are a number of points you make that I agree with -- yes, our relationship with whites has historically been a paradoxical one of devaluation and envy, disparagement and being invited in to nurture their children -- so there is shame and pride in our story and our relationship with whites. And yes, how a sister wears her hair doesn't automatically translate to how her spirit comes through. You can wear natural hair and be thoughtless, clueless as a person and if you're wearing it as a fad as opposed to feeling an internalized appreciation for it, it may not say much about your self-love for the African aspect of your identity.

    I didn't see the Oprah show with Chris R (admittedly I was a bit afraid), and I think the response you quote him making was very demeaning.

    In your response, I hear the feeling of being exposed, and if our escape plans from the plantation were the secret revealed I would undoubtedly be enraged too with Chris R. and agree with your assessment of him as a "traitor." But I think what is at stake here is shame and not life and death, otherwise if it's not such a big deal, as you suggest, what's the problem with opening it up. If it's just one of those things that women (all) do to look beautiful, so what? You suggest that it's no big deal but that it demeans us in the eyes of whites and provides an escape route from their guilt. I don't quite understand how this works. For me, it it testimony to the impact of racism, and it is their shame, legacy wise and in terms of privilege.

    It is not uncommon for whites to ask black folks with locks if it's their hair, or even try and touch them. This is an issue of curiosity and intrusion and can admittedly be annoying. But I wonder if you experience more in this equation.

    There is much more to be said on this and I will be doing a Good Hair II blog in the near future. I do think that your statement that there is nothing wrong with a woman wanting to look her best is at the heart of my concern. I agree with that statement but as a response to concerns about the predominance of hair straightening, it implies that this is "the best."

    Let's keep sharing.
    thandiwe dee

  5. Hi Thandiwe:

    Please understand, I have no problem with the making of a documentary about our issue with hair. I certainly would not want to imply that straightening is "best". I wear a natural and have for many years. I am more concerned about how Chris made the delivery. He is not a clinician so his message gets lost in the humor that pokes fun at those who may not have reached a certain level of sophistication regarding their African identity. If you hurt feelings while you are educating then one only knows they have been hurt not educated.
    I believe what we feel and say about ourselves should not be an assault. Please understand I am not saying that what we do or do not do to our hair demeans us in the eyes of White. Specifically, when Chris Rock and Oprah Winfrey demean articulate Black women who are voicing their opinion of Chris Rock's art....they were being disrespectful. When Whites see us disrespect ourselves they feel (as a by product of racism) they they too can continue to disrespect us. I never implied that his "Good Hair" had something to do with life and death. I did want to imply that he demeaned Black women in the marketing and promotion of his documentary called "Good Hair." and this is what I found shameful.


  6. Gale,
    I'd like to understand more about what in the film's delivery was hurtful and disrespectful and whether it would have been different if the movie had been for our eyes only. I'm aware that he used a lot of humor,which was largely drowned in the pain I felt about what was being witnessed, but I'd like to understand if there were particular uses of humor that you or others found assaultive or whether you think this subject is just too emotionally loaded to use humor and still be respectful.

    I certainly agree that how we go about trying to heal and help others to heal is crucial and that personal assault is the last thing we need.

    thandiwe dee

  7. Very interesting post, Now I want to go see it and I'll let you know what I think. You should definitely go visit Egypt soon, this is a land where people come in different shapes and color and they all belong. When I first arrived here, everyone was talking about this mag article about teaching young kids about racism from a young age, because, according to the article, they are natural born racists? I will have to not just object, but also invite all advocates of this theory to come visit Egypt and see for themselves that children are colour blind and they simply don't care until, we grown ups show them that they have to care! THat doesn't mean that Egyptians are without prejudice. But compared to family lineage and finacial status, skin color and hair type cling to the bottom of a very long list.

  8. Lilo,
    I think few people believe that people are born racist. But it is clear that young children are affected by it. About Egypt, I especially want to see the Pyramids and the Nile! Many years ago after Malcolm X visited Africa and spent time with Muslims he said what you are saying -- that color was not an issue for them -- and he shifted his position about whites being inherently evil. I have to say the situation in Sudan seems to be different since it is largely the dark skinned People who have been targeted for genocide.