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Race, Beauty & ‘Good Hair’ in Prison

“I hate my hair!”

Who hasn’t heard a woman utter this grievance at one time or another? In prison, it’s a universal complaint, a woeful acknowledgement that, whether curly, straight, kinky, or gray, most women bewail the status of their locks.

Those comfortable with their hair in its natural state include the “boys,” those masculine women who come to prison with their hair already styled in crew cuts, buzz cuts, or fades. But they’re fairly comfortable with their hair as well as their identities, and you can be reasonably sure they wore their hair in the same style on the outside.

Inside, hair maintenance is possible up to a point. In fact, keeping a boy cut is pretty easily accomplishable in the prison barbershop. Hair color products, however, are not allowed, so most women walk around sporting multiple shades of embarrassing combinations. It’s not unusual to see brilliant white or gray roots extending to hard lines of color indicating where the last dye was applied. When their new caps of snowy white appear, women who once colored their hair black suffer from an unfortunate comparison to raccoons. Erstwhile blondes suffer a similar fate as new dark roots grow out against a curtain of golden or platinum hues. Hair, which can be a record of drug use and lifestyle choices, becomes a visual calendar recording the unforgettable date of one’s incarceration.

“Hatred” may be a strong word for describing a woman’s feelings about her hair, but most women know that it’s a valid emotion, especially in prison. It’s also true that some women admire other women’s hair for a quality that they, themselves, do not possess, but which they wished mightily they did.

“Ooooooh, I love your hair!” A woman with a baby fine straight hair might gush to a curly-topped woman with lots of body and “volume.” In response, Curly-top might shrug indifferently at this compliment. “You can have it!” She exclaims petulantly, tossing her luscious locks over one shoulder. “It’s so frizzy in the humidity that I can’t do a thing with it. I hate it!”

So far, you may not think I’ve described anything unusual. In fact, hairstyles or hair quality may seem relatively unimportant when considering the overarching context of doing time in prison. But, when it comes to racial identity and beauty standards, perceptions of blacks and whites alike define desirable hair quality and texture, whether inside or outside the razor wire.

I first encountered the term, “good hair,” when I was living on C wing, sharing a bunk with my friend, Marketta, a 45-year-old African American woman from Chicago. We were strolling around the unit one day, when we spied a woman named Betty sitting at a table working on a crossword puzzle. I said something like, “Betty seems like a nice woman.” Marketta responded by saying, “Yes, and she has good hair, too.”

“Good hair?” I asked, staring at Betty to see what Marketta meant. What I saw was a pleasant-looking black woman about 55 years old or so with wavy hair hanging to her shoulders and graying at the temples. (I learned later that she’d tried to shoot her husband in a fit of fury and had spent several years at the old maximum security prison at Dwight before she earned a transfer to Decatur.) Her soft hair, unlike her hard history, was gentle and full, framing her serene face with graceful waves. But, none of this explained why Marketta had called it “good hair.” And, if Betty had “good hair,” what was “bad hair”?

I heard the same phrase again when a young black woman showed me a picture of her baby boy saying she was pleased her child had his “Baby Daddy’s” hair rather then her own, because his Baby Daddy had “good hair.”

I decided to quiz Marketta further about this categorization and what it really meant, because it was obviously socially and racially significant. Marketta humored me and my curiosity and offered the partial explanation that “good” African American hair wasn’t “nappy.” I’d heard the term before, of course, and it reminded me of the old Stevie Wonder tune, “Sir Duke”: “Lookin’ back on when I was a nappy-headed little boy…”

Nappy: 1. covered with nap; hairy, downy, shaggy; 2. kinky, said esp. of the hair of blacks and used derogatorily or contemptuously

A white woman may “hate” her hair if it isn’t the desired color or texture, but her red, blonde, gray, or brunette tresses don’t necessarily qualify her hair as an object of racial or cultural derision. If “nappiness” is a natural condition of African American hair, the fact that “nappy” is a “derogatory” term suggests essential consequences with regard to social impact and racial identity.

Additionally, if “nappiness” is regarded as a contemptuous descriptor, why does a proud, black woman like Marketta use it to describe African American hair? Certainly, the term describes a quality that is undesirable to her as well as others. Is the use of the term, “nappy,” therefore, as contemptuous as using the word “nigger”? Is it also socially acceptable only for people of color to describe themselves in this manner? Whether these social conventions are acceptable or unacceptable, racial self-identification is complex, especially when shouting self-denigrating words in apparent acts of defiance à la rap, music, or film.

In my own multiracial family, I have been surprised on occasion to hear my sister-in-law refer to my father-in-law as an “ugly black nigger” when he was out of hearing. Certainly she said this in a slightly comedic manner and, perhaps, even in an affectionate tone, but it was disconcerting nonetheless, especially because he was dark black and she was lighter-skinned.

