Chris Rock’s new documentary on black hair has got me waxing all nostalgic.
Growing up I didn’t go to the barbershop much. We had a barber’s chair in our basement–eventually it was in my room–and my dad had the tradition of cutting all of his sons’ hair. Albeit most of my haircuts took place as I sat in that elevated chair, the cultural reality of black hair was very profound in my life.
As a young boy, I often went with my mother to Vera’s. Vera’s was where my mom got her hair did (done). The smells of SuperGro, Afro-Sheen, hair dryers, and hot combs still permeate my mind with memories of eavesdropping on conversations. Whether it was Mom and Vera, Vera and another customer, or a conglomerate of black voices, Vera’s was always a happenin’ place. For many of the women it was their time to gather, their sewing club, their town square.
As I aged, I styled my way through a variety of hair situations–though now being a professional it behooves me to keep it short. I had fades, flattops, zig zags, waves, cornrows, close shaves, and an Afro. My favorite of these was the Afro. Although my hair grows a little crooked, which was frustrating because I constantly had to trim my ‘fro in order for my head to be even, I loved caring for my hair.
Every so often, I would wake up early to wash my hair with a hodgepodge of chemicals and then use the hot comb and iron to straighten my hair. I couldn’t do this every day because, as most black folks know, washing black hair daily can be a very bad thing – especially in hard water. However, I loved those mornings. There was both a scent and a sense of genuine Afro-centricity present in the air, an expression of blackness that permeated my house.
Although I loved my Afro, I also loved to get my hair did (done). It’s easy to view this as a tedious activity, but sitting for hours and having someone cornrow and/or braid your hair is one of the most enjoyable things one can do. Not because of the activity itself–who likes getting their hair pulled?–but because of the community that forms around sitting on the block or in a room, crackin’ jokes, catching up, or just being together. I will always remember my mother helping me with my hair. It was a time for us to talk. A special time between a mother and son. A time to just be.
Which brings me back to Chris Rock. The comedian’s documentary,, has garnered a lot of praise since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. At first glance Good Hair sounds as if it is an examination of the classifications of one’s hair as good or not. This usage of good hair spawns from generations of prejudice and the reluctance in seeing black as beautiful. Good hair, the thinking goes, is straight, smooth, and appears more European. In juxtaposition, having curly, kinky, nappy hair that appears more African (and, the thinking goes, unsophisticated) is not considered good — just in case I need to clarify, most black women style their hair to make it have the “straight” look. The conversation around what this means for the self-esteem of black folks, especially black women, has historically been loaded with controversy and emotion.
Good Hair touches on these themes, but it focuses much more on the culture and commerce of black hair rather than the complexities over the context of good hair.
The culture surrounding black hair is fascinating. There are various styles, opinions, and classifications of the hair of sun-kissed peoples. African American hair styles are perhaps some of the best examples of individual artistry. From the weave (both colored and not) and elaborate plats and cornrows, to dreadlocks and perms (which make black hair straight, not curly), black hair is anything but dull.
Good Hair takes the hair culture–good, bad, and tragic–displayed in the Barbershop movies and Beauty Shop and expands it into an exploratory documentary. It brings the sights, sounds, and smells of black hair–of my childhood–to the screen so that all might understand that black hair is good hair.
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