Sunday, May 6, 2007

I'll keep my nappy hair, thank you

This is just an great article written by Mary Mitchell who is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

It's her reply to someone commenting on her hair.

I'll keep my nappy hair, thank you

Postcard writer bristles over columnist's 'terrible mess'

May 3, 2007

BY MARY MITCHELL Sun-Times Columnist

No doubt about it, I'm nappy-headed. I wear my hair without straightening its curl pattern -- which in my case is tight -- when I don't do anything to it my hair looks like a tumbleweed. But don't think I let my hair go. I may not use relaxers or a straightening comb, but I groom my hair. In fact, after work, I head to Gossip Salon and Day Spa in Oak Park, where Susan Jamieson will spend about two expensive hours pampering my hair.

So I was appalled to get a 24-cent post-card from Sam Watson telling me how much he doesn't like my hair:

"On Friday 20 April 2007, it was the Joel Weisman show, we believe. We were shocked to see what you had done to your hair which was beautifully coiffured the last time we saw you on TV. Of course, you have the right to mess up your locks any time in any manner you like, but we suggest you appear a terrible mess instead of the former beautiful lady that we recall seeing in the past. It's like night and day, only now you look like you belong in a Halloween scare movie," Watson wrote.

Watson went on to name the women he's seen with fabulous hairdos: Sandi Jackson, Hermene Hartman, Condi Rice and Oprah.

"Please get rid of that awful, messy-looking mop-like hairdo you now have and set the proper role model example for our young ladies with a neat, presentable hairdo that your fine facial features deserve. Bring out, don't hide, your innate beauty again," he said.

Looking like a Barbie doll

First, Watson obviously has gotten me mixed up with someone else. I don't think anyone would ever describe my parade of hairstyles -- locks, afro and finally twists -- as coiffured.

Still, his complaint about my hairstyle raises a universal issue.

Last week I was in St. Maartin, where I ran into a beautiful young black sister who had her long locks hidden underneath a tight head-wrap. She was working as a cashier in a casino and the wrap protected her hair from cigarette smoke, she said. Her boyfriend, a handsome young man with wavy hair that's common to black men in certain regions of the South, was badgering her about her hair.

"She's going to cut them off," he said, eyeing my nappy hair. "I'll pay for her to get her hair straightened," he said.

"He's only interested in me looking like a Barbie doll," she said.

That exchange really gets to the heart of the matter.

Despite the black power movement and Whoopi Goldberg, hair is still the impenetrable veil for black women. Even women who have worn natural hair for years are often seduced by the promises of straight hair. After all, most often it is the woman with the long, straight hair -- be it real or play -- that turns a man's head, while the sister with the short afro is barely noticed.

Secretly, there are days when I lust for the smooth, straight hair that once caressed my shoulders to the point that I'm that close to running off to an Egyptian hair salon.

But the distress I feel over longing for hair that makes me look more like a white woman and less like a black one is what keeps me from making an appointment. All women -- whether they are Caucasian or African-American, or Asian or Latino -- have physical features that are uniquely their own.

As Sojourner Truth once asked: "Ain't I a woman, too?"

Black women are the only women who are routinely characterized as being undesirable. And from the moment we are pronounced as having "bad hair" as opposed to "good hair," we are expected to alter our appearance by straightening out that bad hair.

Sorry, Watson. I came into this world under that cloud.

It's certainly not the way I intend to leave it.



More links:

Chicago Sun-Times: Mary Mitchell's page (latest articles)
Chicago Sun-Times: Mary Mitchell's Blog
Community Media Workshop: Mary Mitchell (bio info)

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  1. When it comes to conforming to a norm, black women may fret about their hair, but they don't have a monopoly on hair worries.

    I come from a family of bushy-haired women. We're 99.x% white, but we've got bushy, wavy hair, and when I grew up in the late sixties and early seventies, long, straight hair was the in thing. It just killed me seeing women whose hair was so naturally straight: NOTHING made mine like that -- not even ironing it.

    At some point I just gave up trying to get my hair to be straight and sleek, and so did my sisters. Now I'm fine with my hair the way it is, but I watch my daughters agonizing over their hair which is exactly like mine was -- bushy and wavy. I try and tell them their hair is beautiful the way it is -- just like my mother tried to tell me -- but they're not having it.

    Will we ever learn?

  2. I get what you're saying. However, it's not just hair texture. This is also intersecting with racial issues too.

    If you have white skin you can still benefit from the privilege of not being judged as less than as long as you pull a blow dryer through your hair.

    I think most black women very well know that there are quite a few other races that have "bushy-hair". However, I don't see a high number of white women wearing hair weaves unless they're entertainers. I don't see your avearge white woman wearing lace front wigs, again, a domain for highly-paid entertainers. I don't see most white women putting chemical relaxers on their hair, while it's expected that most black women should put caustic chemicals on their hair every 6 to 8 weeks. At most, the white friends I know, blow dry, color, and highlight.

    In our talks about nappy hair we're not saying that others don't have similar problems. What we're doing is talking about our experiences, so I get that having bushy hair is a problem for anyone in a society where straight hair is what is "beautiful", but layer race, class and privilege on top of that and it's a huge problem.

    It's internalized to the point that a black woman chosing to keep her hair natural gets more grief from black people than from just about any other group.

  3. Yes, I can understand what you're saying.

    I've never even heard of lace front wigs, and hair weaves went out with my granny's generation, but I have used the chemicals. In fact, I got something from a beauty shop for black women: a hair straightener that was supposed to leave you with long, sleek, flowing tresses -- the sort of hair Whoopi Goldberg used to talk about. Other people laughed at that routine, but it made me want to cry. All that stuff did for my hair was make it look like a dead animal. I think that's when I decided to give up on changing it.

    Whatever happened to naturals, anyway? Angela Davis got remembered as a hairdo and not a thinker; why couldn't we have hung onto the idea that leaving your hair natural was just fine?

    For what it's worth, I think that Mary Mitchell's hair is fine and I envy her when she goes swimming. Actually, even more enviable is the fact that she can say 'I'm okay, I like what I've got.' Too bad you can't put that into a personality weave and market that.

  4. Well, there are black women who wear their hair natural and the number is growing, but a lot are writing it off as a trend. I think the big 70s fro was a trend for the time. I can't manage that because I'm always napping in transit. If I had to stop to fluff up my hair, I'd just be miserable. Now natural styles come in all sorts of variations. Maybe it is for some, but a lot, including myself, claim this is for life.

    As for chemical relaxers, they're damaging, so how can anyone seriously ask me or expect me to do that to myself?

    Honestly, I think sporting a hairpiece or weave or wig for special events is fine. I don't have issues with celebrities for the most part because with all the handling their hair has they'd have none if they insisted on natural only.

    It's just that when everyday women are told they should look the same, it's just stupid.

  5. Have you heard the song "Cloud 9" by Donnie? I love it! Here are the lyrics.

    "We live from the head down and not the feet up
    And I'm adorned with the crown that's making this up
    And I'm fine under cloud 9

    Yes I wear the lamb's wool, the feet of burned brass
    And the wool defies gravity like the nature of a gas
    And I'm fine under cloud 9

    Twist my cloud and it rain
    And when it rains it pours
    And the energy will absorb
    Power for the metaphysical one

    Happy to be nappy, I'm black and I'm proud
    That I have been chosen to wear the conscious cloud
    And I'm fine under cloud 9

    I be a chameleon and wear it bone straight
    But it's so much stronger when it's in its natural state
    And I'm fine under cloud 9

    Twist my cloud and let it rain
    And when it rains it pours
    And the energy will absorb
    Power for the metaphysical one


    We live from the head down and not the feet up
    And I'm adorned with the crown that's making this up
    And I'm fine under cloud 9

    Twist my cloud and let it rain
    And when it rains it pours
    And the energy will absorb
    Power for the metaphysical one"

  6. Anali,

    Thanks for your comment! I hadn't heard of this song, so thanks for sharing the lyrics!


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