Besides using the word “nigger” at times for special emphasis, my family also refer to black people they don’t like as “nappy-headed,” usually meaning that those people are poor, uneducated, or indifferent to their appearance. Whatever the intention, “nappy” hair for people of color seems to be a negative condition, a hair quality to be avoided for self-respect.

The strategy for eradicating nappy or “bad” hair is to perm it into submission regularly to keep it straight and style-able. In prison, the financial ability to perm one’s hair is, therefore, an indication of status, because you can only perm your hair if your family sends enough money so you can purchase the perm on commissary. After that, it’s delivered to the beauty shop, where a beauty shop worker applies it for you. The ability to perm one’s hair in prison is so important that, although hair color is unavailable, perms are staples of the prison beauty regimen. Having one’s hair permed trumps any other consideration for hair maintenance inside, except for trimming and cutting.

But, perming one’s hair in prison is only one of the painstaking efforts required to keep African American hair from, being “nappy,” unkempt, and, therefore, “bad.” Marketta’s nightly ritual — like many women’s — involves “wrapping” her hair, a process in which I sometimes assist. After her shower, she combs her hair into a cap-like arrangement by swirling her hair around her head until it’s smooth and flush against her skull. Then, she uses long white paper strips (also available on commissary) to hold the hair in place. The process requires another person to hold the strips down firmly while she places a “doo” rag over the whole business for the night. (That’s where I come in.) In the morning, she takes it down and combs it into place — usually a ponytail and bangs — a neat and tidy style that looks very nice on her and one with which she is satisfied.

Many black women (and a few curly-haired white women) wrap their hair on a nightly basis, and, although they are not allowed to wear doo rags off the unit, they often wear their hair in the swirled style around their heads sans doo rag until they want to take it down for church or a visit.

Marketta approves of this method of hair maintenance. It speaks to a woman’s self-respect in her opinion; she doesn’t like anything “nappy” on African American women. This includes “Afroballs,” little puffy balls of hair worn in a style reminiscent of Minnie Mouse’s ears.

Although she doesn’t like Afro balls, Marketta tolerates cornrowed hair if it is done well. Women on our unit, like Shermonetta, Tywanda, Cherisse, and Shermayne, wear their hair in elaborate cornrow styles, a process that can take up to two or three days of continuous, dedicated labor with the stylist yanking and pulling the hair into microscopic plaits. These are then manipulated into beautiful and intricate designs that are often works of art. Maze-like patterns, triangles, squares, spirals, and other geometric shapes come together, sometimes culminating in three-dimensional flowers like roses gathered on one side of the forehead reminding me of an art-deco-Billie-Holiday look.

To implement the cornrow style, the hair needs to be pulled tightly — very tightly — in order to last for a while. This method, however, sometimes backfires, especially on fair-skinned white women. A blonde may discover that her scalp can’t take the tension of the pulling. Little rashes and pink bumps stretch against the hair, making the whole style look very painful. I saw a woman named Tara who had to have her cornrows removed because of a tender-looking rash that erupted on her scalp. Whoever had done her hair had pulled the front pieces away from her forehead so hard that Tara walked around with a look of perpetual astonishment on her face, an expression that must have remained even while she slept. Finally, she threw in the towel from the pain, and it took three hours to take down what had taken almost three days of labor to create.

Some people might wonder why African American women don’t favor a more natural look rather than the permed or straightened styles favored by Marketta. (Test your own opinion about the “natural” look by considering Michelle Obama sporting a small, tidy Afro or dreadlocks. Does that work with your opinion about what the First Lady should look like? Why or why not?)

The roots of African American hair snobbery can be traced back through history, through the Civil Rights Movement, and back through the years of legalized slavery. To many blacks and whites throughout the passage of time, softer, wavier, lighter African-American hair is more appealing. To some, associations between “field hand” skin color (dark black) and “house slave” skin color (light brown) seem to play out with hair color and texture as well.

One only need consider the dilemma of the “tragic mullatto,” a character throughout literature and film, to recognize the complexity of skin color and hair texture and their relationships to status. If you think we’ve moved beyond these stereotypes and their relationship to social positioning or if you consider yourself to be colorblind, try to think of a dark-skinned film actress, besides Lupita Nyong’o. Most successful contemporary African American performers seem to be relatively light-skinned. Think Beyonce, Oprah Winfrey, Gail King, and Halle Berry — to name a few.

To Marketta, if she is any gauge of middle class African American taste and sensibilities, the natural look or the “Afro” smacks of radicalism. One young woman here at Decatur wears her hair in a small Afro, sculpted into a jutting cliff, and held by some stretched-out hair ties. Marketta told me that she was “young and militant” and that she was going for an “Angela Davis” look.

