It has been argued that the ideologies of ‘beautiful’ have been defined by, for, and against black people since the development of the European slave trade during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, when variations of pigmentation and hair texture were seized upon as signs of identification and classification within the hierarchy of human worth (Mercer 35). The introduction of the Other to the European and Western world ushered in the concept of “whiteness” as the predominant measure of beauty, while non-whites were condemned as “negro,” a term that suggests the negation of aesthetic beauty altogether. Thus, the stigmatization of black identity, with particular emphasis to the appearance and texture of African hair, was born.
Since then, acts of straightening, perming, and weaving one’s hair have been integrated into black culture, particularly for women, as a way of imitation and appropriation of the white, European aesthetic. The idea that ‘good hair’ is ‘straight’ hair within the African American community goes against the naturalness of black hair and black culture altogether. It is therefore believed that black consciousness unknowingly incorporates everyday rituals of grooming that psychologically reinforce the negative stereotype of black identity. Desiring to achieve white aesthetic through hair, black women perpetuate the problems of race and racism that are inherent against black culture. Yet, is the cultural significance of the weave that simple? In order to determine whether the ritualism of weaving one’s hair is psychologically demeaning to black identity, the definition of an identity must first be established.
Basic definitions loosely categorize identity as the conception and expression of the self and other’s individuality or affiliations. However, identity is not as organic as we may think, possessing a far more complex definition in relation to self-individuality. Identity is fundamentally tied to a false notion of choice; we believe we have the power to mold and create a sense of self. Instead, the body is a product of society, and identity becomes the conditioned ritual of that body, both structured by and participated alongside a community. In Adorned in Dreams, Elizabeth Wilson discusses the dichotomy of fashion as a hindrance and an outlet for the cultivation of one’s identity:
[…] Fashion cements social solidarity and imposes group norms, while deviations in dress are usually experienced as shocking and disturbing. […] Although it remains an emotive subject, it cannot be quite so normative as once it was [however]. It’s stylistic changes do retain a compulsive and seemingly irrational quality, but at the same time fashion is freed to become both an aesthetic vehicle for experiments in taste and a political means of expression for dissidence, rebellion, and social form. (6-8)
As Wilson argues, fashion merges the gap between individual expression and social appeasement. Sense of self and the cultivation of identity cannot form without preconditioned normatives, both internally and externally, of a structured community. As a result, identity is shrouded in the figment of false-individuality.
It is natural to assume that the weave signifies black appropriation of the white aesthetic. Like that of perming and straightening, the weave aims to provide a desired texture to black hair that is otherwise unnatural. Yet, the argument that black women weave the psychological discourse of racism into their daily grooming practices oversimplifies the significance of the weave altogether. One aspect of the weave is that of appropriation, which can be supported by Roach and Eicher’s statement that “the form of society’s language of personal adornment depends upon environmental resources, technical developments, and cultural standards for judging what is fine or beautiful” (109). However, the weave may also signify the upholding of class and status boundaries within black culture. In “Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?” Fred Davis discusses the high social variability in the signifier-signified relationship:
While the signifiers constituting a style, an appearance, or a certain fashion trend can in a material sense be thought of as the same for everyone […] what is signified (connotated, understood, evoked, alluded to, or expressed) is initially at least, strikingly different for different publics, audiences, and social groupings […]. In short, while certainly not rigidly caste like in its configuration, the universe of meanings attaching to clothes, cosmetics, hairstyles, and jewelry–right down to the very shape and bearing of the body itself–is highly differentiated in terms of taste, social identity, and persons’ access to the symbolic wares of a society. (151)
The universe of meanings attached to various forms of adornment do not bear the same significance for all members of a given society, nor are these meanings constant and fixed. Therefore it is only natural to assume that the meaning of the weave has shifted to incorporate the identity of a more modern black culture, perhaps not so fully charged with the political implications of racism and prejudice.
