Straightening out beauty politics of black hair

Posted: March 01, 2013

Oh, Lawd, not another conversation about black hair.

On the one hand, I can't take any more comments about first lady Michelle Obama's bangs. Bangs are trendy; she likes them.

Get over it, America!

But on the other hand, I can't ignore the desperate need for continued, open-minded and intelligent discussions about the politics of black hair, especially in such cities as Philadelphia, where "boutiques" selling straight-from-India weaves mostly to black women are popping up as fast as Starbucks.

It bugs me that I still hear black women call their daughters "nappy-headed" as a form of verbal punishment. And it saddens me that sometimes even I look in the mirror and long for hair that's naturally softer, easier to straighten.

We still have a long way to go.

So, in an effort to help black women and society at large understand the constantly changing dynamics of black women and their hair, MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry will headline a symposium Friday at the University of Pennsylvania dedicated to the beauty politic.

Panel members will discuss the history of black women and their relationships with their manes, and how societal pressure to straighten their hair impacts their self-esteem and health.

There is a tendency for society to brush off hair issues as insignificant. People say women - especially black women - are too sensitive about their hair and these things don't matter. But, as Perry said in a June Melissa Harris-Perry show, how black women decide to care for their hair is part of their rite of passage into womanhood, shaping how they interact with one another, the men in their lives, and the rest of the world.

"For me, the politics of black women's hair seems obvious," Harris-Perry said as she introduced that segment. "But I realize it might not be obvious to everyone."

She's talking about generations of women being told that their natural hair is not pretty enough, not good enough - and the resulting anguish that comes from spending thousands of often painful hours and dollars manipulating it to resemble society's expectations.

Tomorrow's panel discussion is a continuation of the June MHP show that featured a roundtable discussion with Anthea Butler, a Penn associate professor of religion; actress Nicole Ari Parker; Nikki Walton, founder of natural hair-care website www.curlynikki.com; and cultural critic Joan Morgan.

"I'm hoping people's thinking will expand rather than contract," said Butler, who is planning Friday's events. "In other words, I don't want to assign morality to issues, but I want to talk about the range of conversations, how it affects black women's lives, in an academic setting."

The free day of talks begins at 9 a.m. in the university's Claudia Cohen Hall. So far, Butler said, close to 400 people have registered online at africana.sas.upenn.edu. There will be an overflow room and people can log on Friday morning for a live webcast of the talks.

Perry will begin the day with a two-hour panel discussing images of black beauty with experts in Africana and women's studies: Noliwe Rooks of Cornell University, Tiffany M. Gill of the University Delaware, and Tanisha Ford of the University of Massachusetts.

Graduate students will discuss their research in an afternoon panel, and the day will end with what promises to be lively chatter from hair professionals including Patrice Grell Yursik, whose blog Afrobella ranks among the top natural hair care blogs in the country, and Abenaa Timazee, owner of Brownstone Natural Hair and Barber Studio in South Philadelphia.

In recent years, more black women have chosen to keep their manes natural - despite side-eyed stares from friends and family. The impact that hair care has on health, time and budgets is just too much to bear for many.

Still, cultural forces trip us up.

Sometimes they come from outside the black community, as was the case with Louisiana meteorologist Rhonda Lee, who was fired in November after posting a Facebook comment to a viewer defending her decision to wear her natural hair close-cropped. Other times, they bubble from within, as it was with some black women who last June criticized Gabby Douglas for wearing less than perfect hair while clinching her Olympic gold.

It is these kinds of consistent pecks at black women's self-esteem that makes symposiums necessary. (Not a means to start fights between natural and relaxed hair camps.) They help and educate those who are trying to be comfortable with the hair that grows out of their heads.

I plan to check it out.


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.

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