African American female servicemembers comprise the highest percentage of women in the military. And with these sister servicewomen enlisting in the military at higher rates than their white, Asian and Latina sisters to serve and die for our country, they’re rewarded with the military squawking about their hair.
In March the Army released an updated policy on appearance and grooming, titled “AR 670-1,” limiting or banning hairstyles — braids, twists, cornrows, and dreadlocks — inimitable to African American women.
The Congressional Black Caucus outraged sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stating ” that the Army’s policy language was ‘offensive’ and ‘biased.”’
In 2007, Don Imus — always an equal opportunity offender with his no-holds-barred humor — hurled a gender-specific racial invective about black women’s hair. His tasteless remark struck a raw nerve in the African American community when he ridiculed the Rutgers women’s basketball team by not only calling them “hos,” but by also calling them “nappy-headed” ones.
That’s the other n-word in the African American community.
In 2010 Gabrielle Christina Victoria “Gabby” Douglas was one of that year’s Olympic darlings.
As a member of the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team, Gabby is the first African American gymnast and women of color, in Olympic history, to win gold medals in the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics. When she won the gold, the blogosphere blew up expectedly with a torrent of congratulations. But the blogosphere blew up unexpectedly with a deluge of condemnations, too. Douglas’s hair had been the topic of a ton of e-chatter since she stepped onto the Olympic world stage. If Douglas wasn’t privy to what the condemnations was about it, she quickly learned; and it led at one of the roots of the universal denigration of black beauty – our hair.
This issue of black women’s hair texture is inescapable and continues to dog us women all throughout the African continent and African diaspora — young and old.
When a tsunami of criticisms pored in about Gabby’s over-gelled and under-tamed ponytail, and — yes, that very touchy subject for African American women — her nappy edges, it dredged up an old misperception: How could any put-together, accomplished black woman with fleecy wooly wild hair be happy being nappy?
While many sisters today might use a hot comb on their hair, hot combs also called straightening combs were around in the 1880’s, sold in Sears and Bloomingdales catalogs to a predominately white female clientele.
Madam C.J. Walker, the first African American millionaire for her inventions of black hair products, didn’t invent the hot comb; she popularized its use by remedying the perceived “curse” of nappy hair with her hair-straightening products that to this day bring comfort to many black women.
While the etymology of the word “nappy” derives from Britain meaning a baby’s cotton napkin or diaper, in America the word became racialized to mean unkempt, wild and wooly hair associated with people of African descent. And used to demean and to degrade African Americans.
But even with good intentions the landmine can be detonated. In 1998 Ruth Ann Sherman, a white third grade teacher, who taught in a predominately African American and Latino elementary school in Brooklyn, learned that lesson when she read African American author Carolivia Herron’s award-winning children’s book “Nappy Hair,” a celebration of black hair.
And let’s not forget, the Sesame Street controversial song “I Love My Hair,” a remix of “Whip My Hair” sung by Willow Smith, daughter of actors Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. Intended to promote self-pride, the song received mixed reviews within the African American community, with some critiquing it as a black accomodationist version of white girls flinging their tresses.
Renowned African American feminist author Alice Walker spoke about the constraints of hair and beauty ideals in African American culture. In her address “Oppressed hair puts a ceiling on the brain,” at the all-women’s historically black college Spelman in Atlanta in April 1987, Walker stated the following:
“I am going to talk to you about hair. Don’t give a thought to the state of yours at the moment. This is not an appraisal…. it occurred to me that in my physical self there remained one last barrier to my spiritual liberation: my hair…. I realized I have never been given the opportunity to appreciate my hair for its true self…Eventually, I knew precisely what hair wanted: it wanted to grow, to be itself…to be left alone by anyone, including me, who did not love it as it was.”While many African American women today wear their hair in afros, cornrows, locks, braids, Senegalese twists, wraps or bald, our hair — both symbolically and literally — continues to be a battlefield in this country’s politics of hair and beauty aesthetics within and outside of the African American community.
Rev. Irene Monroe