The Business of Black Hair can make you rich. One of the first African-american female millionaires in the United States was Sarah Breedlove aka Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1917). She was mentored by Annie Malone (1877-1957) .
From having all of my hair fall out from a perm when I was a little girl, to a student asking me if my hair was like steel wool, to a co-worker "clandestinely" yanking on my hair, to co-workers sneaking feels of curls I sported, to random strangers offering hair care product advise, I have stories to tell and I am not the only one. I remember when Chris Rock went on the Oprah Show to promote his documentary, "Good Hair". In the process, an audience member asked to touch Oprah's hair.
As an African-American woman it doesn't take long to become aware of the different ways people compliment and discriminate based on hair. So, changing one's hairstyle from Eurocentric to Afrocentric or visa versa is to invite a variety of comments, biased judgments and reactions.
Just the other day I was listening to a podcast on racism and protest (I don't remember which NPR podcast) and somehow the way an African-American woman wore her hair became part of the debate. The person on the defensive said the woman's complaints had no credence because she wore her hair straight, "white" as though her hairstyle was relevant to the topic and would somehow render comments moot. The young man's mother told him to apologize, but after the ad hominem the protestor wasn't open to the apology nor any sort of discussion.
It was Bill O'Reilly's disparaging comments on Congresswoman Maxine Waters' hair that brought great media attention and moved her presence into mainstream America. Most recently, there are Roseanne Barr's disparaging comments on former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett ... is equal to the “Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes”. In several variations of apologies she has declared, "I never would have wittingly called any black person a monkey.... I thought the B---- was white.... I'm sorry that you feel harm and hurt... but she does need a haircut." To be a woman of color is to risk the most denigrating comments on beauty and appearance despite or because of achievements (which is also a topic for a different post).
Some women, enjoy playing with hairstyles for hours. I am not one of those people; I am not a "hair person" except that to be black in our society, makes you a hair person by default. I used to wear my hair almost completely shaved off, but I got tired of the gender questions. To be a black woman, deciding to wear one's hair in almost any style, is to risk a myriad of reactions from being judged as unprofessional in appearance, to gender identity questions, to being compared to an animal.
So, the Marvel's Black Panther movie was a fresh break and commentary on the beauty of natural black hair. Camille Friend, lead hairstylists made the decisions on the many beautiful hairstyles of the characters in the film. She has been interviewed numerous times by mainstream media on her choices. The tone of the interviews has been one of curiosity and the commentary, whether spoken or unspoken, has been that women of color wearing natural hair is still an exotic novelty. For many women of color seeing an entire cast with natural hair is refreshing and affirming.
In the last few years my younger son has been growing dreadlocks and quite a few friends have ventured into wearing Sisterlocks. This month I have decided to embrace this style and am loving it. Dr. JoAnne Cornwall (San Diego, CA) is a brilliant woman of color who has woven a fortune in celebrating natural African-American hair with Sisterlocs. This speaks to changing times from the early 1900's where Madam C.J. Walker sold the idea of assimilation via straight hair, to the late 1900's of Dr. Cornwall's Sisterlocks. In our society, being a person of color is oftentimes to be judged or mocked by a foreign standard of beauty, whether it's facial features or hair. Despite disparaging remarks, the most beautiful women are those who embrace their own sense of style and beauty. My Sisterlocks is one more step on the road of self-discovery and celebration.