Non-Black readers as well as Black ones may be asking: why is this hair thing so important in the Black community?
The discourse about Black folks' hair is one that has less to do with hair and more to do with American identity. Some will argue this point to infinitude, but there really is no way to account for the persistence of the Black hair issue permeating cultural discourse since the transatlantic slave trade without concluding that we are talking about far more than hair.
Every decade or so since the end of the Civil Rights movement when Black folks decided to embrace all things black (nappy hair and afros, black art, black literature, and afrocentrism as a whole), the issue of Black women's hair and its nappiness has surfaced. As most of us know, the early twentieth-century sense of the term "nappy" refers to the frizziness or tightly coiled feature indicative of African hair patterns. What most of us do not know or refuse to admit is that we tend to view the term "nappy" as yet another N word. Remember Imus's "nappy-headed hoes" comment? The American identity is predicated on social constructions of whiteness, as Toni Morrison, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., bell hooks, and countless other Black scholars have noted. And as Morrison so famously states, "American means white, and everyone else has to hyphenate." Well, yes, but what does this have to do with hair?
Embedded within the American identity is the American female identity. And as many of us are already aware, in most patriarchal societies, women are valued for their "beauty" and their ability to bear children (preferably male children). I placed quotations around the word "beauty" because here is where we get into trouble (at least we nappy-headed Black women). If American means white, then American beauty means "white beauty." Those in power get to define and decide. And what is "white beauty"? The white paradigm of beauty so pervades our society that it has become invisible. In short, the white paradigm of beauty includes straight hair (usually long), white skin, narrow noses, light colored eyes, and thin bodies. Until fairly recently, thin lips and flat butts were apart of this paradigm; however, pop-culture, specifically hip hop culture, has changed this (a few cool points for pop culture).
As we can see, nappy hair is the binary opposite of straight hair; therefore, it does not fit the white paradigm of beauty. And if nappy is the binary opposite of straight (beauty), then nappy must be by default - ugly. Many critics say that Black culture has its own standards of beauty outside of the mainstream (white) culture. I say that Black culture is still a microcosm of mainstream culture (a sub-culture as it were). As such, Blacks still continue to see themselves through white eyes. Hence the insidious and persistent predilection in the Black community for hair straighteners, hair weaves, and extensions. In fact, many Black men have rendered any Black woman invisible who does not have long straight (or straightish) hair. Therefore, hair straighteners, hair weaves, and hair extensions remain at the top of the Black woman's shopping list between soap and toilet paper.
Of course, there are women who change wigs and weaves like they change shoes. This is a woman who sees hair as a fashion accessory. There's nothing pathological about that. Hopefully, this analogy will add some clarity. Most women wear make up. However, the casual make up wearer is far different from the woman who sets her alarm at 5:00, rushes into the bathroom, puts on a full mask of make-up, and returns to bed before her husband awakes.
At any rate, I dropped out of this hair game on March 21, 1999 (the date I got my last hair relaxer). It may sound pop-psychologyish, but I made the decision to love the "real" me - the Black me - the nappy-headed me, irrespective of what Black men thought. However, there were many who thought the Black woman with the wild nappy hair was hot (I met and married my husband while wearing nappy hair). And on June 2, 2002 I locked my nappy hair because I fell in love with locked hair. At the time, this was not a popular choice. In 2002, Lil Wayne and hip hop culture had yet to put their stamp on dreadlocks. I have an entire post about demystifying locked hair. In that post, I also explain my pain and pleasure about natural hair. So I will not elaborate here.
Now, I have returned to my short nappy hair with great pleasure. Just as I knew when it was time to lock my hair in 2002 after three years of growing, styling, and enjoying my natural hair, I knew when it was time to make a break with my locks.
I am not my hair, but my hair is me.