Sunday, December 29, 2013

Book Review: 'Black Hair: Art, Style, and Culture' Timely No Matter the Year

by Shamontiel Vaughn)

Black Hair: Art, Style, and Culture" was first published in 2001, but two days before 2014 starts, the book is still just as timely. Beautiful photographs of real people, statues, paintings and Madam C.J. Walker hair ads bring splashes of color to the read, but it's the text that really brings the book home.

Editor Ima Ebong brings together essays, poetry and conversations about African-American girls and women in beauty salons, African-American boys going to their first barbershop, beautician horror stories, the hair stylist tipping debate, and plenty of tales about women's opinions on hair texture: their own and others.

It wouldn't be a hair book without the debate over wigs, weaves, braids, relaxers (perms) and "natural" hair. The curious connection between hip-hop and black women with blonde hair was mentioned. There were lessons about the bridge between hairstyles from African women and African-American women and how they influence each other.

What is great about the book is the arguments aren't so overzealous that it would make readers who don't fit the mold turn away from the read. If you don't agree with one side, there's always someone to co-sign with on the other end. It's obvious that these pieces were chosen carefully.

Poet Gwendolyn Brooks gushes over the glory of an upsweep, tied high up in the air with curls. Writer Karen Williams wonders why is "100% human hair" only from Asia. Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes tells a humorous tale through one of his favorite characters, Jesse B. Semple (popularly known as "Simple"), about a female swimmer getting caught without her wig in Coney Island. Stacey Lyn Evans proclaims "we had good hair, cuz we had black girl's hair" and dares anyone to challenge her take on "good hair."

Hilton Als asks her mother, who works in The Shop, "why, since colored people were the only people on the planet with hair like that, why would they want to straighten it." Never mind that that was her mother's bread and butter. This was a child who was genuinely curious about beauty shop business.

Childhood memories come up with Bell Hooks tales of having her hair brushed and braided with her cheeks between someone's knees.

And who could forget about beads at the end of braids?

The list goes on full of fun, amusing and thought-provoking hair tales. But two of the best parts in the whole book were beauty shop debates. Sheneska Jackson doesn't want to know "Does God really exist? Is there life after death?" She just wants to know "Why? For the love of God! Why does it take so long for a woman to get her hair done at the beauty shop?"

The other highlight was Willi Coleman's poem about how many women "walk heads high, naps full of pride, with not a backward glance, at some of the beauty which used to be, cause with a natural there is no natural place, for us to congregate, to mull over our mutual discontent, Beauty shops could have been a hell-of-a-place to ferment a.........revolution."

But should we be talking about more revolutionary topics at the beauty salon or is hair part of a black woman's revolution?

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