Good Hair vs. Bad Hair - A Look At Hair In America

One of the many things that I did during my healing process and while I was away from a corporate desk, was openly speaking about racism in the Dominican community. I did the work and didn't care to promote or even tell others. Now that I am not socially awkward and actually enjoying media again, I'd like to share with you all a very special afternoon in Harlem.

Last year, I was asked to speak at a student led panel at Cristo Rey High School in East Harlem. The Know Your Roots Club hosted "Good Hair vs. Bad Hair", a panel discussion among students and professionals on the perception and root of the term "bad hair". Panelists included Cristo Rey Counselor Virgina Valerio, two students and myself. The conversation started by watching a presentation that shared with us important event that correlate with the history of 'black hair'. Some of the big takeaways for me included this timeline:

  • 1444: Europeans trade on the West Coast of Africa with people locks, plaits, twists
  • 1619: Grooming hair techniques start to disappear, slaves heads begin to get shaved, forced to wear rags to cover their hair
  • 1700's: Black hair is called wool
  • 1865: good hair becomes a pre-requisite to enter churches, schools, social groups and business networks
  • 1900: Black Hair industry is born. Madame CJ Walker popularizes press and curl technique
  • 1963: Actress Cicely Tyson wears cornrows on the television drama “East Side/West Side”

  • 1970: Angela Davis becomes an icon of Black Power with her large Afro

  • 1988: Spike Lee exposes the good hair/bad hair + light-skinned/dark-skinned schism in Black America in his movie “School Daze”

Is the natural hair movement tearing us apart or bringing us closer together?

A question left everyone in the room in deep thought.

During this portion of the conversation we revisited a thought provoking scene in Spike Lee's 1988 flick "School Daze" (Photo: Above Right). This musical scene titled Good and Bad Hair reviews the debilitating stereotypes and or profiles that black women today still face. The sorority Gamma Rays portrayed light skin black women with big curly or straight hair, while their rivals (non-greeks) were represented with dark skin and tightly coiled and kinky hair. Playing into the stereotypes of natural hair and colorism, Lee portrayed the jigaboos as political, socially conscious, and militant, while the wannabes were viewed as fake and trying to be white.

I believe that our differences in hair lifestyles influence how we perceive ourselves. Having previously worked in black media for a number of years, I witnessed women's insecurities play out when it comes to hair and colorism.  I was constantly in positions where I had to defend and validate my experiences as a Dominican-American woman who decided to radically go natural over 10 years ago. I too have felt like School Daze amongst my own people and my previous colleagues. I also have close friends who attended HBCU's (historically black colleges and universities) and attested to modern day experiences just like Spike Lee had outlined. An alarming sign of all room we have to grow and de-program ourselves.

I don't see my friends who straighten their hair all the time as less than or as sell outs - I do see it as them not wanting to patiently deal with a part of themselves. I straighten my hair a few times a year to switch it up, NOT to attempt to make myself feel beautiful. My decision to wear natural hair stems from my love of the African Diaspora, my ancestors and my personal idea of beauty. This is not the case for everyone as many times I've been judged by members in my own family for deciding to wear my hair curly vs. straight. The comments and energy that I have received have affected some of the relationships that I once had with people I care about. I have also been asked by Dominican children (usually between 5-8 year old) why I don't straighten my hair? A question that hurts me every time because I know it is a reflection of that child's family and their perspectives on color. 

I would have revisited this conversation had it not been for the high school student I spent my day with. It's amazing to dialogue with the youth who cares for truth and who critically examine who we are and where we have been. The Know Your Roots Club at Cristo Rey High School currently holds a reputation for Black and Latino students going natural. The history of coarse and curly hair has become a focal point for students to learn more about their identity and their roots. I was highly impressed at the extensive research that the students did to present to their classmates. It was also refreshing to meet young students that care about these deep issues early on. Their mission statement alone is an indication of the future of my people:

Know Your Roots is dedicated to the empowerment, self-identity and resilience of young people of color. We reject conforming to Eurocentric standards of beauty that strip us of our identity, and instead honor our hair as a symbol of our unity through the diversity of ethnicity and culture.  We want to guide young men and women out of self-hate and insecurity, and strive to discover our true selves as we plant the seeds of awareness and fearless confidence.

Good hair or bad hair is a matter of opinion. There's no such thing. Love your fro my loves, or nobody will.