Monday, August 31, 2009

In Defense of Black Women, Black Hair and Michelle Obama (...not that they need it...)

fyi: this essay was previously posted in the notes of my facebook page in response to what my friend tanya wrote on the subject. ( everyone's responses inspired me to work on a few blackgrrl essays that i've been marinating on all summer, so there will be more where this came from in the very near future. enjoy.


I’m going to try to make this brief.

After a lifetime of ostracism, ridicule, genuine curiousity (from American black folk, even -- walking up to me and touching my hair and asking me a million stupid questions!) and much humiliation and degradation all around, I have natural hair – and yes, I’ve had it for quite some time. I vascillated with hair choices for awhile when I first came to New York City, but then I got a plum role in the original cast of the first national tour of RENT and signed a hair rider that allowed them to do whatever they wanted to my hair, within reason. in this case: perm my hair – and then bleach the hell out of it, to give it a look that they thought was “edgy” and “cool”. (Because apparently, nothing is edgier than a black woman who dyes her hair blonde. Especially if you're European.)

Yes, I was financially compensated for this hair rider. Was it worth it? Well, hair does grow back. Eventually. It’s an awfully long wait until it does. To paraphrase Tom Petty, The waiting is the hardest part. I remember going to bed in tears when all of it started falling out in bright yellow clumps. (sigh.) But that wasn't my moment of natural hair clarity. Truth be told, I decided that I wanted natural hair after my mother accidentally dropped a large smoldering boiling lava hot straightening comb on the back of my neck when I was 8 or 9 years old. I couldn’t do anything about it until I grew up. That’s right: my mother continued to straighten my hair until I was out of her jurisdiction. Would it surprise you to know that I shaved it all off when I hit college? (Ah, the good life...)

That hair meltdown in RENT wasn't the beginning of the end, it was the last straw. I actually had bald patches and scabs on my scalp when I left the show. More on that some other time.

I should probably tell you that I’m from the South – the ATL, to be exact – and that, for pretty much all the black women that I knew as a kid and as I grew older, natural hair was the exception, NEVER the rule. The understanding was that you weren’t presentable unless your hair was bone straight, without a hint of kink. Don’t get me wrong. Every once in awhile, you’d see someone with an Afro but it wasn’t condoned and it wasn’t EVER anything to aspire to. Dreadlocks? Unthinkable.

I have returned to the South more often than I care to admit and walked through black malls and stores and shops and eateries and whatnot, and I have had conversation come to a stone cold stop when they get a look at my natural hair, no matter what it’s doing. Black folk will stare at me, they will point at me – like I’m a walking freakshow, on display. Please understand me and don’t get it twisted: these magic moments didn’t happen 20 years ago. They happened last Christmas.

Are there black folk down South with natural hair and dreadlocks and such? Why, yes. But in my experience, it’s the exception, not the rule. It’s not common. Not by a long shot.

And if I had a dollar for every time a black man gave me hell because I insisted on having natural hair – from my 92 year old daddy to the guys I went to college with and then some – I could probably buy the apartment building I live in.

Should I bother telling you that I have yet to meet, date, make out with, casually pass by in the street or otherwise involve myself with any white guy -- gay or straight, foreign or domestic or any other variation therein -- who doesn't love my natural hair just the way it is, whatever it happens to be doing? Yeah, I probably shouldn't mention that. Let's just pretend I didn't say it.

Maybe this is a Southern thing. Maybe this is a black thing. Maybe it’s me. I don’t know.

How I got from that “bone straight” mentality to a totally natural Afro of near Angela Davis proportions that now rests comfortably on my head like a well-earned crown is a story that will probably make a great movie someday. My point is, I have struggled with my hair, and in my personal and professional life, I have had to contend with others who struggled with it, too. And in so doing, they struggled with me.

So it was with genuine interest that I read Tonya Steele’s empassioned note “In Defense of Michelle Obama (not that she needs defending)”

Tonya was ranting and raving and she was very angry, and in her anger she was a roman candle of sorts, touching on a lot of different issues that sparked me -- way too many points to address in one fell swoop. The one thing that she said that clicked with me was what she said about black folks and low self-esteem. So, away we go.

There’s been a lot of wonderful things floating around out there about Michelle Obama. The thing that always makes me cringe is that when there’s an avalanche of love and respect for any public figure, the backlash (which is inevitable, by the way) swings just as hard in the other direction, and people find reasons to lash out at them and rip them to shreds with the same boundless energy that they used to throw their arms wide open and celebrate them.

This is especially hard to take because it’s a black woman in the crosshairs – and it ain’t Lil’ Kim this time, with a three foot wig on her head and her titty hanging out with a pastie over the nipple. It’s someone that’s a whole lot like me and my black female friends and acquaintances. Truth be told, Black women like us aren’t supposed to exist. In the entertainment industry/media, we are anomalies to everyone except Tyler Perry. And suddenly one of us breaks through the claptrap, holds the media transfixed and captures the imagination of the world. So of course, this is a hot topic.

But the backlash is coming. Look at the way conservatives jumped all over that moment Michelle had with the Queen of England. They’re coming for her. And don’t think that she doesn’t know it.

But I digress.

Michelle Obama is a public figure. Because of this, absolutely everything she says and does matters a GREAT deal – from the shoes on her feet to the hair on her head to what she likes to snack on in the middle of the night. Get this, loud and clear: It matters, it matters, it matters. A bigger part of the reason why it matters so much is because it reverberates around the world ten thousand-fold –in retail sales, in goodwill and most definitely in attitude, and of course in images/photo ops. And as you well know, a powerful image can change the world.

Lets face it – her presence alone has been enough to shock the hell out of most people. If she had natural hair, it would start a revolution.

Are black women free to do whatever they want to do with their hair? Well – theoretically, yes. We all have free will, we can all do whatever we want within reason. But black hair has always been political and a place of contention because it’s the most obvious way that we as black women have to show the world that we are conforming and yielding to the status quo and what it dictates as acceptable and/or beautiful. Don’t believe me? Sisters who are working their way up the corporate ladder or who make a living in a corporate world know exactly what I’m talking about. Ask one of them if I’m wrong. Your natural hair is unacceptable in that environment because it’s considered a threat – and thusly, by default, so are you.

Is anyone in that conservative company going to tell you that? Of course not! That would make it too easy for you to sue the living daylights out of them and stage a Putney Swope-style takeover of your own. (Hm. Another screenplay idea…I’m full of them today…)

This isn’t the kind of thing that you necessarily have to think about if you are an artist, or if you own your own business or if you are a musician – unless you’re in front of the camera. As an actor, I think about it a lot because what my hair looks like dictates whether or not I get the gig. Interesingly enough, casting agents love the Michelle Obama look – so if I go into the audition with a wig that looks like her hair and some pearls, they’ll be more inclined to cast me than if I showed up with natural hair. Talent be damned. It’s all about the black woman they know, the one that they’re comfortable with. It’s not about the individual.

Think about it. Can you name any black actresses in Hollywood with natural hair – besides Whoopi? Essence Magazine – the premiere black women’s magazine in this country, by the way – did a story about Black Hollywood actresses. Not a kink in the bunch. And can i just tell you how profoundly disappointed i was when my friend Ralph gifted me with a bunch of African women's magazines from his Christmas trip to Africa -- and they ALL had perms and weaves!

Not that there's ANYTHING wrong with that...but dang.

How about R&B stars, black pop stars? When was the last time you saw a black music video that featured natural hair? You’re thinking about Erykah, or maybe Lauren. Right? It's not that there isn't ANY natural hair out there. It's just that usually, it's the exception. It's not the rule.

If you’re on camera, you’re probably conforming, too -- just like the black folks who have to work on a corporate plantation. At the very least, you’ve come to that fork in the road and figured it out one way or the other. I know I have.

(If you're on facebook, check out my facebook profile pic. Yup.That’s a wig.)

That corporate illustration is just one example of what I’m referring to. There are many, many more.

Here’s the thing that gets me. Over the years, I’ve had long winding conversations with black women who are downright terrified of not straightening their hair anymore because to quote one friend, they don’t know what they’d look like if they did. Like all of a sudden, she’s going to turn into some sort of beast because her weave and her perm is gone. But what she’s really afraid of is that this is the way the world would treat her. Like a beast. It’s not just what she sees when she looks in the mirror. This reverberates all the way through every aspect of her life – from that corporate desk job to the brother that’s interested in her to the church she attends. When you care what everyone thinks, all of that stuff matters. Please believe me – there are plenty of black women out here who care a great deal as to whether the brother in question finds them attractive and are perfectly willing to do whatever they have to – hairwise and otherwise – to secure him.

Caring what everyone thinks reeks of low self esteem. That’s really at the heart of it all.

No black woman should hate their hair in its natural state or feel as though they are diminished or somehow lesser than because they don’t have a perm. The truth is, way too often in this day and age, this is the case. I’m insulated from having to deal with a lot of that junk because I’m an artist and I live in NYC. And yeah, I love it that black men are making these declarations about loving natural hair and all but if you’ve really got your head together, there’s no need to feel compelled to control or manipulate black women by telling them what to do with their hair. Or verbally abuse them. Or emotionally abuse them. Or physically attack them. Or denigrate them in any way.

Then again, I think that low self esteem/emotionally damaged people are the reason why a lot of things in this world are askew.

In closing, to paraphrase Tony Brown’s Journal: This is just one black woman’s opinion. Thanks for reading this. And thanks to Tanya for inspiring it.


Nose Cone said...

I rock rough and stuff with my afro puffs! -- Lady of Rage

Francy said...

I LOVE THE "HAIR" ESSAY PRINTED IN HERE. I had no idea how professionally respected you were on B'way. Once or twice I tried to engage you/been following your twitters for about five months. Sometimes you crack me up,(Sat. morning cartoons) THE WAY YOU BUZZ AROUND ON YOUR BIKE/but this piece showed your depth and committment Thank-you

Aron Ranen said...

Please take a moment to check out my documentary film BLACK HAIR

It is free at youtube. 6 parts including an update from London, England.

It explores the Korean Take-over of the Black Beauty Supply and Hair biz..

The current situation makes it hard to believe that Madame C.J. Walker once ran the whole thing.

I am not a hater, I am a motivator.

Plus I am a White guy who stumbled upon this, and felt it was so wrong I had to make a film about it.

self-funded film, made from the heart.

Can it be taken back?