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Commentary: Why it matters how black women wear their hair

  • Story Highlights
  • In the 1970s, many black girls envied flowing manes of white women
  • Writer: Kinky, short hair didn't fit society's Eurocentric idea of beauty
  • Does Michelle Obama's New Yorker cover "Afro" have political overtones? writer asks
  • Writer: Society today tolerates more diversity in personal style -- and hair
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By Charisse Jones
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: Charisse Jones is a New York correspondent for USA Today. A former staff writer for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, she is co-author of the American Book Award-winning "Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America," published by HarperCollins.

Charisse Jones says a black woman's hair is sometimes interpreted as a statement

Charisse Jones says a black woman's hair is sometimes interpreted as a statement

NEW YORK (CNN) -- For too many little black girls, it was a childhood ritual, like pouring make-believe tea.

I would take a pajama top, drape it over my head, and with its sleeves trailing down my back, pretend that the cotton nightshirt was, instead, a flowing mane of hair, like the Breck girl's, or maybe Jaclyn Smith's on "Charlie's Angels" -- neither of whom looked a thing like me.

Now mind you, I was no self-hater. I grew up with scholarly, professional parents who instilled in their children a love of blackness that ranged from the muted to the bellicose; from the dashiki my mother sewed for me to match the one worn by my father, to the Liberian middle name Monsio they bestowed upon me at birth.

But as much as I was black, I was also American and a girl who wanted to be called pretty, and in the 1970s, I knew that to be cute you were supposed to have long, lustrous hair.

Historically, long, straight tresses -- along with pale, white skin -- defined beauty in the United States. Black women, our complexions the hues of a cocoa rainbow and our hair often kinky and short, didn't fit the Eurocentric ideal, and we were made to feel less soft, less lovely, less womanly.

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Hair became a thing that we obsessed over, searing it into contrition with hot combs and lye, and assigning it the attributes of good (straight/wavy) and evil (naturally nappy.) Indeed, Madam C.J. Walker, a black woman widely regarded as America's first black female millionaire, earned her fortune devising products and techniques that made our hair "behave." Video Women talk about their hair »

But while black women may spend the equivalent of a small nation's gross domestic product getting our hair woven, twisted, or permed, it is not sheer vanity that drives us. Rightly or wrongly, the broader world sometimes sees our hair as a window into who we are. Right or wrong, hair does matter. And as Michelle Obama, a black woman who may become the next first lady, undergoes scrutiny, some African-Americans believe there is no better time than now to examine how black women are frequently prejudged and mischaracterized.

It's not surprising. In a society where stereotypes remain a convenient shorthand to sum up others, something as simple as the way a black woman wears her hair could hardly be innocuous. Wear twists or dreadlocks in some circles and you might be seen as too independent, too different -- too black. I know women who have purposely unbraided their cornrows before a job interview to ensure that a hairstyle didn't cost them a job. It might have been a nonissue, but they weren't taking any chances.

In my first book, my co-author, Dr. Kumea Shorter-Gooden, and I spoke of the "shifting'' black women have to do, straddling the tightrope between race and gender, constantly having to put others at ease, and endlessly dodging the minefield of stereotypes. Call out a wrong, and you're angry. Speak too loudly and you must have been raised "in the ghetto." Perform a task less than perfectly and you're unqualified.

Ponder for a moment the controversy surrounding Michelle Obama, most recently caricatured with her husband, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, on the cover of The New Yorker. Her well-coiffed hairdo is not usually a topic of discussion. In fact, her elegant style is often likened to Jackie O's. But on the New Yorker' cover, which satirized many of the smears leveled at the Obamas by some conservative critics, she sports an afro -- along with an assault rifle and battle fatigues.

Some blacks believe that Michelle Obama, with all her complexity, is being reduced to the age-old stereotype of the angry black woman. They view many of her detractors' comments as updated versions of the critiques historically leveled at blacks who made whites uncomfortable. When some of her critics call her arrogant, do they mean "uppity"? Is she unpatriotic or simply "not like us''?

And yet, there is no denying that society's attitudes and perceptions have evolved with time. There is a tolerance of diversity in personal style as well as ethnic background that didn't exist even a generation ago.

Black women in particular are more fully embracing the versatility of that distinct aspect of their beauty -- their fabulously kinky hair.

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I doubt many little black girls today are putting nightshirts on their heads and pretending to be Britney or Miley. At least I hope not. As for me, I do straighten my locks, but it's out of habit rather than any deep-seated feeling that straighter, longer hair is prettier than my natural 'fro.

In fact, I'm contemplating a change -- sporting my kinky crown of glory full-time. And I'll greet anyone who questions it with a modified quote from the 19th century abolitionist and suffragist, Sojourner Truth -- "Ain't I -- still -- a woman?''

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