I remember the first time I went to school with my hair curly instead of blowdried. I was a freshman in high school. One of my classmates, a Chinese-American, asked me enviously if I had gotten a perm over the weekend. I remember thinking, “Are you crazy?! If my hair was really straight I woulda never messed with it.” But I guess the grass is always greener on the other scalp.
As I’ve read more into Black letters and watched more films it’s been interesting to notice how prominent this question of hair–texture, color, cut–is, especially to African-American women, how much philosophical and political weight hair holds. Heck, Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze, about political divisions at a fictional HBCU, features a six minute musical number called “Good and Bad Hair” in which Afro’d and nearly-blonde coeds dance-fight the conflict while flinging racial epithets at one another that reach far back into Black American history.
While my curly hair doesn’t carry the same connotations as natural hair does in Spike Lee’s treatment, above, I do think that the emphasis on straightening hair in my Jewish family and community is similarly related to assimilation and the performance of whiteness. My beautiful grandmother tells the story of going on a date when she was a teenager with a young man who asked her ever so innocently about the ridge in the back of her hair. Apparently her efforts at straightening had missed a spot. Mortified, she never saw him again. My mom, whose hair naturally dries in beautiful ringlets, as a teenager in the ’60s used to wrap her long locks around Campbell’s soup cans to pull out the curls. When my sister and I still lived at home, our house was full of blowdriers, straightening irons, and various potions, gels and creams meant to work out what Grandma called a “kink” and my mom affectionately refers to as “dentitis.” These days, now that I always wear my hair curly, my Grandmother likes to remark that it looks like someone took an eggbeater to my head.
In Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary Good Hair, the politically traditional comedian sets out to understand why his young daughter asked him, “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?” (Watch a trailer here.) Aside from sharing information on the transnational hair trade and a slew of great interviews with celebs and regular folk, the film also points out that the chemicals in many hair straightening products, like formaldehyde and sodium hydroxide, are extremely dangerous carcinogens. But, as Malcom X (and Alex Haley) wrote of that stinging sensation in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, “The longer you can stand it, the straighter the hair.”