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Location: San Francisco, California, United States

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Hair will never "just" be hair

I admit that I am a closet trekky (or trekker, it doesn't really matter to me) and I very much looked forward to the new Star Trek movie. It did not disappoint. The actors fell into their well-worn roles effortlessly. The 23rd century imagined by the filmmakers was exciting and inspiring. It was a brave new world where starships roamed the galaxy, the fabric of space time was altered, and some enterprising person had put the relaxer in space.

Although many things were updated story-wise in the new version Uhura's relaxer was retained as were the sixties style uniforms of the other characters. It could be argued that perhaps Uhura's hair was just an aesthetic choice on the part of the filmmakers to tie the two franchises more closesly together, but even that had not remained the same. Her hair style was transformed from a relaxed beehive or pixie style to Lady Godiva-like tresses. As I watched Uhura whip her relaxed (probably weaved) hair through the cosmos, I wondered if in two centuries people would still be talking about "good hair." By contrast, on a much more boring sci-fi series entitled Defying Gravity, a future is imagined where all of the black characters sport natural hair styles in mission control and the Milky Way.

Does the distinction matter? Does it matter if the relaxer "boldly goes where no one has gone before?" Isn't to relax or not to relax, just a matter of fashion?

After a long hiatus I am back. Much has happened during my time off from writing. One of the biggest developments was that I cut out the last of my relaxed hair and went natural. Today Bill sent me this link from the New York Times about the enduring politics of black hair entitled "Black Hair Still Tangled in Politics". I quickly read it and found that article did the same thing that many articles on the subject do - surveyed the whole gamut of hair opinions, and then ended by asking why black hair just can't be hair and wondering if in this post-Obama world the choice to straighten or not to straighten will not be one of existential significance for African American women.

One thing that I don't understand is why it is so hard to make an argument nowadays when it comes to matters of racial or cultural experience? Well I am going to say what is quite obvious to most black girls at the age of around eight when they are asked by non-black friends why they don't do this or that with their hair: Hair DOES matter. Obama's election has changed much, but we have not entered a shangrila of acceptance where Black hair is just hair. I learned this lesson early on, when as a young pre-teen at summer camp I was barraged with questions about why I put a garishly pink lotion on my hair, why I slept with a satin night cap and didn't wash my hair everyday. The rub was these questions occurred after I had endured a Herculean effort to burn my hair straight with lye.

One of my favorite comments in the NYTimes article was from one woman who said that the older generation of women from her family who live in Ghana straighten their hair. This, she offered, as proof that to straighten or not to straighten is not a political statement, it is just a simple fashion choice. And perhaps that would be true in the dimension where Africa existed in a vacuum and wasn't profoundly affected by the same historical racism that affects the United States. Black natural hair, in Africa as in the New World has a historical significance that belies any effort to make it "just hair."

My own hair decision was about 1 part curiosity, 1 part fashion, and 2 parts "statement". Whether I want it to or not, my hair speaks even if my lips remain silent. When I was a child I was maligned for "talking white." I still don't understand that distinction, but I do understand that growing up in private schools, dancing ballet and listening and playing classical music gave me a certian degree of disconnection from black culture. I wasn't totally disconnected - I had the stories my parents and grandparents wove for me about our past in words and in food, I had the jazz my dad played on the piano every night. But when I left the insular world of family, I existed in the dominant culture and I did not feel as much a stranger there as I did at school dances when someone turned on hip hop and the black kids started dancing and I stood trying to transform the positions I had learned in ballet into what they were doing on the dance floor.

Cutting my hair did not suddenly tune me into the collective "black" cultural expressions that I couldn't engage in comfortably as a child. But it did connect me to something. Something older than myself. Something stronger than just my existence here and now. Something that will last past my own fleeting time on earth and might even explore the cosmos. Hair does matter and I hope that never changes.