I just finished Althea Prince’s Politics of Black Women’s Hair and it was a fast and easy read. Fast and easy not because it lacked deep insight, historical perspective, relevance nor range; but because the writing was fluid, the language down-to-earth, and it made me laugh and relate. I also liked the documentary-like structure of personal stories interspersed with interesting facts; I think it would translate well to the stage à la Vagina Monologues.
Sister-friends, pick up a copy of this book soon as they re-stock it, though the way it’s flown off the shelves suggests that I may be preaching to the choir. But, what the hell, sing with me.
Tell me that when one of the featured women reflects on the drama – and the sense of drowning – surrounding her hair washing ritual, you didn’t remember bawling down the yard as your mother forced your head under a standpipe.
And, tell me when you read “gotta have long, straight hair for him to run his hands through and not get stuck” – from Prince’s daughter Mansa’s poem Look What the Future Hath Wrought – you didn’t think about the guy who told you he “don’t like man-head on a woman” and then, the guy who told you, as he played in your twists, how much he liked running his hands through your hair.
The book revisits terrain that’s been covered before – and acknowledges this – but somehow the treatment feels both fresh and familiar. It’s important to note as well that as a sociologist, Prince’s treatment of hair while accessible is not trifling. She knows the deep roots of this issue and how it spirals all the way up to our split ends, touching on men’s preference for the beauty ideal and women’s desire to fit the professional mold.
Still, she acknowledged some shift in attitudes such as the crowning of the first Rasta Ms Jamaica in 2007 – two years, I might add, before the crowning of the first locked Ms Antigua. But as the book acknowledges for every India Arie – and there are more and more of her – there are maybe 100 Beyonces. “I would even go so far as to suggest,” Prince wrote, “that there is a manipulative push against natural hair in mainstream society. The push manipulates many black women, and black people in general, to conform to the hegemony in which they live.” (P 111-112)
And without judging a woman’s choice to wear a blonde weave if that be her will, Prince’s book reads as a celebration of black women’s natural and “beautiful” hair.
To get there though, it acknowledged the trauma many have experienced en route to hair-acceptance. She recalled her first severe plait-up: “the pain worked its way all the way down my body, and seemed to settle in my navel.” (P 33) I don’t know about you but that sounds right up there with labour pain, or tooth ache pain, or gall stone – now I’ve only experienced one of these but I hear they’re all three about as bad as pain can get. Painfully familiar, too, is the comb to the knuckles and the silent suffering, and as one woman described it the “screw face” (P 73) under the plaiting.
A comment by one woman that some kids “were brainwashed to think that straight hair was better, especially because their hair hurt to be combed” (P 84), suggests that the trauma of ‘caring’ for the hair, informs attitudes to the hair as certainly as any other aspect of the conditioning.
But one of the things the book does, and does very well, is trace the journeying of several women towards a healthier relationship with their hair. From “… wearing a white towel on my head, flicking it around in the mirror” (P 98) as a child to “going to the barber shop and saying to the barber: ‘Just cut it off’” (P 96) to Prince’s own realisation as she reclaimed her hair from the lye that “… my experience had specificity to it. It contained a detail that is common to all black girls: natural, curly hair is not beautiful and needs to be straightened” (P 132) – an internalisation of external standards. Of course, as the book revealed, when you do decide to go natural, there’s a whole lot of re-learning to do – and one email exchange, near the end, between Prince and a friend, illustrates this in an amusing and endearing way.
One other woman who had internalised hair, and by extension, self-hate came through enough to declare, “… I am so much more happily inhabiting my entire body, including my hair …” (P 92)
Those of us who’ve come to that same place, say, amen.