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Chris Rock takes on black hair pathology in the documentary 'Good Hair'

This piece is currently running on Salon today as I sit in for Glenn Greenwald, but I thought I’d share it here…

Longtime readers of the Blend know that I’ve taken on the subject of the politics of black hair (or to be precise, kinky hair) several times, commenting on the travails of black women who are culturally addicted to “creamy crack” —  the horrid, toxic relaxers used to chemically straighten hair. It’s all in order to avoid any natural naps showing at the root, and the billion-dollar industry that caters to this beauty choice based on loathing the natural texture of one’s hair that has roots back to the days of slavery and the definition of what is “good hair.”

Lots of people were interested in these posts, others pooh-poohed the notion that the politics of hair had any significance in "post-racial America" or reflected any socio-pathologies that needed to be addressed. In the black community, it's almost taboo to discuss the issue, and, quite frankly, I am grateful that the brilliant Chris Rock has written and stars in the documentary "Good Hair" directed by Jeff Stilson (co-writers are Jeff Stilson, Lance Crouther and Chuck Sklar). If there's any way to break down the walls of silence to discuss this topic with candor, Rock can do it.

An exposé of comic proportions that only Chris Rock could pull off, GOOD HAIR visits beauty salons and hairstyling battles, scientific laboratories and Indian temples to explore the way hairstyles impact the activities, pocketbooks, sexual relationships, and self-esteem of the black community. Director Jeff Stilson follows Chris Rock on this raucous adventure prompted by Rock's daughter approaching him and asking, "Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?" Haircare professionals, beautyshop and barbershop patrons, as well as celebrities including Ice-T, Nia Long, Paul Mooney, Raven Symoné, Dr. Maya Angelou, Salt n Pepa, Eve and Reverend Al Sharpton all candidly offer their stories and observations to Rock while he struggles with the task of figuring out how to respond to his daughter's question.

What can you say when Essence Magazine featured the Top Ten Celeb Hair Moments a couple of years ago and nine out of the 10 women selected had processed, straightened hair? Can you name many well-known black female celebrities who break the processed hair mold (aside from Whoopi Goldberg?). The images we see on film and TV affirm the misguided notion that there is less beauty to be found in naturally kinky hair.  And Essence, btw, is a magazine that actually does frequently contain images of black women in natural hairstyles — the editors obviously didn't have a lot of high-profile black actresses or singers to select from.  The lye is a hard habit to break.

“I tell my daughters I love them 70 times a day,” [Rock] says. “I hug them and I kiss them – I'm that kind of dad. To hear my daughter did not like something about herself when I'm telling her she's beautiful every single minute of the day really had me thinking about hair again. “She was only five at the time,” he continues, “and she was already having concerns about her hair – she's already having hair envy. I felt I needed to understand more deeply how these issues are related: African-American women and their hair. And then I remembered the idea for a documentary.”

…“In our world, the issues of beauty and conformity run very deep – and men don?t always understand how truly deep those issues go for women,” says executive producer Nelson George. “It reaches all women: Asian, Hispanic, black, and white.” And for black women, the issue can be incredibly polarizing, affecting other areas of their lives – there's a segment in the film where men discuss not ever having touched their wives' hair. “One thing we didn't really know when we started,” says George, “was how deeply we would get into this whole question of black men and women, and the financial considerations and intimacy issues that evolve with taking care of a woman's hair. That was something we discovered – literally, Chris is amazed on screen to touch a black woman's hair AND REALIZES HOW LOADED THAT MOMENT IS. That's the moment it hit him.

The film really builds on this issue of intimacy and how something like hair can affect how people love each other.” One of the most revealing questions raised in the film is summed up by actress Tracie Thoms, one of Good Hair's interviewees. Thoms has chosen to wear her hair “natural,” but she admits how strong her conviction must be to keep it that way. “There are so many pressures to straighten your hair. To keep my hair the same texture as it grows out of my head is looked at as revolutionary. Why is that?”

My hair story below the fold.Full freedom for me finally came when I decided in the 90s to toss out the relaxer and cut the dry damaged hair off. I wore a short natural for several years.  I began the process of growing locs in November 2000, a style I wear today. Free from the burning hot comb sizzling my scalp, curling irons, flat irons or other instruments of hair torture. I talked about this when I was interviewed for a documentary about the politics of hair back in 2005.

The status quo is still straightened hair, even though we see more natural styles in vogue now.  Black women are unfortunately still chastised by family and significant others not to 1) cut their hair or 2) let it be kinky. It’s one of those “dirty laundry” matters that people don’t want to discuss openly, but when you have such poisonous, enabled self-loathing, it needs sunlight upon it. Look at this ad. It implies that the woman got the job because her hair was chemically straightened. The self-loathing is so culturally ingrained, so pathological — there is nothing wrong with our hair, but nearly every signal received by the dominant culture is that it needs to be “corrected.”

Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding