Good hair (phrase)
Good hair is a colloquial phrase used within the African American community to generally describe African American hair (or the hair texture belonging to those of other ethnicities who fit the same description) that most closely resembles the hair of non-blacks (straight or curly), especially those images of hair popularly presented in hegemonic society.
Its usage has such a potent history within the African American community that Chris Rock created a documentary entitled Good Hair, which made a wider audience more aware of the importance of the term within the black community. Its circulation within the U.S. Black community has an unspecified origin, predating Rock's documentary. Depending on the context, good hair can connote and evoke both communal laughter and pain. Therefore, the phrase requires a more nuanced explanation for its complicated usages.
Usage and scholarship
Although many hair stylists or beauticians would define good hair to mean "healthy hair", the phrase is rarely used in this manner within informal African American circles. Instead it is used metaphorically to characterize beauty and acceptance. These standards vary for African American men and women.
Usage and the African American woman
African American scholar Patricia Hill Collins agrees with Bartky, yet Collins makes a clear distinction between White and Black American women: "With the binary thinking that underpins intersecting oppressions, blue-eyed, blond, thin White women could not be considered beautiful without the Other — Black women with African features of dark skin, broad noses, full lips, and kinky hair. She emphasizes how ingrained this mentality has become within the African American community by quoting a common African American children's rhyme: "Now, if you're white you're all right, If you're brown, stick around, But if you're black, Git back! Git back! Git back!"
Usage in literature
Literary scholars such as Toni Morrison have cast a lens on African American customs by discussing these controversial ideals and practices common to U.S. Blacks. In her novel The Bluest Eye, Morrison addresses the challenges within the African American community to interpret beauty, within and outside popular images portrayed in the hegemonic society. Pecola Breedlove, one of the most troubled characters in the novel, searches for beauty through the only socially accepted. Valerie Smith concedes: "...the Breedlove family, especially Pecola, is destroyed because the dominant society allows only one standard of beauty and virtue."
Usage in film
Often, African Americans have felt that women with a lighter complexion and softer, more subdued curl patterns are given partiality over women who have darker complexions and kinky hair. Those who participate in existing discriminatory practices, such as favoring persons with lighter skin tones or more European-style hair textures, become a part of this system.
Many scholars attribute this mindset to be the residual effects of slavery in the United States. Anthropologist Audrey Smedley traces "the creation and reification of race as a new form of social stratification with all its cultural integument... involved the differentiation of blacks as distinct beings, a magnification of the social distance between blacks and whites, and the formulation in the white mind of a stereotype" created a grandiose iconic image of the Blacks in a derogoratory manner. Smedley continues, "once reified, that is crystallized and rendered as substantive reality, the folk idea of race assumed an identity and autonomy of its own, [confirming that] ideas and ideologies, when institutionalized in people's minds, often develop a fluidity and refractivity that allow them to persist even drastically altered situations. To that end, the usage of good hair as a determiner is still evident in today's society.
This worldview has been reiterated throughout the history of film. Imitation of Life is one iconic film that depicts the social sanctioning of intra-racial tension. In Fannie Hurst's 1933 novel with the same name, there is a troubled character, Peola, who is often classified as a tragic mulatto. Unlike Morrison's troubled, dark-skinned, kinky-haired character, Peola is fair-skinned with straighter hair than her African American mother. In fact, Peola's complexity centers around her grappling with her biracial identities, until she chooses to identify with her White heritage, a choice that is not without consequence. However, Peola and Pecola share a desire to move beyond the established societal positions for the African American women.
Other prominent images
There are other images that perpetuate the binary of European hair types as being "good" and African hair types as being inherently understood as "bad," more widely understood as nappy or kinky hair. During the 19th century, blackface became a popular means of entertainment. During this time, White actors would paint their faces black, spike their hair, and make other noticeable changes to their physical bodies to make generalizations about African Americans.
Usage and resistance in African American music
India.Arie, Jill Scott, Kehinde Spencer, and other artists have resisted adopting many of the images they use to represent them and the content of their lyrics. Arie's "I Am Not My Hair", from her third studio released album Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship, however, speaks specifically to the usage of good hair as it is understood within the African American community and in broader contexts.
- Collins, Patricia Hill (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge. p. 89.
- Smedley, Audrey (2007). Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview (3rd ed.). UP of Chicago. p. 225.
- India.Arie (songwriter) (2006). I Am Not My Hair. Retrieved 27 June 2011.
- Battle-Waters, Kimberly (2004). Sheila's Shop: Working-Class African American Women Talk about Life, Love, Race, and Hair. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Page, Philip (1996). Dangerous Freedom: Fusion and Fragmentation in Toni Morrison's Novels. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi.
- Spencer, Kehinde (songwriter) (2009). A Woman's Reprieve.
- Smedley, Audrey (2007). Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview (3rd ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Retrieved 27 June 2011.
- Muse, Michael (21 October 2009). "Fracturing Our Hair Part 1: Dear God, Please Give Me Good Hair. Amen". The Panther. Retrieved 27 June 2011.