Historically, popular culture’s relationship with black women’s hair ranges from indifferent to insulting to fetishized. But black women’s relationship to what’s growing out of their own heads has always proved especially tangled.
A frequent, clarifying shorthand contends hair is to black women what weight is to white women. But it’s heavier than that. For white women, size rarely becomes a proxy for personhood, while black hair raises questions of beauty, authenticity and the politics of racial identity.
The panel discussion “Health, Hair and Heritage,” sponsored by the National Museum of African Art on Friday, intends to sort some of that out.
“I think there are few discussions that are of greater interest to a large number of African American women,” says museum director Johnnetta Betsch Cole. “It is no secret that we say among ourselves the struggle with the hair continues.”
The discussion comes at a time when natural hairstyles — those that don’t rely on chemical or heat-straightening techniques — are ascendant. The natural hair-care handbook “Better Than Good Hair,” which came out in January, made the Publishers Weekly bestseller list and inspired meet-ups for women to bond and share tips and hair product information. But it also comes at a time, say experts, when damage to black women’s hair, and by extension their well-being, is widespread.