It started with Viola Davis wearing her natural hair to the Oscars in February.
Actually, it started way before that, “it” being the collective cultural fascination and debate surrounding Black hair. Before Viola, there was Whoopi Goldberg rocking ‘locs in the ‘80s. Black Panther Angela Davis and actress Pam Grier wearing their curls in the almost perfectly-concentric halos that became emblems of the Black Power/Black Pride movement that took hold in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And in decades before them, there were undoubtedly unknown women that didn’t have the desire, money, or time to submit their natural coils to the burning sodium hydroxide formula of the relaxer creams that hit the market in the 1950s, or the hot straightening combs that pre-dated them.
Black women (and many men) have been stretching, conking, and perming their natural curls straight for more than a decade, and when they haven’t done so en masse, it’s been considered a “revolution.” These revolutions have come and gone over the years, with more and more women of the ‘90s and ‘00s deciding to “go natural,” in every incarnation from ‘fros to twists to ‘locs to braids to faux ‘fro wigs and ‘loc extensions. Basically, Black women have been steadily choosing to wear our hair exactly the way we want to—a “revolution” in and of itself, apparently.
In 2012, this revolution was televised and talked about more than it had been since the Black Panthers. It was also Photoshopped, tweeted about, Facebooked, satirized, and blogged out the wazoo. Why this sudden follicular fixation? As mentioned above, it’s not sudden at all. This latest incarnation was just waiting for Viola.
The Oscar nominee’s decision to wear her close-cropped kinks at one of the most watched telecasts in the world ignited a firestorm of gratitude, essays, and retroactive disses about the wigs she has faithfully worn over the years.
Just weeks after Viola’s February surprise, a photo of Michelle Obama surfaced online—a lusciously fluffy Afro Photoshopped over her usually bouncing bob. Attendant comments simultaneously praised and wistfully sighed. If only, was the sentiment many expressed.
Lisa Price, CEO of hair/body care giant Carol's Daughter launched Transitioning Movement this March. The site is dedicated to supporting women who are transitioning from relaxed to natural hair. In May, Price rolled out her "Love, Lisa" column.
In June, Solange Knowles decried charges leveled against her by "the natural hair police". In a succession of frustrated and pissed-off tweets, Knowles, then a spokeswoman for Carol's Daughter (and vocal champion of Transitioning Movement), made it abundantly clear she "don't wanna talk about no hair.”
Days later, political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry dedicated an episode of her eponymous MSNBC show to discussing the politics—and profit margins—of the Black hair industrial complex. In a spot-on soliloquy that introduced the show (and almost instantly went viral), Harris-Perry endeavored to answer every Black hair question many Black women (and men) have been asked ad nauseam.
Harris-Perry’s thoughtful crash course in Black Hair 101 was a high point in the Black hair discourse, but little more than a month later the conversation devolved into ignorance. In the same week as Oprah’s O Magazine reveal of her natural hair, 16-year-old Olympian Gabby Douglas was minding her business i.e. winning gold medals at the 2012 Olympic Games in London when the Twitterverse lit up with disses leveled at the texture of her gelled back ponytail. “Are you kidding me? I just made history. And you're focusing on my hair?” Douglas responded, incredulous.
A month later, Solange Knowles’ hair was back in the blogosphere/Twitterverse for ending her spokeswoman gig with Carol’s Daughter. She explained to Lurve Magazine, “I was constantly fighting for the right message to be heard. The message that the way we wear our hair is a personal choice, there’s no right or wrong way.” Two months later, Knowles accused Transportation Security Administration officials of “Dicrim-FRO-Nation”.
In December, it all came to a head, literally. Shortly after meteorologist Rhonda Lee was fired for taking to her employer’s Facebook page to explain her natural hair to a viewer who made a derogatory comment about it, news of the sacking broke. In response, an instant outcry of social media support huddled around Lee. Nearly 10,000 people have signed a Change.org petition demanding Lee’s bosses give her back her job.
On a more positive note, Miss St Lucia and Miss Tanzania both chose close cropped natural hair at the Miss Universe pageant this month. Ironically, pageant sponsor Farouk Systems sells curling irons, blow dryers, and other long hair tools.
As 2013 approaches, I have no doubt the Black hair talk will carry over into the New Year. For all the patient explanations we give friends/viewers about how/why/where/what/when we style our hair, the fact remains that the Black hair conversation, though public, is personal.
It touches racial nerves. It reflects our current preferences and ideals. It can draw the fussing and ire of well-meaning parents and grandparents. In some cases, it’s a substantial financial investment. In some workplaces, it can draw uncomfortable attention. Whatever the case, how we navigate these follicle minefields is our individual choice.
Of course, everything that’s going on in the culture is a barometer of what’s acceptable, but at the end of the day, if Viola wears a wig to the upcoming Oscars Ceremony; Solange and Rhonda choose to perm their hair; or Michelle Obama gets inspired by the Photoshopped ‘fro to go natural, it won’t change the hair that grows out of our scalps or what we choose to do with it—unless we want to. Whatever we decide, there will no doubt be an opinion.
—Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond