Hair is an important issue in the black community, getting way beyond the level of attention that people of other ethnicities give it. I first became aware of this fact a long time ago back in Sri Lanka as a student when I first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964). As a young man of the streets, he adopted the then common practice of ‘conking’ (straightening his hair) and he vividly describes his first experience. As he became radicalized he decided that this attempt to adopt the hair styling of white people was a symbol of how much black people had internalized their sense of inferiority and subservience and he went back to his natural look. The 1960’s was probably the high point of black acceptance of their natural hair. Nowadays it seems like the black community, especially women, has gone back to accepting straight hair and to even see it as desirable. One wonders what Malcolm X would have thought about this development.
I had not paid much attention to this question until I saw the documentary Good Hair (2009) last week. It is produced by comedian Chris Rock who acts as the viewer’s guide through the incredibly complex world of hair products and styles aimed at the black community. Rock said his interest in this topic was piqued when one of his very young daughters came to him one day and asked him why she did not have ‘good’ hair. In searching for an answer, he and his film crew explored the economics, psychology, and sociology of the hair business and its users and it is a fascinating journey.
One way to get ‘good’ (i.e., straight) hair is to simply straighten it. I was vaguely aware that this involved the use of some chemicals but was stunned to learn that the main chemical in question in the ‘relaxers’ (as they are called) was sodium hydroxide. I recall almost nothing from my high school chemistry classes but one thing I do remember is being warned about how dangerous this chemical was (it even goes by the name ‘caustic soda’, which should be warning enough) and to avoid any contact with skin. And here were people regularly and routinely putting it on their heads.
Rock does not shy away from pointing out the dangers, having many of the people he interviews describe the pain of the process. They report that is produces an excruciating burning sensation and that if it is not washed off in time can result in serious scalp burns. If it gets into the eye it can cause blindness. To emphasize the dangers, Rock has a scientist put a few drops of it on a piece of supermarket chicken and shows how it burns a hole through the skin and into the flesh. The scientist also keeps an aluminum soda can in a vat of sodium hydroxide and after a few hours the entire can had dissolved. But despite this, even the parents of children as young as three put this product on their heads.
As I watched this, my mind immediately connected it to the former practice of foot binding in China, in that this was another sign of the extreme burdens imposed on women by the demands of society. A group of young high school graduates said that they felt that a black woman with natural hair simply would not be taken seriously in the business world and would be at a strong disadvantage when it came to being hired at all. It seems bizarre that if a black woman lets her hair grow naturally, she is perceived to be making some sort of militant political statement. This may be a relic of 1960s attitudes.
The other process of getting ‘good’ hair is known as ‘weaving’ and this involves braiding the hair tightly onto the scalp, sewing a tight mesh onto the hair, and then sewing hair that has been bundled into thick strands onto it. This process is also quite painful but at least it avoids putting dangerous chemicals on the scalp. The downside is that it is expensive (running into thousands of dollars) because it has to be done by a professional and takes a long time to complete, almost a whole day. Furthermore, once you get a weave, you are quite restricted in your activities. Going to a steam room or swimming, or even getting your hair wet in the rain, are some of the things that are out of the question. You cannot let anyone touch your hair either.
Where does the hair in the weaves come from? It turns out that it comes mostly from India. Apparently when Hindu women make vows to their god, in return for the sought-for favor they have their heads shaved. Hair is a sign of vanity so shaving one’s head is a sign of one’s devotion, a willingness to sacrifice for god. This shaving happens at the Hindu temples in assembly line fashion with people lining up to get it done, a process known as ‘tonsure’. The hair that is cut is then collected by temple officials and sold to hair dealers, and one suspects that some religious leaders may be cynically exploiting the devotion and gullibility of believers to make a tidy profit by encouraging this practice and selling something that they are given for free. India has about a billion people and Rock says that about 85% of them have had their heads shaved at least twice in their lives. That is a lot of hair.
The hair dealers then clean and sort the hair into thick, long clumps (10-14 inches is about the desired length but the longer the better) that are then sealed in plastic packs and shipped off to the US. One Beverly Hills dealer who had a carry-on sized suitcase containing these packs of hair said that he could sell the whole lot in a few hours for about $10,000 to $15,000, which gives you some sense of the scale of the business. Some black women will spend enormous amounts of money on weaves and other hair products, even as they are struggling to pay the rent and utilities and buy food. The irony is that while the majority of customers who buy any kind of hair product are black (they purchase 80% of all hair products sold), the industry is owned and controlled by mostly white or Asian people.
The documentary spends quite a lot of time on the Bronner Brothers International Hair Show held in Atlanta. This is a huge extravaganza where vendors show off their latest products and it culminates in a contest in which four finalists compete to win the award for best stylist. But don’t think that this contest consists of people simply styling hair. It is more like performance art with elaborately costumed choreographed dancers on sets with lights and music and involves stunts like cutting hair while hanging upside down or underwater. It is quite an amazing thing to see.
The politics of hair is tricky and Rock has to walk a fine line. While he clearly wants his own daughters to take pride in the hair they were born with and not want to straighten it or add weaves, he avoids being judgmental about the people who have taken the other road. He wanders through the world of hair with a genial attitude and a bemused expression and gives the film a nice light touch.
This is an excellent documentary that I can strongly recommend. To people like me, it opened up a world that was all around me and yet of which I was almost completely unaware.
Here’s the trailer: