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ASU professor discusses African American hair culture


November 09, 2009

Comedian Chris Rock takes on the business of hair straightening in “Good Hair,” a new movie that examines the multimillion dollar industry that targets African American women.

Many African Americans still refer to straighter hair as “good hair,” and it’s a cultural phenomenon that ASU professor Neal A. Lester, English Department chair in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has studied, taught and lectured about for more than 20 years. He is a recognized expert on African American hair and has been interviewed recently about Michelle Obama’s hair and the hairstyles of her daughters. He was also a guest on “The State of Things,” a Chapel Hill, N.C., national radio program, which dealt with hair and stereotypes.

 “Attention to the Obama females’ hair choices reminds us that we don’t just have any family in the White House. The Obamas offer a specific cultural and ethnic context,” Lester says. For instance, had Michelle Obama sported cornrows or dreadlocks during Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency, Lester feels that would have complicated his campaign. Even an alleged “satirical” cartoon of a “militant” Michelle Obama with an afro generated some public suspicion on the July 21, 2008 cover of the New Yorker magazine.

“Straight hair is still more mainstream and what people expect,” he says. “By and large, straight hair remains the ideal for African Americans and non-African Americans.”

It’s the ideal and it’s not cheap. African American women who opt for hair weaves, hair pieces and extensions can spend hundreds on their hair, sometimes putting hair on layaway in order to afford it, according to Rock’s documentary. Hair straightening creams and the stove-heated hot comb are other options African Americans have used to achieve the temporary straight look. 

“There is a whole industry locked into black people and their hair, and it’s an expensive one,” Lester says. “If weaves can cost up to $3,500, it’s not perceived as excess; it’s perceived as an identity complement, as completing one’s sense of self.”

References to straightening African American hair can be found in all manner of literature and, on a more personal level, within the minds of children who do notice that the popular definition of “good hair” isn’t necessarily what’s on their heads. Talk show host Tyra Banks recently explored that issue with young African American females with hair extensions or processed hair who were as young as 3 years old.

Lester gained first-hand knowledge of the issue when his naturally curly haired and biracial daughter, Jasmine, was growing up. During most of her elementary school years, Lester combed and braided her hair. When Jasmine was 13 and wanted straight hair, they ended up at a black hair salon. 

“Her hair was ‘relaxed’ with the popular lye-based chemical,” Lester says. “The whole process took from two to three hours. Her hair was straight but had the pungent smell of burning hair in the end. She loved her straight hair and it blew in gentle breezes because it was straight. She went to school and became kind of a show-and-tell piece for her white teachers and white school mates who loved her hair. At age 20, Jasmine alternates between curly and straight.”  

Rock decided to examine the issue after his daughter asked him about her hair.

“He’s pointing out that we as a larger society haven’t come as far as we think we have in getting people to accept ourselves as we are,” Lester says. “There are media images and perceptions that I suspect this comic movie documentary will challenge.” 

It also calls into question the lengths that women historically will go to while they pursue a perceived beauty ideal. Just as hair is damaged during straightening procedures, women have historically undergone other “beauty” strategies such as wrapping feet, wearing painfully high heels, taking out ribs to make waists smaller, or either not eating adequately or overeating and then vomiting to achieve a perceived idea of beauty. 

“We as a society and as a nation need to look at what is motivating people to do that,” Lester says.

Hair straightening isn’t exclusively a female phenomenon. Men, including Lester, singer James Brown and the Reverend Al Sharpton have straightened their hair, but not to the same extent as women. 

“Men do it, and have done it. African American women, however, have made beauticians richer,” Lester says. 

Lester, who wears his hair in dreadlocks, hopes that the movie will spur dialogue among blacks and non-blacks about hair and identity issues.

“I hope that people look at this as an opportunity to have a good, honest discussion,” Lester says. “It’s a conversation that still needs to be had and that can benefit us all when we consider the sometimes subtle nuances of diversity and difference.”