With the natural-hair movement in full swing, there have been many productive conversations about the political and social expectations placed on black women’s natural hair. These conversations seem to center on the assumptions about black women who choose to “go natural” instead of chemically straightening their hair or wearing weaves, and their involvement in “the movement” (whichever presumed cause that may be).
Since it is perceived that women make up the majority of people using chemical relaxers or wearing straight weaves, these forums are mostly female focused and linked to the overall policing of black women’s bodies. We rarely include men in these discussions, even though black men have been using chemicals to straighten their natural texture since the 1920s.
“The conk,” named from a shortened form of congolene, the mixture used to straighten hair, was a popular black hairstyle for decades. This very painful process gave us the slicked-back styles and pompadours that we love in retro images. But starting in the ’60s, both men and women began to process their hair less and wear natural Afros. There was a connection to the change in the political climate at that time and the culturewide embracing of natural hair. Our hair is political, and shirking conformity and social expectation spoke volumes.
Malcolm X details in his autobiography the very first time he conked his natural red hair. Trying to avoid the steep price of getting it done in the barbershop, he followed a homemade recipe for the scalp-burning mixture that could cause open sores if left on for even a second too long. He describes the first time he looked in the mirror and felt himself admiring the change in his hair texture, how he later recognized that this was his first step to self-degradation. Malcolm had fallen into believing that we must alter ourselves to reach the accepted superiority of whiteness. With a willingness to burn his scalp off to achieve this status, he maintained this hairstyle until he joined the Nation of Islam (where processed hair was banned).
Malcolm attributed straightened hair to self-hate and shame; he concluded that once a black man discovers self-pride, he will learn that there is a connection between his mental state and his decision to embrace his natural appearance. He may have subconsciously wanted to conform to white standards of beauty when deciding to process his hair, but choosing to stop was a very conscious decision connected to his political views.
In an interview for Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair, the Rev. Al Sharpton stated that the black community “wears our economic oppression on our heads.” He was referring to the billion-dollar industry that caters mostly to people of color, while Asian manufacturers reap the majority of the profits. Sharpton has been wearing straightened hairstyles since James Brown forced him to during his days of managing the artist. Processing hair was the norm during that time (especially in the entertainment industry), but it’s interesting that Sharpton stuck with the hairstyle even after political views of black people shifted in relation to hair.
Not to discredit any of the work Sharpton has accomplished, but he is often the butt of jokes in the black community. After he received the Humanitarian Award from BET in 2012, social media lit up with comments about Sharpton’s hair. Many users joked that his hair is the reason they can’t take him seriously. Given the public’s different reception to entertainers like Miguel, Prince and Brown, it’s clear that the main difference with Sharpton has been his line of work. Processed, straightened hair and pro-black sentiments don’t seem to fit together in our current political space. Whether we intend to or not, deciding to allow textured hair to grow out of our heads has always been a political statement. There is a message that comes with bucking conformity and deciding to embrace textured hair, even if we wish it could just be a simple surface aspect of our identity.
I’ve heard many comments that black hair should just be personal; it should be about the person wearing it, without all of these public assumptions and opinions. Unfortunately, black identities have been up for discussion in this country since many of our ancestors came here. Choosing to conform (or not) to a standard that doesn’t accept or celebrate our natural appearance will always make a statement, even if it’s not one we agree with or desire.
I’m sure we have all seen versions of Marcus Garvey’s quote concerning the straightening of black hair: “Don’t remove the kinks from your hair. Remove them from your brain.” It is recorded that this quote came after Garvey refused to run ads for skin lighteners and hair straighteners in his newspaper, Negro World. The tug-of-war between personal choice and public perception is a tale as old as time for most people of color. Even for men, there is a sense that textured hair is linked to enlightenment—that once you discover the oppressive link between desiring European features and hating blackness, you will want to free your strands, and mind, from that dangerous (and painful) process.