This weekend Nfr-Ka Ma'at and myself took in Chris Rock's documentary, Good Hair. The film was inspired by an awkward conversation between Rock and his eldest daughter Lola. She asked her father, "Daddy, why don't I have good hair?" His comprehensive response is a full-length movie in which he takes an in-depth look at the $9 billion black hair care industry. He is able to skillfully balance the film's humor with the very serious topic of the "ritualistic" straightening of African American hair.
Rock interviews a large number of well-known African American celebrities including Nia Long, Maya Angelou, Salt-n-Pepa, Raven-Symoné, Paul Mooney, Ice-T, and even Reverend Al Sharpton. They describe their own reflections on hair straightening and even some of their tragic accidents. We can always count on legendary comedian Paul Mooney to give us insightful and hilarious analysis of contemporary events. He wears a large afro-wig atop his bald head when he states, "When your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. When your hair is nappy, white people aren't happy."
Rock also focuses on the largest annual Black hair care event in the world, the Bronner Bros.' International Hair Show in Atlanta. The show features hundreds of vendors with thousands of hair care products. The event is also an adequate display of the disturbing fact that Black folks only own or control a small percentage of these businesses. Large white corporations often control much smaller units which produce many Black hair products ... just take a look at the dozens of ads in a monthly issue of Essence magazine. Many who are familiar with the challenges of "under-resourced" communities to obtain the experience, skills, and capital to compete might not be surprised by this reality. However, only people who frequent their local Black hair product supplier would recognized which community has the next largest stake in this business. Asians, mostly Koreans, also own large lucrative interests in Black hair care. Imagine going into a community predominantly occupied by an ethnicity other than your own and opening stores selling products that you don't, and will never, use. The controlling presence of both whites and Asians in the Black hair care market should be embarrassing.
Most Black women who wear straight hair styles probably know that most of the naturally straight hair that is used in extensions and weaves comes from India. Rock takes an extremely rare look at the Indian city where much of the hair comes from. Local hair traders purchase the hair from Hindu temples where worshipers, considering their hair a vanity, tonsure (shave) their heads in devotion to their god. Most of these worshippers are not aware that their hair ends up on the high-end of a million-billion dollar market on the other side of the world. Rock believes that they probably wouldn't care. "You've got to realize, we care about money more than anyone else. You tell them, "Hey, people are spending a lot of money in America for your hair," and they're, "So? I dedicate this hair to the god, so whatever happens, happens."
Rock also speaks with a scientist who demonstrates how sodium hydroxide—the active chemical in hair relaxer—can completely dissolve an aluminum soda can. The scientist is completely surprised when Rock explains that many parents apply the corrosive mixture directly to their young children's heads. Clearly this behavior can't simply be a "style" choice. After all, how we explain that a large majority of African American women (and even men) continue to use sodium hydroxide, euphemized "creamy crack", even though everyone has personal stories about how dangerous it is. It has remained a major choice for over 150 years.
Yes, we all have our personal stories ... including me. I remember teasing my younger sister as my mother used a "hot comb" to "press" her hair. I was warned that I shouldn't have been fooling around while my mother was using such a dangerous devise. Unfortunately, my sister thought I was pretty funny too. As she shifted in her chair in order to stop laughing, the section of the hair that my mother was straightening was immediately burned away, leaving the entire lock dangling in my mother's hand. I can still remember the sound of the sizzle and my sister's sobbing. I've always felt guilty about harming my sister, but it didn't stop me from straightening my own hair as a high school freshman. I was an extremely confused 14-year-old who was thrust into a violently-racist environment at Xaverian High School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. On my first day, I was chased to the train by white students shouting "Go home, Nigger!" In the next few weeks, I would be called "nigger" or get serenaded with the Kentucky Fried Chicken jingle song on a daily basis. I even tripped over a watermelon which was rolled down the hallway after me one afternoon. As I asked my parents to "texturize" my hair, I think I was subconsciously rejecting a portion of myself. If you can't beat them, join them. Right?
While I think Chris Rock's Good Hair is a brilliant, must-see-documentary, I have to say that it was still incomplete. Rock doesn't even attempt to delve into the historic motivations of African American men and women who began straightening their hair immediately after the end of their enslavement in the United States. Even though he interviews the great-great granddaughter of Madame C.J. Walker, he doesn't even identify her. Maybe she could have properly described "colorism" during the post-enslavement period. Being "less Black" after slavery could easily mean better housing, a wider choice of romantic partners, access to elite social groups, better chances of college admittance, and so much more. Several historically black colleges were founded by white former slave-owners for their illicit off-spring. These anti-African feelings set deep roots within American culture. Just listen to people in the Black community talk about a new baby's "good hair". I'm sure many of you have heard it. Why isn't the hair that Africans were divinely ordained to receive just fine? The entire subject is still a touchy one in our community.
Ironically, our Ancient Egyptian ancestors felt very different about tightly-curled hair and dark skin. Chief deity Ausar (misnamed Osiris by the Greeks) was known as the "Lord or the Perfect Black" and was often depicted with jet-black skin. One of the first depictions of a male divine character, known as Anhur, was depicted with a Angela Davis-type afro. Kemetic men and women also wore wigs and even added extensions that were always made of tightly-curled hair.
Okay. Did you get that one?! While so many people of African descent today are using a wide variety of often dangerous procedures to remove all traces of African heritage from their hair, ancient Africans actually felt African hair was beautiful. How did we get so far away from loving ourselves? How long will it take us to shed the baggage of our enslavement? I say the first step is being honest with ourselves about the things within our culture which seem normal, but don't benefit us. We can no longer simply say we're just doing what everyone else does. It's time to have some difficult conversations. As long as our minds are in chains, we can never believe that we'll truly be free. What do you think? Please vote in our poll after watching the Good Hair trailer and a demonstration video on using a hot comb included below. Shem em Hetep (Go forth in peace)!
Related Sites:Official Good Hair Website - http://www.goodhairmovie.net/
Excellent Blog Site on Natural Hair Review - http://khamitkinks.wordpress.com/2009/10/01/the-bad-news-about-good-hair/
Chris Rock Interview on Good Hair (Quote from this source) - http://www.thewrap.com/article/chris-rock-grilled-his-hair-raising-documentary-8367