In 1926 George Schuyler wrote an essay, “Negro Art-Hokum,” decrying the idea that the Harlem Renaissance was some sort of evidence of great African American art. Not that artists like Aaron Douglass and Louis Mailou Jones weren’t great artists, only that it wasn’t their “Africanness” that made them special, that they were a product of American society-which is a mix of all cultures. While I generally disagree with Schuyler’s views– for example, I do believe that the Harlem Renaissance was real and evidence of a long line of black creativity and aesthetics– I understand that the claim that something is wholly “African” when it comes to certain things in black American culture is problematic.
The natural hair movement is one such “African” thing that is troubling on so many levels. For one thing, oftentimes, there is nothing natural about natural hair. If we take natural to mean not made or altered by humankind, then black women’s hair, which is feuled by a multi-billion (yes, billion) dollar industry in products and human hair weave is definitely not that.
The picture above of Michelle Obama, which was digitally altered, was making the rounds late last year on the internet to great fanfare. Despite the fact that in order to achieve this style, Michele Obama would have had to add extra hair and use considerable product and devote hours (Hours!) to her hair, everyone was saying, “thank God she is representing natural beauty!”
The thing is that we don’t know if Michelle Obama hair is chemically processed or merely straightened. Dr. Koritha Mitchell, at a panel on Michelle Obama at the Modern Language Association in Boston, said that Obama’s hair dresser literally will not say if Michelle Obama has relaxed hair. Should that be a secret? We know that for many years Oprah has not had a relaxer in her hair. Does this change her politics? Is she more African because of this fact?
I have had “natural hair”–meaning hair that is not relaxed–for about 4 years. The choice was not political, not spiritual, and not based on a decision to redefine my identity. The decision was instead both (mistakenly) financial and about wanting more control of my own hair. I never trusted myself with chemicals and could not relax it myself. What if I went to live in Paris, would my hair look crazy? (Later I learned that there is a black hair salon on the Champs Élysées, in fact.)
I quickly realized, however, that I would not be saving money with natural hair–whether I put it in braids, twists or just try to wear it in cute ringlets. Braids are expensive, and for someone to maintain your locks and twists is expensive as well (almost the same cost as having a relaxer). And, not only is any hairstyle that I like highly contrived, I usually found myself having to plan my hairstyles 24 hours in advance. I felt that my hair–thoughts about my hair and disappointment in my hair–was consuming my life. I never worried about messing up my hair, interestingly enough, when I had a relaxer. Now I watch videos about how to do different natural hair techniques and I am often spending buckets of dough trying out different products to hopefully and finally manage my tresses. The sad part is that more often than not my hair just ends up in a bun because I’ve got bills to pay, ideological wars to fight, and students to educate.
The truth of the matter is that we do ourselves a little disservice when we limit who we are to mostly our physical appearance. Not to say that I don’t appreciate adornment, but if I was really concerned about “Africanness” I would look like this beautiful woman:
I understand Madame CJ Walker and I am happy for the black women who have found great success in this natural hair game. As for me, hopefully this is the last thing that I will write about my hair. One thing that I know for sure, my African roots are not found in the roots of my hair.