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Black women speak volumes with their hair

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  • Black women speak volumes with their hair

    Tressed for success

    By Vanessa E. Jones, Globe Staff | December 15, 2005

    Hair has always been a tantalizing obsession for black women.

    Photographer Michael Cunningham (who previously worked on the popular book ''Crowns," filled with portraits of African-American women and their stunning Sunday hats) and author George Alexander explore that obsession in their new photo essay book, ''Queens." The message they came away with after interviewing more than 100 women for the project -- 50 make it into the book -- is that there are multifaceted meanings in the way women wear their hair. As Alexander writes: ''Hair is about identity, beauty, racial pride, race politics, self-acceptance, self-expression, self-realization, class, status, fun, glamour, romance, fantasy, art, passion, joy, pain, freedom, enslavement, power.

    ''Hair can be all those things and more."

    Perhaps that explains why Cunningham and Alexander aren't the only ones mining hair for cultural enjoyment these days. In the space of a year, two feature films -- last year's ''Hair Show" and this year's ''Beauty Shop" -- have delved into the goings-on at African-American beauty salons. And just before winning an Oscar in 2002, actress Halle Berry announced her plan to produce a movie version of ''Nappily Ever After," the best-selling novel about the drama that occurs when a relaxed-haired sister decides to chop off her straight tresses and wear it short and naturally curly.

    But as many African-American women know, hair is not only cultural, it's political. Pop culture often sends a message to black women with tightly curled hair that their coarse, kinky strands aren't socially or culturally acceptable. It's in the way naturally curly ''American Idol" contestants turn into straight-haired divas before getting the boot. It's in the way the most popular hip-hop and R&B videos showcase an array of women with cascading curly or straight hair but rarely devote time to ladies with short, natural hair.

    The interviews in ''Queens" show where the fault lines lie. Thoundia Bickham, who proudly sports a huge, curly 'fro reminiscent of the activist Angela Davis, says, ''When there are chemicals in my hair to make it straight, I feel weaker. I feel like I'm trying to be somewhat white, but I'm really just trying to control my hair." For Kathryn Flowers, a real estate agent, wearing straight hair is more about personal taste than politics: ''I prefer the relaxed look; it's more convenient and gives you the freedom to switch up and do different things." One thing is certain, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder of the dance troupe Urban Bush Women, which created performances by interviewing women about their hair issues: ''When we brought people together to talk about hair, we always ended up talking about issues of race, class, and gender."

    Nearly two decades after Spike Lee's film ''School Daze" brought these hair wars out of the dirty laundry basket by showing relaxed and natural women singing the song ''Good and Bad Hair," tensions still exist between women who choose one texture or the other. But the women featured in ''Queens," as well as black women in the Boston area, contend that those anxieties are giving way to more laissez-faire attitudes. After all, women have been sporting natural locks off and on for decades, from the ''I'm black and I'm proud" Afros of the '60s and '70s to the dreadlocks of author Toni Morrison in the '90s to the cornrows singer Alicia Keys repopularized this decade.

    ''Whatever works for you," says Traci Little, a Milton-based marketing entrepreneur in her early 40s who wore braids in high school and college but now prefers relaxed tresses. ''Whatever looks good. Whatever is easiest to manage. That's the whole thing."

    But ''Queens" author Alexander cautions during a recent telephone interview that those permissive feelings may also be a polite nod to political correctness. ''I don't think anybody wants to go on the record saying, 'I have good hair and those other girls over there, they don't have it,' " Alexander says.

    There's no doubt, however, that those words still get bandied about. Meredith Wright, who breezes into Salon Monet on Newbury Street every Thursday to have her hair washed, conditioned, blow-dried, and straightened with a flat iron, remembers hearing praise about her thick, naturally curly tresses.

    ''I'd get 'good hair' [comments] all the time," says Wright, 23, the daughter of an African-American mother and a Puerto Rican father. ''When I was [living] in Miami, I met a lot of girls from the [Caribbean] islands, [who'd say], 'Oh your hair is so nice.' I was like, 'I don't think that at all.' I get 'good hair' comments, but I have a lot [of it]."

