Hair Peace: A 5-Part Manifesto

From Madam C.J. Walker to the Obamas, our ancestors have spoken to us, groomed us and scolded us through our hair. Isn’t it about time we ended the stalemate?

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alelia
Author A'Lelia Bundles is the great-great-granddaughter of Madam C.J. Walker

Will the black hair wars ever end? Will the morning hair-combing hostilities between black mothers and daughters ever cease? Will the permed vs. natural debate be resolved in our lifetime?    

As a veteran of the Great Hair Skirmishes of the 1960s, I witnessed a brief, shining moment when large numbers of black women conquered the fear of unprocessed roots. For a time, I actually believed we had made peace with that multi-textured mass of protein—whether kinky, coiled, crinkly, wavy or straight—that sprouts from our scalps.

I now realize I was naive and overly optimistic. Truth be told, there was at least a touch of tyranny in the notion that we all should conform more or less to the same style, forever and always, amen. Plus, it was impossible for a few years of happily nappy glory to erase the psychological scars brought on by centuries of living in a society that didn’t treasure African beauty. Barely a generation after Cicely Tyson appeared in a short Afro on CBS’s “East Side/West Side,” the Jheri curl was vying with hair weaves and braid extensions for dominion over our scalps.      

When I waged my own personal Afro Rebellion in 1969, there was more than the usual family discord. With both parents in the beauty business—my father as president of Summit Laboratories (a company that had pioneered chemical straighteners in the 1950s) and my mother as vice president of the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Co. (the firm founded by her great-grandmother in 1906)—hair care products literally put food on the table. Despite my father’s warning that my decision to go natural might affect Summit Labs’ sales—and therefore mean less money for my college tuition—my mother escorted me to the Walker Beauty School in Indianapolis, where my shoulder-length flip was transformed into a massive halo of hair, compliments of permanent wave rods until the chemicals could grow out. 

For me this episode always felt highly subversive and ironic, especially because I knew it would confuse the 1960s hair police who had labeled Madam Walker an enemy of the state. What they didn’t know is that Madam Walker’s first products—a vegetable shampoo and an ointment with sulfur—were designed to heal scalp disease and promote hair growth. The myth that Madam Walker had invented the hot comb was not true.

When Madam Walker—and her primary competitor, Annie Malone—revolutionized hair care for black women a century ago, most Americans lacked indoor plumbing and electricity. Needless to say, hygiene in those days was very different than it is today. A weekly bath was a luxury. Because most women washed their hair less than once a month, many were going bald.  

If we can accept the notion that she meant “kinky” descriptively rather than pejoratively, we can take the leap that she envisioned where we are today. We have not reconciled the contradictions, and we probably never will. We all know about the lawsuits that arose when airlines and hotels fired employees because their hair was too “ethnic.” What’s just as bad—and really heartbreaking and outrageous—is knowing that at least one black sorority chapter, a business school at a historically black college and a major black employer have banned some natural hairstyles in the past. 

Still, I am encouraged by the example Michelle Obama is setting in the White House. I love seeing Malia and Sasha alternate between twists, braids and blow-dried styles. I love knowing that the first lady is secure enough in her own skin to let her daughters express themselves and experiment with their hair. I love reading blogs on which today’s self-appointed hair police are outnumbered by the posts from people who think it’s just fine for Mrs. Obama to wear her hair however she chooses 

Behind all the positive hair messaging, I suspect that Mrs. Obama and her girls endure the same hair battles that play out in black homes every morning. Every child’s hair, after all, is a combination of the hair of all her ancestors. And every morning those ancestors demand attention and respect.  

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