On throwback Thursday I have great pleasure in introducing you to a fellow memoirist, Jennifer Graham. Hair as many of you know is a feature that I have a lot of and have posted about on several occasions. Jennifer has some interesting additions to this subject and I would now like to welcome her – my very first guest blogger.
Guest Blogger, Jennifer B. Graham blogs about hair.
I’ve never liked my hair. Since a child I coveted girls at my school who were blessed with long sleek tresses. I have curly, frizzy hair that looks pretty decent when it’s been coiffed – blow dried, ironed, dyed, rolled, tugged, pulled, swirled and even chemically abused.
You’d think hair is just hair, right? But, throughout the ages our manes have been used to define us racially, culturally and politically, While this blog is by no means exhaustive research on this subject, let’s do a surface exploration.
Definition and Brief History of Hair
Dictionary.com defines hair as the “cylindrical, keratinous filaments growing from the skin of humans and animals – a pilus.” By why throughout history have our tresses always been an issue in terms of defining human worth? Since time immemorial, especially for females, those “cylindrical, keratinous filaments” have been a perceived cultural and sociological problem.
European cultures, steeped in medieval and mythological beliefs, perpetuated negative stereotypes regarding red heads and blondes – red heads being temperamental and blondes, dumb. In her thesis, Brina Hargro, writes about prejudice an enclave of red-headed Irish immigrants to America encountered around the turn of the 20th century. They were essentially relegated to menial labour. They were taunted by the locals and branded as the “red headed devil.” Being Irish and red-headed denoted being “fresh off the boat,” squalid, poor and ignorant. (Hair Matters: African American Women and the Natural Hair Asthetic by Brina Hargo of Georgia State University 2011)
The next generation of the small enclave, Hargro explains disassociated themselves from these stereotypes. “They wanted to appear less Irish and gain the same opportunities as the city’s non-Irish.” Dyeing their hair either blond or brunette became fashionable and with it gave them an air of sophistication and confidence. Changing their hair colour proved to be only cosmetic change, because now they were branded as “the dyed and non-dyed.” http://bit.ly/1BEz8sy
The Politicizing of Hair
No where else is the world was there such an obsession with how hair defined a person than under South Africa’s former apartheid regime. Straight hair could equal white. Kroes (kinky or coiled) hair definitely equaled non-white. Under the Race Classification Act, the government made provision for people to appeal their classification. For starters you had to be a very light-skinned “Coloured” to stand a chance.
One of the criteria was the “pencil test.” This involved an official inserting pencil into your hair to see whether it was kinky enough to hold the pencil when you bent forward. If it fell out, lucky you, you could be on your way to being white. If it stuck, unlucky you. You were back to where you started. You’re scratching your head in disbelief, right? Believe me, under apartheid extraordinary things happened.
You can well understand for me as a teenager growing up in South Africa in the 1970s, smooth hair was a preoccupation, something seared into my psyche. At school the girls with the long sleek hair were picked as marching majorettes, representing their schools at the inter-school mini-Olympic track meets.
If you had a kroeskop (kinky hair) you didn’t have a prayer. Forget about entering any beauty pageant – forget about entering anything if you had kinky hair. So the name of the game was do whatever it takes to straighten your hair – ironing, swirling and when all else failed, the WellaStrate treatment. These weren’t simple fixes. They were all-day productions. Girls would even turn down dates to work on their hair. Ironing (on an ironing board if your hair was long enough) was the quickest method but it wasn’t for everyone.
On top of that, it was weather dependent. Only girls with long hair could iron and if the weather was damp and foggy, then forget it. Ironing required laying brown paper over your long hair and smoothing it with a clothes iron.
Swirling was the most popular method and wasn’t as weather dependent as ironing. You washed your hair, rolled it in curlers, let it dry and brushed it out. Using the leg of discarded pantyhose, you pulled it over your head, bank robber style, turning it in a swirling motion around the head.Then you let it be. The longer you kept the stocking on, the smoother the result. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it did the job.
By the early 1970s the Wella brand came out with WellaStrate for girl with very kroes koppe. The stuff stank of rotten eggs when applied – a smelly business, but it made those girls happy. Even when the Afro style was trendy, straightened hair was still preferable.
Good Hair, Bad Hair in America
In the United States, like South Africa, in the black female culture, hair is not only a big deal, but big business. So much so, comedian, Chris Rock was persuaded to make a documentary, Good Hair, after his little daughter asked him, “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?”
In his film, Rock poses these questions,
“How do we decide what good hair is?”
“What feeds this hair machine?”
The answer? The city of Atlanta, Georgia, “where all major black decisions are made.”
Who feeds the hair machine? Bronner Bros Co. Inc. Twice a year for over for over sixty years this family business has hosted their impressive hair shows with over 120,000 hair professionals in attendance, 28 main hotels reserved exclusively and over 60 million US dollars pumped into the Atlanta economy.
“Good Hair is good business,” Bernard Bronner, the company president and CEO, tells Rock on camera. Blacks make up 12 percent of the population but buy 80 percent of the hair and products, according to Bronner. “All I know is we spend a ton of money on our hair. No matter what, we’re gonna look good,” he quipped.
Actress Raven Symone, who participated in Good Hair, told Black Tree TV, when interviewed, that she was “okay” about speaking about her wearing a hair weave. “The reason I feel that way is because underneath it all I’m confident in my own personal hair. My hair is not me, I am me,” said Symone, who first appeared on television, in 1989, on The Cosby Show as Olivia Kendall.
“What is your definition of good hair?” Rock asks a young woman. She replies, “Within the black community, if you have good hair, you’re [perceived] as prettier or better than other women. The lighter, the brighter, the better.”
Rock also does an in-depth investigation into the hair straightening industry with startling revelations. “So your hair is addicted to the relaxer,” he asks to a teenaged girl.
“Creamy crack,” she replies unabashedly.
Inevitably time brings change. Taboos and stigmas associated with hair have waned considerably. Today, thankfully, the way you choose to wear your hair is not such a big deal anymore. Like, Raven Symone, I’m learning to be okay with my own hair but nowadays with it thinning with age, it needs a bit of enhancement with wigs and hair pieces, certainly not because I’m ashamed of my natural hair, but to be able to wear fun and fashionable styles. I’m not ready for the old lady Jheri Curl look to which my hair, left to its natural bent, tends to gravitate.
Bio: Jennifer B. Graham is a self-proclaimed global nomad who began life in South Africa, left when she was 19 and since then hasn’t looked back. She’s also lived in England, Canada, USA and New Zealand.
After earning her degree in communication/print journalism from the University of Mobile, Alabama, USA in 2001, she wrote freelance feature articles on topics such as food, health, travel and profiles for miscellaneous publications that include Destinations, Connections, The Press, The Citizen, The Fairhope Courier as well as Triond.com.
Jennifer is a member of the Writers’ Community of Durham Region. An Immoral Proposal is her first book. She lives with her husband near Toronto, Canada. Her five grandchildren split between the USA and Canada keep her happily wandering.