The great hair debate in the African American community

Whether a woman has 'good hair' is an ongoing issue in the black community
Ursula Watson / The Detroit News

It is said a woman's hair is her crown and glory. But black women, in particular, face a tumultuous case of "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."

Comedian Chris Rock attempts to explore what is at the root of black women's obsession with their hair in his documentary, "Good Hair," opening in Metro Detroit theaters on Friday. Rock said his oldest daughter, Lola, fueled his curiosity on black hair when she asked, "Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?"

Lola is symbolic of millions of black girls who grow up to be women waging an expensive war against the texture of their hair. Many view this obsession with hair as a damaged sense of self, battered by what the status quo dictates is attractive.


Though hair is important to women of all races, author Noliwe M. Rooks says black women take hair to another level. The length, texture and the style in which a black woman wears her hair is used to measure her femininity, attractiveness, social acceptability and professionalism.

"There isn't another group that spends the amount of money and time on changing the basic texture of our hair in order to be considered beautiful," says Rooks, who examined the effect hair has on black women in her book, "Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women" (Rutgers University Press, $18.95). "For the most part, to be considered beautiful both within and outside of black communities, black women must have hair that is long and straight."

This focus on long, straight hair is not easy, cheap to get or keep, says Rooks, who is also associate director for the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. As a result, the black hair care industry generates a staggering $9 billion nationwide and internationally.

At the same time, the majority of that money is earned by non-black-owned companies that make and sell products such as wigs, weaves, chemical relaxers and styling tools that temporarily straighten hair of its natural kinky-curliness.

While provocative, the film "Good Hair" doesn't explain why black women spend so much on their hair and why it is deemed so important. But one person in the film, the ever-controversial comedian Paul Mooney, touches on one possible reason:

"If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, they're not happy."
Good hair vs. bad hair

Black hair is as diverse in texture as are people of African descent. Many who identify themselves as black, regardless of skin tone, can have wavy, loosely curled, straight hair or what is commonly referred to in the black community as "good hair," which historically has been coveted and an object of envy of many black women. Like lighter skin, "good hair" was, and still is considered by some, a way to garner a level of acceptance by white society.

Bad hair stereotypically is considered hair that is excessively kinky and unmanageable. Some black women with this type of hair often spend hours in salons, such as Harold's Place in Detroit, getting their hair treated with chemical relaxers.

"Yes, black women have an obsession (about their hair) and quite honestly it's good for business," says Harold's Place owner Harold D. Hackett.

Hackett does take issue with young girls getting their hair chemically relaxed.

"We need to let our young girls know that no matter what texture hair they have, that they are beautiful," he says. "If God gave you that hair, then that hair is good hair. It is what it is. God doesn't make mistakes."
Hair story

The hair issue in the black community can be traced back to slavery and is ongoing.

"African people were brought to a place where they were told that everything about them was ugly -- their nose, skin color and that includes especially their hair. They were told that they were damaged, less valued," says Detroit psychologist Angela May.

Detroit hair stylist Jo Jo Lanier says blacks then developed products and techniques to mimic the hairstyles or texture of whites.

Inventor Garrett Augustus Morgan was best known for inventing the traffic light and the gas mask, but around 1910, he also whipped up the first hair relaxer. Annie Malone of Illinois invented and patented the pressing comb in 1900, a device still used today to straighten hair with heat. While often credited with the development of the pressing comb, Malone's former employee, Madame C.J. Walker, went on to successfully develop and market a line of beauty and hair care products.

Weaves and wigs aren't new either, according to the book "Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America," by Lori Tharps and Ayana Byrd (St. Martin's Press, $14.95). Wigs and the act of lengthening hair can be traced to antiquity. Egyptians often wore full wigs made from human hair and hair pieces in the form of braids or curls.

The modern-day weave was created by an Ohio housewife and hairdresser named Christina Jenkins, who, with husband Duke, formed Christina's Hair Weaves in the 1950s.

Today, many black women find changing their hair a fun way to celebrate their individuality and sense of style, psychologist May says. However, she adds, some black women use dyes, weaves and relaxers to look and feel acceptable. "It is this idea that what you were born with is ugly, deformed and needs to be fixed," she says.
Hair and the workplace

Even though black girls may hear at home that they're beautiful, hair and all, there are those who feel pressured to chemically relax their hair in order to fit in at school or even at work. The decision to wear one's hair straight or show off its natural texture is not made lightly.

Detroiter Tiffany Buckley-Norwood says her thick, kinky-curly hair made her a target for ridicule in school.

"I was already different because I was a black Latina (Cuban) living in a predominately black community," says the labor and employment law attorney. "I remember in elementary and middle school, I would cry because people would tease me because my hair wasn't relaxed."

While her mother constantly told her that her hair was beautiful, Buckley-Norwood got her first relaxer when she was a sophomore in high school. Chemically straightening one's hair was once a possible way to fit into the white culture, she says. But for her and many black women today it's about having more manageable hair; and, she says, having straight hair in the black community equates status and professionalism.

"You look around my firm or at other firms and the black female lawyers wear straight hair," Buckley-Norwood says.

In Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play " A Raisin in the Sun," the character Beneatha Younger, who had been straightening her hair, shocks her family by cutting it and wearing her naturally textured hair in an Afro. Her mother fears that Beneatha's future as a doctor is in jeopardy.

Black hair has and continues to stir controversy at the workplace.

In 2006, the Baltimore Police Department declared as unacceptable hair worn in cornrows, twists and locks, and hair that is "designed and sculptured using hair and or cut into the hair" because "police were blending in with criminals." This policy drew public outcry and has since been rescinded.

Native Detroiter and lawyer Chris-Tia Donaldson, author of "Thank God I Am Natural: The Ultimate Guide to Caring for and Maintaining Natural Hair" (TgiNesis Press , $19.95) remembers the years she spent relaxing her hair and wearing a wig for two years to blend into her predominately white law firm.

"Trying to fit into that environment, I think, did undermine my performance," says Donaldson, a Harvard graduate who now works as a lawyer at a Chicago software company. Donaldson now avoids using extreme heat and relaxers to straighten her hair texture. She rocks a full, luscious head of curls using styling techniques that won't damage hair.

"We do all this stuff to fit in and we are still at the bottom of the totem poll. In the business world, which is still mostly run by white men, they don't care because they run the show. Black people make it an issue."

Black women are not the only segment of the female population striving for the European ideal of beauty, says New Yorker Angela Bronner Helm, a writer and senior editor at Black

Women of various races and ethnicities, including white women, spend untold fortunes on their hair. They, too, try to take the kink or curl out of their hair, or put curl into straight hair, bleach their hair blond or use hair clips, extensions or wear weaves to achieve longer, fuller hair.

TV reality star Kourtney Kardashian was photographed earlier this month getting a weave at a hair salon in Los Angeles. And celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson have their own lines of hair clips and extensions. Even former sex symbol Raquel Welch has a line of wigs and extensions.

"The beauty ideal in this country is that the most valuable women are thin, blond and young. All women living in America have to live with the European ideal of beauty," Bronner Helm says.
Going natural

In 2005, R&B singer India Arie's song "I Am Not My Hair" became an anthem for women who tired of being judged by their hair. Today, many black women are seeking to break their dependence on chemical relaxers, or what one woman in the documentary "Good Hair" refers to as "creamy crack."

Web sites such as instruct women with kinky-curly hair on getting to know their hair and easily manage their locks without using chemicals or extreme heat.

"I was hoping to open people eyes," says founder Alisha Cole of Belleville. "It is not a movement. People aren't trying to prove anything. They are not militant in their politics. It is just people accepting themselves."

Textures by Nefertiti is one of the few salons in Detroit that caters to the care of naturally textured hair. Owner Nefertiti Harris says "Good Hair," while funny, is dealing with an issue that has caused many black women a lot of hurt.

"We have to laugh to mask or hide the pain from what the real deal is," Harris says. "It is avoidance of self. Eventually, we have to have a real conversation on why we do what we do."

Detroiter David Humphries created the popular Hair Wars hair shows in the mid-1980s. At these events, strong-necked models walk down runways balancing everything from luxury cars and motorcycles to birds, flowers and even barbecue grills on their heads -- all crafted from human and synthetic hair.

Humphries says magazines, TV and music videos put pressure on black women to have the European look.

"Think of the music industry and entertainers such as Beyoncé," he says. "There are (other) music artists who are not doing as well as they could because of their look, like Angie Stone or Erykah Badu. They have deep messages in their music and they are not trying to look European. They are proud of their heritage and hair."
Thoughts on hair

• "The fact that straight hair is so much more acceptable and or popular in the black communities is telling. It's hard to even come up with celebrities and entertainers who have natural hairstyles."

Noliwe M. Rooks author and associate director for the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University

• "Nappy hair is beautiful, too. Leave it alone and it will grow."

Harold D. Hackett, owner, Harold's Place salon in Detroit

• "It is not about the hair, it's about the woman. Hair doesn't make a woman to me. Women need to find men where their hair is not so important."

David Humphries , organizer of Hair Wars

• "When you have never seen your natural hair (texture), something is wrong. Maybe part of the movie will get people questioning, why do we perm our hair?"

Angela Bronner Helm , senior editor at

• "Is a weave ever healthy for your hair? No. It is like fast food; just a quick fix."

Jo Jo Lanier , Detroit stylist
Care tips

You can have healthy, chemically relaxed hair, says stylist Hoffet Angelil of Emile Salon and Spa in Beverly Hills. Here are some tips:

• Don't let a stylist perform services on your hair without a consultation. Ask questions. If you don't feel comfortable, find another stylist.

• Instead of seeking chemical services for new hair growth every four to six weeks, try every 10-12 weeks.

• Make sure a stylist bases your scalp prior to applying a chemical relaxer. Base helps to protect the scalp from being burned by the chemical relaxer.

• Don't use shampoo on your hair every day -- it can be drying. Use a conditioner to cleanse scalp.

• Keep hair moisturized and conditioned. Natural oils, such as olive oil, are great to use as a hot oil treatment. You can add olive oil to conditioner.

• Avoid styling tools, such as flat irons. Some can get up to 400 to 500 degrees. Daily use can fry hair of any texture.

• Weaves can damage hair. Try clips or hair extensions to achieve length and volume.

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