I'm always flying the multicultural flag. Having grown up in Barbados and lived in the US and Japan, and being Black, multiculturalism is one of few things I consider myself an expert in (at least compared to those who've never studied cultures officially).
Today I'd like to talk about Black hair.
Last year, I was lucky enough to interview Linda Villarosa. In her book, PASSING FOR BLACK, she said something I will never forget. I don't remember the exact quote, because I'm not good with exact, but here's the gist. If two black women start talking, it's only a matter of time before the topic goes to hair.
You might be tempted to think that's some sort of vanity. Maybe there's some vanity in there, but the flat truth is that black hair requires a heckuva lot of care.
One thing that was shocking as a kid, and amuses me even know is when I see a White person wash their hair and just go. You could so not do that with Black hair.
If you wash Black hair, you pretty much have to condition it. You also have to grease/oil it, or it will dry right out and if you touch it, it will sound like a gravel driveway with a truck driving over it. I made the unfortunate mistake of assuming I could buy grease in Perth, Australia. Unfortunately, it seems all the Black people live on the East coast. 2 weeks of crunchy hair. Not fun.
Also when you wash Black hair, you can't just leave it. You have to blow it out or plait it, or something. Or it will become a giant mass of steel wool. No Black person would ever do this to themselves on purpose.
I think it's because of this amount of effort and the fact that Black hair is always ready to break or drop out at a moment's notice, that prompts Black women to talk about hair styles and hair care every time they meet.
Living in Japan, hair care has moved more to the forefront of my mind. I'm not much for looks and fashion, so as long as my hair isn't falling out I'm happy. Last year, a group of Caribbean people got together here for a Jamaican event, and there was a room pretty much dedicated to plaiting and talking about hair.
My hair is natural, and has been for about 15 years, but many black people process their hair. They use a chemical, affectionally known as straightener, that makes the hair straight. It also looks much longer, because natural black hair has a lot of kinks. And naturally black hair curls on it's own, getting shorter/longer with the weather and if you wash it.
Since I mentioned natural hair, I will pause here to show you the difference. When Alicia Keys first started out she had natural hair. Her "mixed" has a much higher proportion of white (I have white great-grand peoples) so her hair behaves a lot more like white hair. Also, check out this link if you're interested. It shows several different Alicia Keys styles, natural and processed.
While we're on the topic of straightener, I should also touch on weaves, and their predecessors, braids. Many Black females, will change their hair/extend their hair length with artificial pieces or hair that's been cut from others. Braids are done by looping a length of the hair to be introduced around the client's hair and just braiding it in. Weaves come in rows of hair. You start with your hair plait flat against your skull, and then you sew or glue in the weave. Also there are pieces you can just clip/pin in.
Black hair takes a lot of time to do. Even if you want to go for a simple ponytail, unprocessed Black hair will not go happily. It requires (years of) brushing. Brush, and brush, and ... isn't it done yet? For corn-rows and twists, you're probably looking at an hour and up. For braids, somewhere around 5 hours- with weaves somewhere in between. But it can last quite a while. If you tie it down to sleep in corn-rows can last from a week and up. Braids and weaves usually around a month. When you take out braids or a weave, they can be washed and reused. Which reminds me, you CANNOT wash Black hair every day. It will break and drop out. I think most Black females wash their hair once a week or every two weeks.
I think hair is the nuisance of every Black girl's life. First, it takes so long to do. Can you imagine as 4 year old having to sit still for an hour? Even the day-long styles take a lot longer than ponytails: 5-10 minutes or so.
Secondly, because it's long, you can be guaranteed the child will "root" (wiggle), which will result in a quick smack in the top of their head from whoever's plaiting. Oh, and this so happens to adults, as well. Also if a Black female is braiding your hair, don't reach up to touch it. The comb is a dangerous weapon!
Thirdly, it's painful. Black curls like being curly and tangly. Combs are trying to convince them not to be. Combing a Black child's hair will involve a lot of crying and quarreling. Combing a Black adult's hair will involve a lot of grimacing.
Remember RUSH HOUR, when Chris Tucker was all like, "Never touch a Black man's radio!"? Well, it's the same with a Black female's hair. You don't touch it unless she tells you it's okay. Black females go through a lot for their hair. There are even some styles so elaborate, that the wearers sleep in chairs to keep them perfect. It doesn't matter who you are: her boyfriend, her step-mother, her "loved like a play-cousin" friend, you just don't touch a Black woman's hair. I, personally, am totally not picky about it, but I'm just trying to help you all keep your hands.
Finally, if you want to learn more about Black Hair and if you're considering writing a Black female character, no matter how peripheral, you NEED to watch GOOD HAIR. It's a documentary by Chris Rock about the Black woman's fascination with "good" hair, and all the things they do to acheive it.
Of course, I'm also happy to be a resource if you have questions about Black hair or you want to write a Black character. Also feel free to ask Black friends. I think most people prefer you to tactfully ask a question, than to keep assuming something silly.
This post was mostly about Black natural hair- what I think is the most versatile hair type on Earth. This is just because it's what's on my head, and I know it best. Maybe in the future, I'll do a post on other Black hair styles. Let me know if you'd be interested. All of my hairstyles on this page are done solely with the use of oil, brush, hairclips, and occasionally a comb.