There is no shortage of conversation about the current social and political context around black women and their natural hair.
The New York Times posted a short film by Zina Sora-Wiwa, called Transition, which documented the rise of the natural hair movement among black women. Recently, the “Melissa Perry Harris” show even had a discussion on black hair featuring a group of black women with hair styled naturally. A Baltimore-based photographer gained national attention for his collection of portraits celebrating black women with natural hair called the “The Coiffure Project,” There are even groups dedicated to men who support women going through transition. Even I have written an article – or several – on the topic.
It’s an exciting, and in some cases frustrating, time to be a black woman with hair. Exciting if you are among the millions of black women worldwide, who have decided to celebrate our new cultural aesthetic. Frustrating if you are among the million other black women, who could give a damn because it is all just hair we are talking about. Wherever you land on the discussion, it is clear that the tenor of the current national conversation shows us just how political our natural coils have become. Yet this process of celebrating our newfound self-acceptance and cultural freedom seems to have been limited to women. That why when I saw a picture of Prince, sharing the couch with the ladies from “The View,” bearing his natural texture in Afro form (his circa ’70s self), I squealed.
Could this be what sparks a natural hair movement among men? I mean, if Prince, who has been rocking the Dark & Lovely No Lye perm set for decades now, could turn over a new hair leaf to embrace his natural essence, what is stopping other men?
I know what you are thinking: but aren’t most men already free of chemical assistance? Sure, however that doesn’t mean that because most men don’t perm their hair that they are free from hair politics. Ask any black man who has ever rocked cornrows, dreadlocks or an Afro or even a full Sunnah beard to his corporate job. Or you can’t because they don’t exist. Even the dean of the Hampton University School of Business is well aware of that rarely discussed code of black male conduct in society. Or if they do exist, they end up like Aboubakar Traoré, a black Frenchman, who was told by management that his dreadlocks were harming the company’s image therefore he’d have to wear a wig or risk losing his flight attendant job.
Generally speaking, in order for a Black man to be taken seriously professionally, he must wear his natural hair cut low to the scalp. The messages are everywhere: remember that Nivea print ad featuring a clean-shaven black man grasping the longer hair on a decapitated bearded Afro mask of his own face, preparing to throw it away? The phrase “Re-civilize yourself” is boldly emblazoned over the image. The implication of course was that wearing an Afro or beard is uncultured. And look at Hollywood, the first thing that many famous black men do, well the second if you count getting their teeth fixed, is putting some sort of texturizer in their hair to make it look extra wavy if not curly. If you don’t believe me, check out the latest cover photo of Denzel Washington in GQ magazine. There is nothing natural about his slick down.
Truth is that men too are not immune from society’s standard of beauty and too must deal with internalized questions about what it means to have “good hair.” And also like their women counterparts, they too suffer the health concerns associated with maintaining a more civilized look. Like many African-Americans, black men have body hairs that are predominantly curly and wiry. Thus continued close shaving of hair and the head tends to make the hair follicles curve back and re-enter the skin as they grow, causing irritation, ingrown hair, razor bumps and keloids. A few years ago, writer Joshua Alton wrote very candidly about the added pains that shaving has brought to his life:
“To rid myself of razor bumps, I have used a variety of concoctions, at price points high and low, formulated especially for just this purpose. Most of them feel like pouring battery acid on my skin. The current product I use does the job, but as I squirt it onto the cotton round I give myself a little pep talk, which I repeat with each swipe. I probably wouldn’t believe in the idea of redemptive suffering if not for having to treat my razor bumps.”
On any given Saturday there is a long wait time at any barber shop in the hood. Most men grow up knowing that at least twice a month there is a barber waiting to trim their hair into a tight fade. If anybody were to ask them why they continue to hand over money and Saturday mornings to “maintain” their short haircuts, most would tell you that having longer hair is too burdensome. Their natural hair is impossible to comb. And no one has the extra time in the mornings to dedicate to properly moisturizing and taming their thick and bushy ‘fro into a perfect circle. Ironically, these are the some of the same reasons that women have been given as to why they might perm or weave. Yet within this double standard, no one ever accuses men of conforming to European beauty standards in order to give off a non-threatening aesthetic.
You know, the same non-threatening aesthetic that makes black Fortune 500 CEOs with a “baby face” appearance more likely to lead companies with higher revenues and prestige than black CEOs who look more ethnic? Oh yeah, those are actual results from a study conducted by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Even if they are at the top of their game, black men must still succumb to the pressure to present an image that won’t suggest too much Negro-tude.
Either way, there is room on both sides of the gender aisle to be more accepting of our unique hair. And like just we can assume there are some black women, whose sole purpose of straightening their hair is to look more European, we can also assume that there are black men, whose sole purpose of wearing close cuts is to distract away from the natural nappy texture of their hair. It is not fair that the discussion of black hair is just directed at one gender, especially when there are probably black men waiting for a chance to thrown down their clippers and live in the world that will accept them in all their natural glory too.
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