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Hair-Raising Thoughts on Cultural Coifs

USC professor studies the politics of follicles and how they shape an African American woman’s identity.

Hair-Raising Thoughts on Cultural Coifs
Is Oprah Winfrey’s hair real?

That question is at the heart of “From the Kitchen to the Parlor: Language and Becoming in African American Women’s Hair Care,” (Oxford University Press, 2006) a new book by anthropologist Lanita Jacobs-Huey.

Oprah’s hair choices – extensions, straightening, curly or braids – was seen by many who took part in a month-long Internet discussion as much more than a personal expression but as an obvious political symbol. One comment suggested that Oprah changing her hair could be as significant as the fall of apartheid.

“Discussions about hair go to the heart of the politics of African American women,” Jacob-Huey said. “African American women face profound issues concerning gender and racial identity when making decisions about hair.”

The USC professor explores the way hair “speaks,” how it shapes black women’s sense of themselves and their place in the world.

From urban comedy clubs where there’s an age-old tradition of poking fun at black hairstyles to seminars where hair care professionals believe they are divinely appointed to minister through hair, Jacobs-Huey spent six years studying the way black women talk about hair in everyday settings.

Her observations provide a unique insight into the politics of hair.

For example, the afro – once a cylinder of teased hair – was a contrast to the straightening and relaxing style that many prominent blacks wore in the ’60s. By the ’70s, the cut was more of a fashion statement than a political one, and as a multicolored pouf, it even became part of the disco craze. After years of falling out of favor, it once again has returned – but with little of the symbolism that once made it a target for some and a beacon to others.

“The afro was a symbol of racial consciousness during the Black Power movement. Wearing an afro in the ’70s said, ‘I am proud to be black and I have a political stance,’ ” Jacobs-Huey said. “But it evolved and was appropriated as a style marker and lost its significance. In the new millennium, it’s not cylindrical or perfect. It’s free-spirited and purposefully so. It’s less a testament to black pride than black aesthetics. Now it’s one of many styles. And it’s meaning is increasingly subject to the eye of the beholder.”

What does that mean for African American women? That while they may choose a style because it’s easy to care for or fits a certain lifestyle, it can still be hard for them to ignore the racial and societal implications that go along with their choice, Jacobs-Huey said.

“What people do and say through hair care can shed light on how members of a cultural group use hair more broadly as a signifier of status,” Jacobs-Huey said. “I examine black hair as a window into African American women’s ethnic and gender identities.”

Jacobs-Huey grew up hearing these kinds of debates and conversations at her mother’s salon in Oakland, Calif.

So is Oprah’s hair real? Jacobs-Huey doesn’t know. But what she found out is that the answer matters a lot to some and not at all to others.

“One of the most important lessons I learned from this journey is that sometimes hair is just hair and sometimes hair is not just hair,” Jacobs-Huey said.