The issue of African-American hair is difficult and complex. Throughout our years in this country it has been used to scorn and belittle us. Given the long duration of this oppression it’s not surprising that many of us have absorbed this disdain for our hair texture and seek to impose this tyranny on others. bell hooks, author of Happy to Be Nappy and dozens of other books, talks about traditions and behaviors in the African-American community that are holdovers from slavery and Jim Crow. Many of these cultural adaptations, while necessary then, are damaging and downright dangerous now. Most assuredly this notion that little girls should have their hair subdued into an “acceptable” standard is one of them. Many of these hairstyles can take hours; hours that are utter torture to most children. What could be more damaging to a little girl’s self-esteem than the notion that her hair is so “bad” it must be “styled” into traction alopecia?
For too long little black girls have been told we can’t swim, can’t play in the sand box, can’t get caught in the rain for fear that our hair would “revert.” Our lives are a never-ending series of can’ts. Many of these are downright dangerous: black children drown at substantially higher rates than others, and we struggle with an obesity epidemic that is directly attributable to lack of exercise. How many black women don’t work out for fear that their hair will “revert”? We are told that we don’t have wash-and-go hair, when in fact we do as long as we don’t expect to look like a Breck Girl afterward, and why should we? God forbid that anyone should see our hair in its natural, free state. African-textured hair is puffy and billowy. It fluffs. It blows free in the breeze like cotton candy, and it is just as sweet. Instead of making our hair some type of bondage to conformity, why can we not celebrate it for the unique confection that it is?
Rather than trying to force Zahara Jolie-Pitt into some box of what it means to be an African-American girl, can we not accept her as who she is? She is a little black girl who has white parents; her experience will be different, as will that of many other little African-American girls. She is one little girl, and a privileged one at that. What about the countless little black girls out there being tortured every day in the name of hair submission? We’ve all seen the notorious “Nappy Ass Hair” video on You Tube. I submit that what is being done to that child is far more damaging than the fact that the Jolie-Pitts take Zahara out with bed head.
What we’ve been doing for generations has resulted in millions of black women with “hair issues.” Isn’t it time that we tried something else? We can perpetuate the madness that currently exists, or we can address the issue and try to rectify it. Is it possible that seeing Zahara Jolie-Pitt and other little black girls for whom hair is just hair can help us get over this insanity? If nothing else, we’ll have at least one little black girl who is free.
Holcomb's latest book is Morning Star.