Class is in Session!
Ahh Black Hair 101. I have long wished that there was a class or some sort of program that I could send people to when they have questions about Black hair. When I cut out my perm it was rare to see a Black woman in a natural style. So rare that one of my earliest memories of seeing a natural Black woman was watching Freddie on Bill Cosby’s A Different World.
A Lack of Knowledge
I often felt like a Black Hair 101 class would have been a really useful tool for answering the same nappy hair questions over and over again.
I first noticed the need for Black Hair 101 when I started working in corporate America. As I’m sure you may have experienced, several of White colleagues often felt inclined to just reach out and touch my hair without asking. As opposed to coming from a negative place, their curiosity seemed to come more from a place of inquisitiveness coupled with entitlement. They hadn’t seen hair like that before and their innate sense of entitlement did not permit them to think that touching my twists without asking was a no-no. That sense of entitlement did not allow them to consider that there are “rules” for engaging Black hair.
In one such instance, I turned to my White female colleague, who literally still had her hand in the air as she reached out to touch my twisties, and asked her how she would feel if the roles were reversed. She looked confused so I broke it down for her something like this:
“Becky,” I said, “You cannot touch my hair without asking, remember?” (We’d had the “please don’t touch my hair without asking” conversation before.)
“Oooh, but Lurie it’s just looks so (expletive) cool!” she said.
I responded: “How would you feel if I walked up to you and casually reached out to stroke your breast – and said that I wanted to because it just looks so cool?”
She was recoiled at my response and said, “Oh my God, Lurie, it’s just hair”
I replied that they are just breasts and like hair, we all have them. Then I asked again, “How would you feel if I just reached out and touched them and told you how cool they were? You are more than welcome to respectfully ask me anything about my hair,” I added. “But you are not allowed to touch it without asking.”
She got the picture. But I repeatedly heard similar sentiments from my White colleagues.
“Your hair is so awesome!”
“I wish my hair could do that. Do you think my hair could do that? What is that exactly?”
“Oh my God. I love your hairstyle. I sooo wish I could do that!”
Now I am under no misconceptions that these White colleagues would have actually traded places with me to get my “cool hair.” But they just had no idea what to make of Black hair in general. These were the days when natural hair styles were almost as foreign to my Black girl friends as they were to my White colleagues.
Teach by Example
Sadly, there were/are not a lot of examples of intelligent, beautiful Black women wearing natural hair on television. If you’re reading this blog, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that. Including Freddie, I can count on one hand the number of Black women I saw on TV growing up who wore their hair in styles that did not start with the word “perm” or end with the word “relaxer.”
The conspicuous absence of Black women in natural hairstyles is one of the things that made Melissa Harris Perry’s debut on her MSNBC show such a dynamic experience for me. The first time I saw the Melissa Harris Perry show I was amazed. Not “oh look at the smart Black woman on TV” amazed. I was more like “shush the kids, call all my girlfriends, get the hubby to pay attention, and hit record on the DVR” amazed.
Here was this woman whose voice was so familiar. Her voice, conversations and topics of discussion sounded like the talks I have with my girlfriends. She dove into topics the way I’d always known Black women to do so – with passion and fire, intelligence and confidence.
I felt like I had far more in common with her than with the ladies on Basketball Wives or Real Housewives of Atlanta. Side note – the fact that these two shows are among the most popular shows featuring Black women makes me shudder…but that’s another post.
I don’t do this often – but I want to give a special thank you to Melissa Harris Perry. Not just because she wears her hair in natural styles and not just because she is brilliant. Not because her show constantly keeps us on our toes and not because it is a weekly reminder that Black women are some of the smartest and most capable women out there. Not because I am constantly amazed at the dynamic panels she hosts and not even because her humor is both nerdy and hilarious (although as a fellow Black nerd – I am particularly appreciative that she has claimed the term “nerd land” with pride).
I want to say thank you because of the phenomenal way in which she featured the topic of Black hair on her show. As I’m sure you’ve seen by now, the Melissa Harris Perry show expertly delved into the nuances of Black hair last month – and did so in a way that made nappy heads proud. So this is a special thank you for featuring the topic of Black hair in a way that was honest, empowering and not at all aggravating. The show featured cultural critic Joan Morgan (author of When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost), Nicole Ari-Parker (who is currently tearing up Broadway in her role in Streetcar Named Desire), University of Pennsylvania Professor Anthea Butler and CurlyNikki.com founder Nikki Walton.
Please take a moment to note that this entire panel was populated by women wearing natural hair styles. In case you’re counting – this show alone more than doubled the number of Black women I’ve seen wearing naturals on TV.
When the promos for the show first aired I mistakenly assumed that this would be a brief vignette on nappiness in general. Boy was I wrong. Instead of an “Intro to Nappy Hair in Five Minutes or Less” the MHP show went all in. The segment started with this brief “Black Hair 101” session just to lay the foundation.
Where was this clip when I was trying to get Becky to stop sneaking her fingers into my hair?! Where was this segment when I needed to explain how my hair “grew” 2 feet overnight when I showed up to class with extensions?! In less than 5 minutes, the MHP show gave the world what I have been searching for: a brief, respectful and informative cliff notes version of Black hair.
You can see MHP put a lot of care into describing the basics of Black hair to bring the audience up to speed. Personally, I waffle between wanting to educate “The Other” and wanting to scream that educating Other people about my hair (skin color, history, etc.) is part of my baggage as a Black woman. But in order for us to actually move forward – I recognize that sometimes you have to give people the basics in a way that they can understand.
The MHP Black Hair 101 segment did just that. Frankly, if this were the only segment they aired – it would have been enough to set the natural hair community on its toes. But to have an entire quarter of the show dedicated to this topic was an amazing display of culturally relevant news reporting.
So while I plan on diving into the remaining show segments shortly, I just wanted to start this week out by giving respect where it is due: Ms. Harris Perry – you made Black women (of all hair types) proud. Thank you for diving beneath the surface of Black hair and giving the topic its due treatment. When women in your position make the *choice* to wear your hair in natural styles it sends a dynamic signal. Not only does it lend credence to the notion that Black women are intelligent. But it also legitimizes our hair in spaces where the legitimacy of our hair has always been in doubt – both in and outside of our community.
Keep up the good work.