The Significance of Black Hair in the United States: Background information when reading The Other Black Girl

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The Other Black Girl

by Zakiya Dalila Harris

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris X
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2021, 368 pages

    Jun 2022, 368 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Tasneem Pocketwala
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About this Book

The Significance of Black Hair in the United States

This article relates to The Other Black Girl

Print Review

Angela Davis with an Afro hairstyle in 1973 In her debut thriller, The Other Black Girl, Zakiya Dalila Harris includes but does not explain certain concepts linked to Black life. This may be an intentional choice to move past the expectation that racialized and other marginalized authors should clarify concepts and issues that aren't commonplace in mainstream white society for those outside of a group. An example of one such subject that Harris does not address is 4C hair. Black hair turns out to be an important theme in the novel, and also a plot device through which Harris spins her fascinating horror story.

Hair is an integral part of Black culture and history. In traditional African cultures, the way one wore one's hair could signify a host of things — from family and wealth, to marriage status, to ethnic identity and social standing. During the era of American slavery, Black women were often forced to cover their hair with a head wrap as a marker of their oppressed, enslaved status. After the Civil War, the post-emancipation United States put pressure on Black people to fit in with white society, leading to practices that altered the state of their natural hair, including the application of hot chemical mixtures to straighten it and change its texture.

Hair has historically formed a basis for discrimination against and ridicule of Black people in the US, so it is no wonder that Black hair has taken on political connotations in the country. In the 1960s and '70s, with the visibility of the Black Power movement, many Black women in America began owning their natural hair, rebelling against and effectively rejecting European beauty standards. This was an era when the Afro was proudly worn, with a famous example being the hairstyle of Black activist Angela Davis, and various braiding styles experimented with. Its influence has since given rise to demand in the US for hair products specifically tailored to Black hair. The Black hair care industry is now, according to Essence, worth billions.

A crucial lingering issue is how natural Black hair is often considered unprofessional in the American workplace and looked down on in schools. Many have called out the discriminatory nature of this and some laws have been passed to prevent such discrimination.

Hair and hairstyles can be an assertion of cultural heritage, personal style or self-care for Black Americans. Some Black women have reclaimed head wraps and scarves as a way to express their beauty and identity. Young Black women are increasingly opting to go natural, and some have emphasized the positive impact this has on their personalities and the way they feel about themselves. Celebrities such as Beyoncé wearing natural Black hairstyles on the red carpet have brought about a focus on the validity and importance of Black hair in mainstream media. Dr. Tia Tyree, a professor of communications at Howard University, tells BET that Black women are "showing and celebrating their true selves, and letting the world accept them for who they are."

Academic and activist Angela Davis, wearing her iconic Afro hairstyle, on August 4, 1973 at a demonstration in Berlin (cropped).
Photo courtesy of German Federal Archive (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-M0804-0757 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Other Black Girl. It originally ran in June 2021 and has been updated for the June 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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