Angela Davis
Angela Davis

I saw this same girl one day when we were waiting to get our annual photos taken to update our IDs. I looked at her nametag and commented that her last year’s picture looked pretty good. She paused from putting on her make up and said, “Yes, I like that picture because it shows off my light skin.” We were standing with several black women of varying skin hues, but these women didn’t seem to bat an eye, although I was a little surprised at my young friend’s social indifference. Her comment led me to believe that she consciously — or subconsciously — believed that her “light skin” was racially valuable. One could only assume that this was because of its closer relationship to “whiteness” than to “blackness.”

Another friend, writing a phrase in her personal affirmation spot on our unit’s dry erase board, wrote: “Light skin is still in.” I found this equally surprising because she’s a proud African American woman, although very light-skinned. I was impressed that with all the things she could have said, she chose to comment on the color of her skin, claiming a small piece of pride not because she was black, but because she was not very black.

One of my jobs in the prison was as a Teaching Assistant in a class called Career Tech, where I taught computer skills to a class of 15 women under the watchful eye of a local community college instructor. I wondered, besides their own racial awareness, whether any of the women considered themselves to be feminists. One day, I asked, and I was shocked that no one raised their hands.

At this moment, I had an epiphany. I realized that I had completely misunderstood the way people in this Central/Southern Illinois prison addressed women. I had assumed all along that the women were calling me “Ms. Bowser,” because it was the contemporary, politically correct thing to do. I didn’t realize how influenced Illinois was by the South until I discovered that people were saying “Miz,” a sort of blurring of the term, “Miss” which is short for “Mistress.” (Think “Prissy,” a “high yallow-colored” house slave in Gone with the Wind: “But, Miz Scarlett, I ain’t never birthed no babies!”)

One reason for my misunderstanding (“Miz,” not “Ms.”) is that I have lived in the relatively progressive and lily-white county of Humboldt in Northern California for the last couple of decades, teaching and attending Humboldt State University, where we make a moderate effort to be politically correct. The close association between the “Miz” appellation and the days of slavery makes me uneasy, even if it is meant to be courteous.

Discovering my misunderstanding was a reminder of the more shameful aspects of our American past, a past made somehow more relevant during my stint here at Decatur Prison. The historical racism of my parents, the effects of a life lived partially in the South as well as in upstate New York (another lily-white environment), my black family, and my academic research over the years into all things race-related seem to have left me confused and, ultimately, more disappointed than ever.

I cut my teeth on the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X. I fought with my father about Angela Davis (a leader my father thought had the misfortune of being black, radical, and, worst of all, a woman). I embraced the struggle for equal opportunity for all people, and I was disinherited more than once from my family for my radical departure from their middle class value system, a cultural positioning that often made me ashamed.

I grew up in a world where everything seemed to be called “nigger-something.” Coarse field grass was called, “nigger hair;” Brazil nuts were called, “nigger toes;” the capstan on our sailboat was the “nigger head;” and, when smoking, my aunt told me not to “nigger-lip” the cigarette.

My mixed-race children grew up never knowing the degradation of these phrases, nor did they really understand that their grandfather had to flee Mississippi to avoid being lynched. Sometimes, I wonder if they have any real sense of their racial background or if they are as colorblind as white liberals seem to be. After all, I thought that becoming colorblind was the goal of the Civil Rights movement in order to transform American society into a fair and reasonable world. It may indeed have been a somewhat reasonable goal at the time, but “colorblindness” today seems more like simple “blindness.”

While the numbers of incarcerated African American young men grow to bizarre and unprecedented heights, even surpassing the Jim Crow era in proportion, we liberals might have to admit that we have been seduced by what appears to be racial progress in the form, for example, of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency. While that is certainly an achievement, the fact remains that one in eight or nine young black men are in prison, a ratio that, when compared to one in eight women becoming sick with breast cancer, begs the question, where is the call for a cure to mass incarceration? Where are the equivalents of the “pink ribbons,” the marches, the marathons demanding progress toward change, equity, and a solution?

When I’ve asked these questions recently of some of my white liberal friends and family, they respond with grave acknowledgement of the problem. But their eyes glaze over as if to say, “I’ve done my best, I’ve treated everyone fairly, and I’m tired. I have no more to give with regard to race issues.” These are good people, with good hearts, and good intentions. And, after thinking about the theme of my essay, I guess you could say that they have “good” hair as well.

One Comment

  1. Poet January 6, 2015

    Great article and glad to see that you won’t allow anything to stop your creativity! Bravo my friend, I’m very proud of you and remain resilient…….

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