Last October, Director Justin Simien released his first feature film, “Dear White People,” a clever campus comedy that juggles the hypocrisies, blind spots, and micro-aggressions that African Americans experience in their daily encounters with well-meaning caucasians. Immediately after its release, the New York Times responded with nothing shy of praise, stating that “Dear White People” had effectively dealt a deck of “race cards, most of them jokers.” According to writer A. O. Scott, the film “[lead] its characters and its viewers–pale skinned critics very much included–down a path strewn with eggshells, some of which [sat] on top of land mines.” Without surprise, the intricacies of black hair are within the narrative. Main character Samantha White, played by Tessa Thompson, hosts a series of campus radio broadcasts and viral internet videos in which she sharply critiques white peoples’ clumsy appropriation of black idioms and pop-culture, one of which being hair. The trailer for the film begins with Sam’s daily report:
Dear White People. The minimum requirement of Black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man Tyrone does not count.
Dear White People. Please stop touching my hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?
The incorporation of black hair culture is split evenly amongst all major characters in the film. As Sam’s world intersects various black students at Winchester University, each uses hair as a form of tactical expression in Simien’s racial dialogue. Most significant, is the incorporation of both the Afro and weave, worn by two starkly different characters for very different reasons. The Afro, worn by Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), the gay-nerd-trope on campus, is a nod to what Kobena Mercer describes a “positive black self image or a politically healthy state of black subjectivity” (33). According to Mercer, black hairstyles of the 60’s, like that of the Afro and Dreadlocks, counter-politicized the signifier of ethnic devalorization, redefining blackness as a positive attribute (37). The Afro embraced racial politics of Black Power, which assumed a more “authentically black” ideology, avoided artifice, and encouraged the naturalness of black hair (33). In the 1970’s, however, the Afro lost its political charge, becoming a part of mainstream fashion, which possessed its own set of signifiers. Mercer argues that by the 80’s, black hair had lost its politics for the black community. Thus, it is important to de-psychologize the concept of both the weave (unnatural) and the Afro (natural):
As organic matter produced by physiological processes human hair seems to be a ‘natural’ aspect of the body. Yet hair is never a straightforward biological ‘fact’ because it is almost always groomed, prepared, cut, concealed and generally ‘worked upon’ by human hands. Such practices socialize hair, making it the medium of significant ‘statements’ about self and society and the codes of value that bind them, or don’t. In this way hair is merely a raw material, constantly processed by cultural practices which thus invest it with ‘meanings’ and ‘value’. (34)
Mercer then goes on to state:
The historical importance of Afro and Dreadlocks hair-styles cannot be underestimated as marking a ‘liberating’ rupture or break with the dominance of white bias. But were they really that ‘radical’ as solutions to the ideological problematization of black people’s hair? Yes […]. But, on the other hand, perhaps not, because within a relatively short period both styles became rapidly depoliticized and, with varying degrees of resistance, both were incorporated into mainstream fashions in the dominant culture. What is at stake, I believe, is the difference between two logics of black stylization – one emphasizing ‘natural’ looks, the other involving straightening to emphasize ‘artifice’. (37)
Most important, however, is the film’s incorporation of the weave into sophomore Colandrea ‘Coco’ Conners (Teyonah Parris). Coco, who wants to impress a reality-show producer in the hopes of becoming famous, refuses to be defined by her blackness, going out of her way to disassociate herself completely from her fellow peers. Defined as a “nose job,” Coco tries to hide her blackness in exchange for whiteness. As such, she is the antithesis of Sam, an advocate of assimilation and upward mobility. However, Coco calls attention to the conscious consumption of her weave, recording a video for her YouTube Channel “Doing Time at an Ivy League:”
Welcome, muffins. So, I hate to do it to you, but Imma have to get real Black with you for a second.
So the other day, a girl had the nerve to fix her mouth and ask me if my hair was weaved.
Weaved. Really, bitch?
