Black Hair in the White House

Ladies, bear with me while I get serious for a moment. I promise to be as brief as possible!

With all of the intense attention focused on First Lady Michelle Obama's fashion and personal style, I recently began to wonder how long it would take before something would be said about her (and her daughters') hair. When fashion commentators take note of a celebrity or public figure, they analyze everything from the dress to the shoes, the handbag to the jewels, and the makeup to the hair. Michelle Obama has been subject to all of this; Criticism of her Election Night Narciso Rodriguez dress. Raves for her Inauguration morning ensemble, including her J. Crew leather gloves. Kudos for her glowing skin and flawless makeup application. But I've noticed that, compared to her fashion coverage, little has been said about Michelle Obama's hair. Is this, perhaps, out of fear of saying the wrong, racially insensitive thing?

Sure, Mrs. O's hair stylist, Johnny Wright, has gotten a healthy dose of press attention, and has even landed a development deal to star in his own reality/makeover show (which I'm very jazzed to see, by the way). But will we ever see him (or any hairstylist for that matter) recreating Michelle's bob on a model during a segment of Entertainment Tonight, a'la Frederick Fekkai during Oscar season? Relaxer, rat tail comb, and all? Somehow I doubt it.

Which begs the question: Is this the way we as Black women want it? I'm sure we've all dealt with a curious Caucasian friend or co-worker who has reached out and touched our hair, or asked more questions about our hair than we would like. After one of these incidents, does it make you wish the person knew more about Black hair, so it wouldn't seem so mysterious and foreign to them, or do you think that they flat out don't need to know? Either way, I think we are on the verge of Black hair "coming out of the closet", and becoming more visible to the mainstream, for better or for worse.

With a Black family so incredibly visible, it would be impossible for the hairstyles of these three ladies to not be a topic of conversation at some point over the next eight years (yes, I said eight). At some point will a clueless newscaster marvel at how Michelle keeps her hair "so straight"? Will some clown on Fox News see little Sasha's afro puffs and ask why her hair is so "unkempt"? What will we do then? Will we sick Jesse and the NAACP on them, or use the moment to educate? Should we use the moment to educate?

It's a shame that something like hair has the potential to create such discomfort and confusion. I'm sure that this is something that Michelle Obama has had to think about, not only when deciding how to wear her own hair, but when having Sasha and Malia's hair styled for events as well. It kind of makes me sick to think that this family has to put such thought into how they wear their hair, because it will have such a tremendous affect on how people see them. They want to assure people that Black folks are, for the most part, just like everyone else, and part of this is demonstrated through their hair. But doesn't this take away their options (and what, after all, is a Black woman's hair without options?) But then, as working Black women, don't we all go through this (albeit, on a much smaller scale)?

OK, I'm off my soap box now! Let me know your thoughts.

Also, check out a great piece by writer Erin Aubrey Kaplan. She's written a very thought provoking piece on this very subject. You can read it here.

And check out this interview with funnyman Chris Rock about his new documentary about Black women and our hair. It was very well received at Sundance, so hopefully we'll see it theaters soon. I can't wait to see it.

On with the beauty!!


Arionne said...

I have to say...I am not so sure that I even want the Obama women having to be the examples of great black hair. I do realize that this is the first time that a black woman and black girls have been so visible to all the world. And I also know that means that in many ways the world might look to them as a symbol of Blackness and Black womanhood...and of course Black beauty and fashion. However, what I truly hope is that Michelle Obama did not ever ask herself, "how should I style my girls' hair so to prevent some insensitive remarks from some uniformed person." I hope that the only thing she thinks about when doing Sasha and Malia's hair is the same as any black mother, " let me comb their hair so they look like well-groomed little girls when we go out." And neither should Michelle have to represent all that is fabulous in Black hair. All she should think of is, " do I like the way that I look when I leave home." And if the answer is yes, then that's what counts to me. Forget everyone's opinion!

February 16, 2009 at 6:17 PM
Arionne said...

Furthermore...if some out of order reporter makes a comment about either of those little girls' hair...I am going off! Why do the most successful Black people have to always be the given representatives of Black America? Too much uncompensated work is expected of Black folk!

February 16, 2009 at 6:21 PM

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Life-long beauty junkie. There's no 12-step program for this!