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Reflections on black beauty and hair

Posted: Monday, November 02, 2009

An open letter to African-American women: It's about the need to be beautiful, I know.

As goals go, that one is neither extraordinary nor gender-specific. But it's different for women, isn't it? A man's sense of self worth is seldom endangered by crow's feet. On him people will say they convey "character." On a woman, they convey wear.

And if it's different for women, it's different and then some for women like you, saddled not just with the need to be beautiful, but also with 400 years of racial baggage, 400 years of ginormous Jemimahs, shrill Sapphires, ugly Aunt Esthers and angry Angelas seared into the public mind, 400 years which say you "cannot" be beautiful if your lips are too proud, or your skin too dark or you don't take that nappy hair God gave you and make it look like the hair he gave somebody else.

As you may have guessed, our subject is "Good Hair," Chris Rock's new documentary on the industry of African-American hair care. The comedian has called it the "blackest" movie he's ever made. Truth is, it may well be the blackest movie "anybody's" ever made.

That's not to say other people would not get the jokes or the thesis: that in the search for "good hair" - i.e., hair that is straight and fine like white people's - black women burn their scalps with corrosive chemicals, buy thousand-dollar weaves on teachers' salaries, and support, according to Rock, a $9 billion industry of which black folks own virtually nothing.

But being black, having been inculcated with that sense of lowered worth they feed you right along with your strained peas, will enable you to nod knowingly when Rock recounts the moment one of his young daughters asked him why she doesn't have "good hair." It will allow you to laugh in recognition when women describe the elaborate rituals of protecting their hair once it has been straightened or weaved. It will require you to wince in pain when Rock tries to sell black hair at a weave shop (weaves are often human hair from India) and is refused because "nobody" wants that kinky African stuff.

The very notion of "good hair" springs from that same wellspring of self-denigration that offers the N-word as a fraternal greeting and once filled our newspapers with ads for skin-lightening creams. It suggests the difficulty of loving oneself when one uses as a yardstick of worth another culture's physical standards. As in an old episode of "M-A-S-H" where a Korean boy wanted the doctors to fix his eyes and make them look "American."

But of course, there was nothing at all wrong with his eyes. And "good hair" - I preached this to my curly-haired son who grew up mystified that his hair fascinated so many people - is any hair that covers your head.

Unfortunately, saying this is like shouting in a hurricane. A million media images tell us beauty looks like Paris Hilton - and "only" that.

So go on, sister, do what you do. I ain't mad at'cha. But neither am I fooled by your chemicals and weaves.

I am your brother, your father, your husband and your son. I've seen you in church with big hats on, giving children the evil eye. And at the jail on visiting day, shoring up that wayward man. And at the bus stop in the rain on your way to work. And at the dining table with pen and paper, working miracles of money. When I was a baby, you nursed me, when we were children, I chased you through the house; when we were dating, I missed half the movie, stealing sugar from you. I saw you born; I took you to your prom; I glowed with pride when you went off to school. I have married you and buried you. I love your smile. A million times, you took my breath away.

You are the rock and salvation of our people, the faith that remains when all hope is gone. So if it's about the need to be beautiful, maybe it's time somebody told you:

You already are. You always were.

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpittsmiamiherald.com. Leonard Pitts will be chatting with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT on www.MiamiHerald.com.



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