First of all if you’re going to fix your mouth to ask me something like that, say it right please? It’s weave. Noun. Present tense. Second of all don’t assume just because you see a sister with some hair that it’s a weave. Is it? If a bitch could grow straight Indian hair directly out her own head she wouldn’t have just over-drafted her account paying for this shit, but that ain’t your business, boo boo. Are those your lips sweetie? Is that really your skin? These white girls and their tans, they’re starting to get darker than me, which isn’t that dark. (Simien 25)
As Davis notes, people communicate their personas through various aspects of adornment, which, at a collective level, result typically in the symbolic location of their identity within the structured universe of “lifestyle claims and lifestyle attachments” (149). So what does the weave signify in this instance? Again, the weave could be taken as sole appropriation of white culture, easily supported by what Mercer would describe as a “de-racializing sell-out,” fueled by the desire to achieve fame by “becoming white” due to the morbid symptom of a “psychologically mutilated black consciousness” (33). Again, this is an oversimplification of the weave, for it would be foolish to assume that this form of adornment carries no economic weight or social status beyond the politics of appropriation. In “Do Clothes Speak?” Davis states that “clothing styles and fashions do not mean the same things to all members of a society at the same time and that, because of this, what is worn lends itself easily to a symbolic upholding of class status and boundaries in society” (151-152). For Coco, her hair signifies both her economic and class status; she even goes so far as to remind the reality-show producer that there is “nothing hood” about her identity, and states in her blog that she over-drafted her bank account in order to pay for her hair, signifying her weave is of fine quality. As a result, the weave within black culture calls into question a far more complex notion of social identity.
For black women, identity can be rooted in the notion of a good weave. Weaves and hair extensions have become fashion accessories, especially when considering the perpetual usage of them among A-list celebrities like Beyonce, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj. However, the desire for hair to appear straighter, longer, and fuller isn’t the only reason why black women are purchasing them. According to Merle Ginsberg in an online issue from The Hollywood Reporter, “[Weaves] are so expensive, now it’s status to have them.” Weaves do not come cheap. Advancements in hair extension installation, including lace front wigs and fusion, have upped the expense. The price of a “good weave” can be anywhere from $300 to $4,500. In fact, a downpayment on a weave isn’t unheard of within the black community; many women pay for their hair monthly, which can cost some roughly $40,000 by the end of a decade. Breaking the bank for a weave may connote a black woman’s social identity within the symbolic wares of her community. It is not surprising that hair, what has always been so political within black culture, has come to embody a modern lifestyle of particular class and capital. As such, wealth and status are freely expressed through these woven extensions.
In “The Language of Personal Adornment,” Roach and Eicher state:
Personal adornment is characteristic of all societies […]. For many people, dressing oneself can be an aesthetic act, and all aesthetic acts are acts of speaking, through which an individual may speak as an individual, what is said having meaning only because of relationships with other people. Aesthetic acts do not grow out of a vacuum, but from what is learned from others. (109)
The question of how ideologies of “the beautiful” have been defined by, for, and against black people will perpetually remain crucial within the dialogue of black hair. After all, we cannot deny that acts of straightening, perming, and weaving resulted from the idealization and appropriation of white “beauty,” dating back to the seventeenth century. Yet, the exaggeration that such hairstyles as the unfortunate result of a diseased black consciousness oversimplifies the entire identity of black culture. For black women, these methods of grooming do not perpetuate the psychological mutilation of black identity, but rather, reinforce the various hierarchies of economic and class status found within any culture. The modernized depoliticization of black hair has therefore created a notion of identity that is no longer objectified as racially dissociative. Once defined by the natural and unnatural trends of previous hairstyles, black culture challenges the weave as an archaic symbol of the antithesis of black identity. Today, the weave articulates a very different story, one of social and economic status through the interwoven aesthetic of black identity.
Davis, Fred. “Chapter 13: Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?” Fashion Theory: A Reader. Ed. Barnard, Malcolm. New York: Routledge, 2007. 147-58. Print.
Mercer, Kobena. “Black Hair/Style Politics.” New Formations, No. 3. Winter. 33-54. Print.
Roach, Mary Ellen and Eicher, Joanne Bubolz. “Chapter 9: The Language of Personal Adornment.” Fashion Theory: A Reader. Ed. Barnard, Malcolm. New York: Routledge, 2007. 109-21. Print.
Wilson, Elizabeth. “Adorned in Dreams.” Fashion and Modernity. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2003. Print.