"The type of black woman who would wear red [hair] has confidence and style."
-- Today's Black Woman, advertisement
A controversy long confined to African-Americans publicly exploded in recent weeks, when black 17-year-old Michelle Barskile of North Carolina made national news because she could not attend her sorority's debutante ball. That story broke just after Ruth Sherman, a white elementary school teacher in New York, had to flee her school under heavy fire from black parents.
The issue for both women was hair.
Barskile's offense? She wore her hair in a dreadlocks style that her sorority chapter deemed unacceptable. Sherman's offense was reading passages from noted black author and scholar Carolivia Herron's book "Nappy Hair" to her mostly black and Latino students. The parents claimed she was demeaning blacks.
The nation discovered that few things generate more anger and passion among black women than their hair. Some black critics say that black women are in a frenzied search to shed the ancient racist stigma of nappy hair -- which equals "bad hair" -- by aping white beauty standards. Others say that, like many non-black women, black women are captives of America's fashion and beauty industry, which is geared to making them more attractive and pleasing to men. Many black women counter by saying they are merely seeking their own identity or trying to "look better."
"Get gorgeous! Steal the spotlight with this glamorous unswept design!"
-- Braids and Beauty, advertisement.
They are all right. But the great hair obsession among black women reflects the deep and compelling need by African-Americans to identify with and accept America's values and standards. The beauty-care industry has skillfully fed that compulsion with fantasies of physical glitter and social glamour and turned them into mammoth profits.
Hair-care product manufacturers have sold many black women on the notion that their hair is the path to self-esteem, success and sexual allure. A century ago the legendary Madame C.J. Walker built a multimillion-dollar empire on the premise that black women want to look like white women and that good hair is the path to independence and prosperity.
"Elegance, spiced with Southern flavor, begins with a mane awash in a golden blond shade."
-- Today's Black Woman, advertisement
The hair-care industry is gargantuan today. The dozen or more black magazines devoted exclusively to hair dwarf the number of general-interest black publications. The hair magazines are so wildly popular that many librarians are forced to put them under lock and key to prevent them from being pilfered by patrons.
In 1996 beauty-care manufacturers racked up more than $10 billion in sales, and hair-care products by far topped the sales list. Americans shelled out $1.5 billion for shampoos, and more than $1 billion for hair conditioners alone. Blacks bought an estimated one out of five toilet and cosmetic products sold, and one out of three hair products sold. The five giant hair-product manufacturers, Proctor & Gamble, Helene Curtis, Alberto-Culver, Bristol Meyers and Johnson & Johnson, dominate the hair-care industry and are household names among black women.
"A perfect evening entrance begins with a flawless hair design."
-- Braids and Beauty, advertisement
The Afro or natural look of the 1960s and the braid craze of the 1990s are touted as examples of black women rejecting white beauty standards. They aren't. The Afro style was short-lived and always more a chic fad than a revolution in black consciousness. Today's braided look is even more tightly tied to style and fashion trends, without even the pretensions of "black pride." Even many black women who sport the bald look are meanwhile fixated on matching the right clothes, make-up and earrings with the style. Many soon tire of these hair fads and retreat back to the straightening comb, extensions or a perm.
The great hair obsession is driven by the painful need of many African-Americans to conform to the dominant values of American society. And beauty, fashion and hair styles are the most popular and perverse expressions of those values. Barskile and Sherman learned the hard way that many Africans still believe the fiction that good hair makes you, and nappy hair doesn't.