“Hair Story” Authors Talk Our Obsession With Black Hair, Respectability & Natural Hair Nazis

January 24, 2014  |  

It’s with us from the day we’re born. For many of us it’s a source of pride, our crowning glory. My grandmother used to call it our “beauty” as she warned me never to cut it. It’s our hair, black hair. And as you know our hair is a very weighty topic. While some regard our hair as fleeting fashion choices, others have made it a lifestyle choice. And whether we want it to be or not, the way we wear our hair even makes political statements. And Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps explore all of these topics, along with the history of black hair, going back to the 1400’s in West Africa, in their Hair Story: Untangling The Roots Of Black Hair In America. Released 13 years ago and re-released with a foreword by Melissa Harris Perry, Hair Story will have you nodding in agreement, shaking your head in annoyance or outrage and raising your eyebrows at the new information you learn. We had a chance to speak with the authors of the book about the re-release. Byrd and Tharps talked about everything from hair superstitions to Gabby Douglas to the way we use our hair maintenance to express love and friendship. See what they had to say.

MN: What do you say to people who say, “It’s just hair”? 

Ayana: It’s not just hair. If it were just hair, Gabby Douglas would have been able to win the Olympic Gold without people on Twitter exploding. And then the Twitter attacks, to Hollywood, to news papers to all over the place talking about what her hair looked like while she was making Olympic history. Or other children who are talked about online about their hair. Or people who are not hired for jobs or people who are told they have to change their hair if they already have a job if their hair’s natural. Or women who feel they’re not dateable if their hair’s a certain way because men won’t like the texture or length. Or men who won’t date someone whose hair is a certain length or texture.

There’s still all these other, very real–sometimes impacting not just your self esteem but sometimes your financial life– obstacles that come up with hair. And I think until those are removed, we’re going to keep talking about hair. On the flip side, on the positive side, I think there are a lot of really good conversations that come out about hair. When you read Hair Story, it’s not a book of doom and gloom. We also really highlight the positive cultural conversations that happen, cultural productions whether it’s art or photo exhibits, just different things that people create about black hair and the community that’s forged around black hair and I actually don’t see any reason for those conversations to ever stop because it brings a lot of joy to people having them and also it brings a lot of common ground.


Lori: Until American culture can catch up with hair equality, then we are going to still talk about it. Because there is still discrimination felt by black women and black men, in the workplace, in social circles based on their hair. We’re still seeing women being fired from their jobs because of their hair. That’s an economic issue that has to be discussed. Now all of this Twitter chatter etc that happens ‘what does her hair look like?’ That might be a little excessive. But that’s what social media has brought us to. Every topic gets over discussed.


MN: Why do you think the black community is so concerned about the upkeep of other people’s hair? Is it an issue with the politics of respectability?

Lori: As a community we are still judged. One black person does something and the whole community is condemned. We joke about it when a horrible crime happens, ‘oh, please don’t let it have been a black person.’ And that’s, of course, unfortunate and ridiculous but it’s a fact and it is the truth. If we perceive, and I say that as a collective we, one of our own, who is in the spotlight, is doing something we see as negative then we fall all over ourselves trying to make sure that that negative thing is fixed right away so that the white man doesn’t figure out that we have flaws. Because we’re still playing some sort of catch up. Make sure that there’s nothing that we can be criticized about. I mean look at Rachel Jeantel.

We have these public figures and we have to make sure that when they’re on the national stage that they show off the best of us. So when it comes to hair, because there’s still this group mentality that appropriate, proper and acceptable hair looks a certain way. And that hair is smooth edges, nothing too aggressive, nothing too natural, nothing too Afro-like. And unfortunately that is the kind of the collective, acceptable hairstyle. Now on the other hand we are seeing the natural hair movement broadening people’s ideas of acceptability but that’s still a fringe movement when you look at the numbers of black women who are still straightening and or relaxing their hair or wearing weaves that are straight. So this idea that the natural hair movement has completely revolutionized what people think is acceptable hair is not true. We’re definitely expanding.  So this attacking of young children or Pam Oliver’s wig, yes, I feel like black people still feel like we can attack one another with this idea that if we don’t call each other on it, then whitey will. And that’s really regressive thinking. I’m sure a lot of people aren’t making those thoughts consciously but I do believe that we still have that mentality left over from the past of policing each other’s behavior and physical appearance.


Ayana: Even though we see a lot of attacks on hair online, social media has also become this place where people really will build these supportive communities for people who are attacked. I think the one of the most obvious examples is the Locs of Love project that Yaba Blay did after the little girl was told that she had to cut off her locs or get expelled from school. But through social media, within 24 hours, Yaba was able to gather over a 100 women who sent in really encouraging letters and photos of themselves. I think in the past, pre social media, someone would have heard about the story, turned to their friend and said, ‘That’s a damn shame.” And that would have been the extent of it. But within two days, this little girl could see this outpouring of love and support for her. So I also think that’s a really positive side effect of what happens with black hair and social media, that we’ve never seen before. And I hope that continues to be the trend for what happens on Twitter when it comes to hair as opposed to cutting people down.

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