Every African-American woman has a story. In fact, we might want to refer to it as a “hair-story” in the context of this article. As little girls, we remember the transformation of our family kitchen or living room into a beauty parlor in order to get our hair done and rake through the “root” of our hair-itage . Generally taking place for hours on a Saturday, we endured the pulling, tugging and manipulation of our hair and scalp as mothers, grandmothers, sisters and others worked on our “DO” aka hairstyle.
Depending on the era in which you grew up, your hair might have been parted, greased and braided. For others, the memory of holding down one’s ear as a hot pressing comb was run through your tresses was one of pleasure or pain. Yet other little girls knew so well what it was like to get a touch-up. As your scalp began to itch, you were told; “girl, don’t scratch that!” That emphatic statement as you’d come to learn, was an attempt to prevent your scalp from burning during the relaxer process. Yet for others, the memory of Jheri Curl activator on the neck of your favorite blouse was just par for the cause.
Hair in the African-American Community has represented, power, independence, economic clout and in some cases social position. The battle raged on as we described each other with phrases like.. “He got Good Hair or Did you see that nappy headed child?” And so, as “Black History Month” draws to close, I explore the question of Black Hair.
African-Americans in Corporate America have “tousled” with the idea of just how to craft one’s hair for work. If I wear braids or an Afro into the office, would that bring the glass ceiling closer to one’s head? Will I be seen as militant or anti-establishment if I let my dreadlocks flow? Would it be much better to “relax” my roots and identify more closely with a euro-centric standard of beauty? These questions have sometimes had a direct connection to economics and how one survives in the greater society. In some cases, the question of hair choices has had a direct link to one’s power and/or position.
These ideas have been cause for discussion for years in the African-American Community and have for centuries challenged. According to Marketresearch.com, 2004 figures for the black hair care industry show revenues at around $1.7 billion dollars. With numbers like those, it would be fair to say that Hair is huge in the black community.
In 1908, Madame CJ Walker opened up the first beauty college for this market. Up to that point, her Walker Systems had built a reputation and employed 3,000 sales reps and others promoting a miracle hair gro and other haircare products she had created for black folks . According to historical accounts Madame Walker was the 1st African-American self-made millionaire. In today’s fast growing beauty care industry there is a corporate take-over trend wiping out family dynasties like CJ Walker’s. Larger entities like L’Oreal are buying up companies that were built by black entrepreneurs and the industry is being changed forever. Asians are well known in the black community for owning beauty supply stores and manufacturing products for this market. Some argue that folks are selling out. Others feel that in order to gain competitive edge, better products and even better research and development, they need to make strategic business moves. Others just see the money and want to capitalize of this extremely viable market.
As the dialogue around black hair rages on, Filmmakers Regi Kimbell (an African-American Woman) and Jay Bluemke (a Caucasian male) have placed this argument in the forefront with the release of their new documentary, ” My Nappy ROOTS: A Journey Through Black Hair-itage.” The film examines the legacy of black hair care through cultural, societal and political issues. It takes us on a trip from Africa to America and allows us to see our passions and obsessions about hair played out on the big screen.
Not just for African-Americans, this film is a history lesson that is taught by celebrities like Vivica A. Fox, Patti LaBelle, Kim Fields, Malcolm -Jamal Warner and others. Authors, journalists, historians, comedians, hairstylists, barbers and black hair care industry business icons were also tapped in order to provide historical, professional, and personal accounts of the black “hair-story.” According to Bleumke, Producer, “Talking about black people’s hair for a white person is kind of taboo.” “You just don’t do it. I had questions. I wanted to know things. The process of making this film has been an education for me.”
This film should be extremely interesting and in this day and time, Kimbell is hoping to debunk the negative stereotypes often associated with Nappy Roots. From the looks of things, she has certainly started conversation and a much needed cross-cultural exchange.
For more on the film or to view the trailer: www.mynappyrootsthemovie.com