    When Robin Hamilton, cohost of UPN38's ''The Morning Show," arrived in Boston in 2001, she found an upscale salon, which at her request will remain unnamed, to relax her hair. The stylists would often tell her, '' 'Your hair is so coarse, it's so hard,' " says Hamilton. ''They wouldn't quite come out and say, 'bad,' which I was waiting for them to say."

    Shellee Mendes, owner of Salon Monet, has had both appellations hurled at her. She says that when she was growing up in Dorchester the reaction to her hair, which in its natural state forms tight curls, was ''not good. Where I grew up, it was the [housing] projects. People sit on the steps and talk about you."

    To keep Mendes's hair under control, her mother did her hair about once a week, a regimen of washing, detangling, blow-drying, and braiding. Never any chemical relaxers. In this tamed state, says Mendes, ''People said I had 'good' hair, but I never understood that because it hurt every time [it was done]. It was painful."

    Many of these women used relaxers to straighten their hair for the first time as teenagers. Kids are susceptible to subtle messages from TV, film, and magazines that say, in the area of hair, long and straight is great.

    ''In high school it was the thing having your hair relaxed," says Irene Simmons, whose soft, dark natural curls the thickness of a pencil are transformed into a layered, loose-curled look under Mendes's ministration. ''My girlfriend did my relaxer, she put [a super-strength product] in my hair." Unfortunately Simmons's baby fine hair fell out, forcing her to wear a scarf on her head for a year. ''That Loretta -- I won't forget her name," says Simmons, 48, still simmering at the memory.

    For UPN's Hamilton, the use of relaxer was a rite of passage in her Columbia, Md., household, which she describes as ''pretty conservative." When she was 13, she and her three sisters were sent to the salon by their mother for their first relaxers. ''I think because she was tired," Hamilton says, of braiding, straightening, and washing four little girls' heads.

    A similar exhaustion inspired Wright's mother to upgrade to a salon for her daughter's hair care after Wright turned 7.

    ''A lot of people would complain about pressing and blow-drying my hair," says the Salon Monet regular, rolling her eyes in annoyance. ''Shellee is the first person to do my hair without complaining."

    Those complaints are among the subtle ways society pressures women into getting their hair relaxed.

    ''When I actually walked into [salons], the looks that I got," says Wright, who previously lived in Atlanta, referring to stylists' negative reactions to her hair. ''In Atlanta it's natural to go natural rather than press it because of the [humid] weather. . . . Here, I definitely think most people have relaxers."

    One rather high-profile exception is Hamilton, who went from braids to a relaxed 'do to break into the broadcasting industry, where few black women wear their hair natural. Her decision to go natural came about as a result of frustration: Her hair kept falling out because of relaxer damage, despite being conditioned twice a week.

    ''Finally, I said, 'I just can't do this anymore,' " says Hamilton.

    But this is the world of broadcast television, and such decisions don't come easily. First she got the approval of Julio Marenghi, president and general manager of CBS4 and UPN38. ''Some managers," says Hamilton, ''criticize you on the type of jacket you wear." Marenghi, however, told Hamilton to be herself. As the station prepared to launch ''The Morning Show," it brought in a Houston-based broadcasting consultant, Audrey Mansfield, who also gave Hamilton the OK, telling her, ''You can pull off the classy, ethnic thing. You don't want to look like everyone else."

    Hamilton went on with her naturally curly hair a few weeks after the show began airing in April. Although Mendes and Simmons speak of Hamilton admiringly as the ''sister with the natural hair," the response to Hamilton's curly strands from other viewers wasn't always pleasant.

    ''Some people were freaked out by it," says Hamilton. ''People here [at work], too. . . . A few people here said, 'It looks like Robin stuck her fingers in a socket.' I was like, 'OK, whatever.' It does take a certain amount of strength, because I don't look like anybody else in my newsroom anyway, besides Liz Walker [of sister station CBS4]. So [it was difficult] for me to do something to make myself stand out even more."

    For now, she's keeping her hair options open, mentioning that she may go straight again for variety's sake. If she can find a good local stylist.

    ''It's nice to know," says Hamilton, ''that you can do it on your terms."
    One House But Different Rooms..

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