Helping my daughter research her Black History Month project on Madam C.J. Walker gave me time to ponder what the hair mogul might have thought about today’s hair, some 100 years later.
I am pretty sure Walker would be disappointed to hear people of color still using the phrases “good hair” and “bad hair” to describe hair types.
But she would be pleased to find African-American women paying more attention to the health of their hair while wearing braids, Afros, twists or permed and straightened styles.
I mistakenly believed that Walker wanted to promote a more Eurocentric standard of beauty among women of color through sales of her straightening combs and pressing oils.
I was wrong. She did not invent the straightening comb. In fact, her original purpose was to remedy hair loss.
America’s first self-made woman millionaire told the Indianapolis Recorder, “Right now, let me correct the erroneous impression held by some that I claim to straighten the hair. I deplore such impressions because I have always held myself out as a hair culturist. I grow hair … I want the great masses of my people to take a greater pride in their personal appearance and to give their hair proper attention.”
My hair has gone through its own journey from natural to relaxed and back to flat ironing.
For three years, I became reaquainted with my natural texture, during which time I began wearing an Afro similar to “12 Years A Slave” star Lupita Nyong’o.
I learned to manage my thick, coarse, tight curls using products similar to the ones Walker developed. As my hair grew to civil rights activist Angela Davis-style heights, I grew to understand that no matter what the type, hair involves a lot of maintenance.
Though the “good hair/bad hair” myth still permeates black culture, more women of color are abandoning straighteners and giving their natural hair textures a chance to thrive.
However, it was always disappointing to me to receive a compliment about my Afro and then hear a friend of color belittle her own hair by saying, “I can’t wear a natural. My hair is too bad.”
I am even more thankful for C.J. Walker’s contribution, giving women of all hair types the tools and methods to maintain and nourish and love their hair.
Because Walker set out to find a remedy for her own hair loss, she started a million-dollar “hair-growing” business. Today, hair service is about a $20 billion industry.
I can walk into any store and find shelves stacked with products that mimic Walker’s vegetable shampoos and conditioners, vitamin E hair growth creams and pressing oils.
Walker recognized that all hair types needed nurturing to be “good” hair, and she simply wanted women to feel beautiful with the tresses that they were born with.
Chante Dionne Warren is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.