The roots of ‘good hair’ are about survival, not beauty

I know a lot about black people and their hair. In fact, I co-authored a book about it in 2001, called Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America (St. Martin’s).

In the book we chronicled the history of black hair from 15th century Africa to 20th century America. From the power of the afro to the wet spots left behind by the Jheri Curl, we dissected the culture, business and politics of black hair in this country and in doing so, developed a world view that puts our hair at the root of the entire black experience in America.

So, you can imagine my great pleasure upon discovering that Chris Rock had taken on the subject of black hair as his latest movie project. According to publicity materials, Rock’s young daughter asked her father why she didn’t have good hair and this inspired him to go on a quest to discover just what good hair is and why all black women want it.

Advance buzz on the film was loud both in an out of black America, especially after the film won a special audience prize at the Sundance film festival. For a “hairstorian” like myself, I was giddy with anticipation. Finally, I figured there would be a public conversation about this still very controversial topic.

I saw the film and there is no doubt in my mind that “Good Hair” will spark heated debates. I’m just afraid that instead of conversations that lead to healing, understanding and growth, the talk will probably sound more like this:

– “Did you see that movie Good Hair?”
– “Yeah. Can you believe black woman pay thousands of dollars for a weave when they can’t even pay the rent?”
– “Isn’t that a shame? But you have to admit, black people sure do know how to put on a slammin’ hair show!”

In all fairness to Chris Rock, he never claimed to be the next Skip Gates, or even a slimmed down Michael Moore. He is an entertainer, a comedian, and if you like Chris Rock’s brand of humor, then you’ll definitely find things to laugh about in the movie. I, for one, found all of the hair show hi-jinx to be funnier than Tyler Perry drag. But if you were hoping for something more than laughs, perhaps a film that not only raises pertinent questions but answers them as well, then you may be disappointed.

For example, I wish that instead of using the complicated relationship black women have with their hair as the butt of his jokes, Rock would have taken the time to explore where this obsession with “good hair” actually comes from. It is not simply a “wanna be white” pathology as the film implies.

The term “good hair” harks back to antebellum America, when slaves knew that the less African they appeared, the better treatment they would receive from slave owners. Hair was the number one marker of negritude. It was also the most malleable ethnic trait. Using a combination of homemade concoctions and ingenious straightening methods, the slaves worked tirelessly at making their hair seem less foreign to their white masters. In return, they hoped that their straightened locks would aid them in being chosen for the coveted house jobs instead of working in the fields.

Not that being a house slave was a glamorous position, but it did offer access to better food, living conditions and a chance at an otherwise illegal education. Even more importantly, working in the house brought with it the possibility of a closer relationship with the master, which could translate into freedom upon his death.

So yes, if your hair was long and loosely curled it was “good hair,” because it literally meant it was good enough to get you out of the fields. It wasn’t about beauty – good hair was about survival. And make no mistake; men wanted that good hair too.

I applaud Chris Rock for taking on the subject of our hair and investing his time, energy, money and promotional muscle into a project that is truly a “black thing.” That could be considered career suicide for a man who makes a lot of money voicing a talking zebra in a cartoon franchise for DreamWorks. And while I lament a missed opportunity to truly educate, that clearly is not Chris Rock’s calling or agenda. But it is mine. And I guess that’s why I wrote the book on black hair.