Black Hair (Part 1): It’s Political

Sheryl Underwood was not a name I was familiar with until a few days ago. I did not even know that she was black when I first read about the comments she made on American National TV, basically saying that Afro hair is disgusting, and nobody wants it. I initially thought “that’s an ignorant thing for a white woman to say”. I was not overly shocked. I assumed that being a white woman, Sheryl was not accustomed to Afro hair, and by calling it “nappy”, she was expressing in her own way her perception of how it was very different to her own straight hair (so I wrongly thought).

Then I was surfing YouTube and came across a video that had the footage of Ms Underwood making the remarks on the show “The Talk”. To my absolute horror, I discovered that Sheryl Underwood is a black woman. My jaw literally hit the floor!  How could a black woman make such remarks about her own type of hair?

She has since issued an apology which is good to hear (though I do not accept that she was misconstrued, seeing as she clearly makes a distinction between “curly nappy beads” and “beautiful long silky hair” of white people) but I’m not so concerned about her apologising. I don’t say that because I’m outraged at her, and feel that an apology won’t suffice. Rather, I’m saddened for her. I’m saddened that this 49 year old woman, who would no doubt have memories of an America only just forced to abandon a society of segregation, has through her life’s experiences and understanding of what is acceptable, come to the conclusion that Afro hair is undesirable.

It’s a very sad thing that Sheryl should feel that way, but I can just imagine why. Would America accept the First Lady if she were to leave her Afro hair as it is? How readily available are images in the media of black women with afro hair? I suspect that all her life, Sheryl has been taught that Afro hair is unacceptable, and she has come to believe it. In a shameful way, there is no satisfactory answer to the question she posed “who would want to save Afro hair?” or simply put: “who wants  Afro hair?”

Michell Obama

The fashion houses don’t appear to want it. That’s why you have a supermodel like Naomi Campbell (one of the rare success stories amongst black models) with no hairline left, because she has been forced to wear styles that hide her Afro hair, for decades. A friend of mine who models, was once axed from a job because the stylists on the shoot could not work with her “Afro hair”.

naomi campbell bald

Hollywood and TV producers do not seem to want it. When a black actress does appear in a film, you can just bet she’ll be wearing a wig or a weave. And it’s not always because that is how the actress would wear her hair anyway. I’ve read interviews of some black actresses who would prefer to wear their hair natural, but have to put in a weave in order to get the part.

The printed and televised media don’t want Afro hair either. Even on the front cover of black hair magazines, you’re more likely than not to see the model wearing a European weave or wig. Black newscasters who air on various news stations (with the exception of Al Jazeera), all have their Afro hair tucked away, or chemically processed away, out of sight.

It’s not fair to direct anger at Sheryl alone. We should question the society we live in that seems to dictate that Afro hair should not be seen. I am very encouraged though, that more and more often now, I see black women daring to bare their natural hair. I know that women wear their hair natural for all kinds of reasons, and many are not seeking to make a political statement by doing so. However I can’t help but feel that with every woman that starts to go to work, especially in the corporate field, with natural hairstyles, it takes down another brick in the wall that stands in the face of black women being free to be who they are, without fear of judgment.

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