In 1980, I was working for an attorney here in Chicago, a sole practitioner, as his paralegal. He had only one other employee, a secretary, a white woman. She was married, with a couple of kids, and my age. Two or three times a week, we would make the two-block walk together to the Daley Center (courthouse) to file cases, to copy documents, whatever. We’d worked together for about a year and became friends, at least between 9 to 5.
One morning as we walked to the courthouse, out of the blue she said, “Herb, can I ask you something?”
“Sure, Sally,” (not her real name), I said. “What’s up?”
“Well…Herb…why do black women put that red shit in their hair?” she said. “I mean, it’s not like…like everybody knows that black people don’t have natural red hair.”
I was taken aback – for just a second. The question was “out of the blue” because Sally and I had never, ever talked about any really important issues -- "race" or feminism, for example. We knew our boss was a staunch "Regular" Democrat, who supported the "Regular Democratic Party." So to keep things at an even keel, and to keep our jobs, we usually only talked about the latest movie...or the weather. However, Chicago had in 1978 just gone through the “trauma” of electing its first woman mayor, Jane Byrne, and the issue of gender politics...gender in general, was now unavoidable.
I kind of slowed my step, then continued walking next to her.
“Well,” I began, “I guess it’s ‘cause they think it ‘looks good.’”
She looked at me, and said, “Oh…okay. I was just wondering.”
This is not a piece about the “politics” of hair, black hair or any other color of hair. I will not venture into the “statement” that we were trying to make back in the ‘60s with our giant Afros and naturals. But, we made our point.
In 1980, the movie “10” was the top box office hit in Chicago and around the country. That flick's star was a svelte, lily white Bo Derek sporting….corn rolls.
Sally would not relent. “I mean,” she said, “most white women would kill to look like some black women. Don’t black women know that?”
A few years later, the black movie director, par excellance, Spike Lee, regaled us all with a movie called “School Daze,” in which the question of “black hair” was explored. Lee’s mostly female characters took all sides of the “hair” question, finally coming down on the side of do-your-own-thing, if not “Do The Right Thing.”
Admittedly, my answer to Sally's question was lame, even stupid. I simply was not prepared to answer a white woman's question about black women and their hair. Had I been so prepared...had I known or anticipated her question, I would have told her about how as a boy I watched my mother “hot comb” and chemicalize my sisters’ hair every Saturday morning. How my sisters sometimes screamed in pain during the process. I would also have told her about the first female millionaire (black, white or otherwise) in the United States, Madame C.J. Walker out of Indianapolis. Way back, over 100 years ago in the 1910s, Walker made her money, independent of any man, by inventing….the hot comb. Black women nationwide made her the Oprah of her day.
Last year I wrote a piece about the imbroglio between Drs. Cornel West and Melissa Harris-Perry. (VoxUnion.com and DissidentVoice.org). I detailed how theirs was basically a philosophical and ideological difference when it came down to support for President Obama. I explained how, in my view, both of them made valid points about the president, and that their dispute was actually healthy in terms of getting black people to take a clear-eyed look at this president.
Most of the comments about that article had to do not with anything I just said above, but with the fact that Harris-Perry had switched from straightened hair to braids. And those comments came most from…black women.
In an interview on CNN airing on Saturday, Spike Lee raises a couple of interesting questions. It’s been since 1988 when “School Daze” was out, right? We did the black hair thing then. How many years ago was that? And we’re still talking about it?
Spike went deep, though, on Gabby Douglass’ hair. Who’s criticizing or even commenting on her hair, he asked? It’s not white women. It is not white men. And, it ain’t the brothers.