Roots Run Deep: Black Women and Hair
Womanist theologian Monica Coleman writes in her 2008 work, “Making a Way Out of No Way: A Womanist Theology” about this moment where she encountered a woman who had been through a domestic violence dispute.
She was working at a small domestic violence center when she met a black woman who had been dragged out of her apartment by her hair and the experience left patches in her scalp. Coleman speaks about the other black women surrounded her in support, writing, “the other women in the group were quiet as they gently rubbed Lisa’s shoulders or leg to assure her of their sympathetic presence: yeah girl, we know. Many of them did. The executive director whispered to me, ‘this is why I started a program for black women. No other program in this city would know to braid Lisa’s hair.”
This passage illustrates the very cultural significance hair is to Black women. Through hair, Black women have defined their own social and cultural agency and have begun to seek comfort in that. It is no secret Black women have had a complicated relationship with their hair. Hair represents more than just a standard of physical attraction to Black women.
For them, the roots go much deeper.
There is a plethora of examples how this is portrayed elsewhere in Black media and culture.
In the 1992 classic novel, Waiting to Exhale, the character Gloria Matthews is the owner of a popular hair salon that serves Black women. Largely seen as the matriarch of the group, author Terry McMillan’s decision to make the character a hairdresser gives her a sense of cultural and social agency undefined by whiteness.
In the 1995 adaptation of the film, Bernadine, the character who is left by her husband for his white female associate, cuts all her hair in the hopes she would feel different and her life would turn back around. Continuing the theme of Black women defining their agency, Bernadine cuts off her hair in an act of defiance.
For so long, Black women have had to subject to white standards of beauty- straight hair being the most widely known. Black women and girls have undergone the strenuous process of getting a “perm” in effort to maintain that standard. Bernadine cuts her hair to embrace her Black womanhood in the face of white beauty.
In recent years, with the recent rising of Black women embracing their natural hair, this is an act of defiance where Black women are taking back their agency and cultivating all their own. Grammy award winning singer-songwriters India Arie and Solange Knowles tackle this theme musically in their songs “I Am Not My Hair” and “Don’t Touch My Hair”, respectively. The character of Charlie in the Natalie Brazilenovel-turned-series Queen Sugar embraces her natural hair in the second season as she cultivates an image outside of her husband.
Hair has become a staple of Black culture and a fortitude of Black womanhood. Through literature, film, and television, Black women and hair has remained a symbol of cultural and social agency.