Hair Story by Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps
Everyone has their own hair story. Mine focuses largely on attempting to maintain length without it developing sentience and killing me in the dead of night (that’s barely a joke; I’ve woken up several times in my life with my hair wrapped around my neck), seeing how long I can go without highlights before my natural hair color starts bothering me, and the occasional empty threat of shaving my head. (Hey, there could be a treasure map back there. How else will I know?) But for black women and especially for African-American women, their hair stories are complex, often painful, and always political. Fairly late in Hair Story, Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps quote the screenwriter Lisa Jones: “Everything I know about American history I learned from looking at Black people’s hair. it’s the perfect metaphor for the African experiment here: the toll of slavery and the costs of remaining. It’s all in the hair” (158).
The politics of “good” hair and “bad” hair have been in the media as of late, with Gabby Douglas and even Queen Bey’s firstborn questioned for the supposedly “unprofessional” state of their hair. It can be easy for white audiences to feel like they have a basic handle on it, but, as Byrd and Tharps point out, Chris Rock’s highly visible documentary Good Hair doesn’t bring in any historical context for the subject at hand, especially the effect of slavery and Reconstruction on African-American attitudes towards black and white hair. Instead, these two authors walk the reader from traditional African hairstyles to black entrepeneurs like Madam C. J. Walker to the Black Power movement to white people adopting traditionally black hairstyles, among many others. While each chapter can sometimes feel like its own article, Hair Story offers a long lens on the history of black hair.
Very often, when I review a nonfiction book, I feel like I simply regurgitate the most fascinating and interesting bits that I’ve learned in an attempt to spread the joy. But a lot of what I’ve learned in Hair Story is about the mechanics of kinky hair. Oohing and aahing over it is not the right tack to take at all in this situation. I haven’t discovered something new, only something that is not represented at all in the media landscape of a culture that valorizes, glamorizes, and practically worships long and straight hair. I see women performing my hair story in media all the time—bristling with highlighting foils, throwing their hair into a messy bun. But a scene where a woman twists her new growth into her current locks while talking to a friend is nigh inaccessible in mainstream media.
And that’s ultimately what Hair Story strikes me as—an intriguing visibility raising exercise, which is, really, what every attempt at a historical record is. But this history is more necessary than some. Late in the book, Byrd and Tharps encounter a college student who recalls a girl from college who had no idea at all how to tend to black hair. Raised by a white mother, she had never been exposed to black hair culture, and the college student took it upon herself to teach her the methods and options that are usually passed down from mother to daughter. Hair Story is both for nonblack audiences seeking to educate themselves about black hair (like myself) and for black readers unaware (for whatever reason) of the massive role the black hair community has played in African-American history.
After all, haircare was—and still is—a way for black women to support themselves, from Madam C. J. Walker’s door-to-door saleswomen to African immigrants offering their braiding skills to African-American women seeking natural styles. Black haircare companies traditionally take on the role of philanthropist, giving back to the community generously. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that a majority of the products they provided in the past focused on creating “good” straight hair, to the point that the popularization of the low maintenance afro in the sixties and seventies left many of these companies scrambling to produce products for natural hairstyles.
Byrd and Tharps end with the curious phenomenon of the deracialization of black hair, as they feature a hair care professional who refuses to talk hair in terms of ethnicity, only in terms of texture. Personally, I see some good in a focus on texture—all black hair is not the same, after all, and I’ve seen my curly-headed friends of all ethnicities use a texture focus to help them care for their hair. But it also reminds me of the tempting lie of the post-racial society: history casts a much longer shadow than we think.
Bottom line: While Byrd and Tharps’ chapters sometimes feel like they’re meant to be standalone, Hair Story is an accessible and fascinating look into the history of black hair in America. If you’re interested.
I read this book on NetGalley.