"Black-ish" kicked off its first 2020 episode highlighting a familiar struggle that connects African American women from all generations: the hair dilemma. Black hair has always been a controversial topic of cultural examination. The physical features of African American women -- their myriad shades of melanin and coiled tresses -- have not always been celebrated as standards of beauty. For example, the first African American model to grace the cover of Vogue Magazine was Beverly Ann Johnson in 1974. Although we are continuously working toward diversity, we have gotten to a point where we are no longer surprised to see dark-skinned women like award-winning Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o showcased on Vogue. In the 2010s, she had four Vogue covers, with two featuring short, closely cropped natural hairstyles.
Growing up in the South during the '70s and '80s, I would always hear about "good hair" and "bad hair," with the latter referring to textures that were thick and kinky. To put it bluntly, bad hair was "nappy." Good hair was defined as naturally straight or curly hair that white or biracial women had. Looking back at this ethnic debate, I often laugh because it had little to no effect on me. Unlike a lot of girls my age, I was pretty lazy when it came to my hair, and I was content to pull it back into a ponytail or stuff it under a baseball cap.
Watching the "Black-ish" "Hair Day" episode brought back many memories of going to the salon on Saturdays with my mother. In the black community, salons and barbershops are still treasured and festive hubs of fellowship. While laughing and talking with friends and waiting for your stylist's chair to open, you literally let your hair down. "Hair Day" also shed light on what it is like for young black girls today when it comes to styling or choosing a new look. Selecting a new look is often the decision to "go natural" and stop getting perms or relaxers. In this episode, Diane Johnson (Marsai Martin), the 13-year-old daughter of the Johnson clan, wrestles with this choice, as it would require getting what is dreadfully known as "the big chop," cutting off all processed hair. Diane's mulling over whether to get rid of her perm intensifies into fear when she and her mother, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) finally arrive at the salon. After waiting for well over an hour, which is hilariously commonplace at black salons on the weekends, Diane has a crazy dream that her hair is burning and falling out from relaxer chemicals. After considering the classic press and curl, a style that must be carefully maintained by avoiding getting one's hair wet, Diane opts to go with a cut similar to curly twists.
I never had to make a detailed decision about my hair when I was Diane's age because the press and curl was my style of choice for every salon visit, and no woman in my immediate family had relaxed hair. My hair was pressed throughout college, and I deliberately evaded relaxers, which were known in the '90s as "the creamy crack." I did not get my first perm until I was 24. I'm a proud flat-ironed natural now. Many black women my age and several years younger often talk about their hair journeys, and mine has not been particularly difficult. Being older, I am not pressured by societal standards of beauty that are generalized and isolating. I also now view my hair from a well-known saying that I often hear in church, which is your hair is your "crown." And as I age and my hair grays, I take joy in Proverbs 16:31, which says that the "hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness."
The message that "Hair Day" sends is uplifting for young black girls and women, as they are encouraged to take care of their hair, whether natural or relaxed. Diane learns an important lesson that there is no need to feel distressed about looking a certain way, and hopefully this resonates with girls her age. I would also add that there is no such thing as bad hair. If you maintain your crown, it's all good.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University's Lima campus. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @JjSmojc. To find out more about Jessica Johnson and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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