“What is good hair? Hair that doesn’t bite you? Like a good dog? Ridiculous.”
This quote is courtesy of my grandma Loretta Mae Chevalier. Good hair, of course, is what black Americans used to call hair that was silky-straight—more white-looking than black. Grandma’s POV was pretty evolved, especially for a woman born in Louisiana in 1919. (Of course, she also called my mom’s curly, prone-to-frizz locks yeast hair, because it “rose in the heat.” The duality of that woman!)
Grandma didn’t get the “good hair” thing, because her hair was the definition of that divisive, hateful term: pin-straight. No one called her an unkempt pickaninny for wearing her hair the way it grew out of her head. I thought of her as I watched Nappily Ever After, the excellent new Netflix film starring Sanaa Lathan (based on Trisha Thomas’ 2001 best-seller), which explored the relationship between black mothers and daughters, through hair rituals.
In the film Lathan plays Violet, a fancy ad exec with a perfect life, a fine long-term boyfriend, and lustrous hair that her mom (still) hot-combs every week. When her boyfriend gifts her with a dog instead of an engagement ring, she has a mini meltdown and gives up her veneer of “perfection.” She shaves off her straight hair and defiantly rocks a dramatically short, natural ‘do. It’s a declaration of independence—one that’s met with reactions ranging from disbelief to scorn (especially from her mom, wickedly played by Lynn Whitfield).
I loved it, especially since I remember the book being a sensation when it dropped, in 2001. I was a twenty-something beauty editor in New York—and I lived in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, which at the turn of the millennium was the epicenter of the Afrocentric neo-soul aesthetic. Erykah Badu and Common lived there. If you were truly cool, you rocked afro puffs and twists, wore cowrie shell accessories, and listened to Maxwell, Mos Def, D’Angelo, Jill Scott, and Lauryn Hill. India Arie’s natural-hair manifesto, “I Am Not My Hair,” was a banger.
Our great-greats, grandmas, aunties, and mamas beat their kinks and coils into submission with harsh lye relaxers and burn-inducing hot combs because “good hair” was paramount.
Meanwhile, I was the last woman in Brooklyn to chemically straighten her hair. Gauche. When I’d attend Brooklyn Moon Café’s sceney spoken-word nights, I’d be met with side-eyes. A sexy poetess with robust locs once called me a “fake Vivica Fox.” (Upon reflection, this was hilarious, and we’re friends to this day.) Back then, I was defensive about my relaxed hair. Real freedom is choice, right? My hairstyle didn’t make me less down; it was just easy. I’m from D.C. and my middle name is Aisha, girl. I’m blackety-black. Plus, a kente cloth headwrap doesn’t make you down—and a straight style, weave, or a wig doesn’t make you a “sellout.” Your hairstyle is a beauty and fashion choice. Nothing more.
But, obviously, for black women it’s far deeper than that.
Our great-greats, grandmas, aunties, and mamas beat their kinks and coils into submission with harsh lye relaxers and burn-inducing hot combs because “good hair” was paramount. Good hair meant you were closer to white beauty ideals, which in America meant you had a slightly easier time of it. Straight, smooth, controlled, subdued, “tamed” hair could mean a better job, the ability to fly a bit more under the radar, maybe getting a loan, access to social status. It wasn’t simply a beauty and fashion choice for our ancestors. It was survival. In a colonized society that terrorized you for looking like yourself, emulating your oppressors made practical sense.
Straightening our hair was born from shame and oppression, but because we’re cultural magicians, we turned hair-straightening rituals into something beautiful. Wash days (usually Sundays) were a special time with your female elders. Greasing your scalp on the porch, pressing your bangs before church, gossiping in the salon while hot combs smoked the air—this was rich cultural stuff, a bonding experience. As generations passed, the original reasons we did this were buried, and it just became what black women did.
My mom was woke before woke was woke. Black power, black love, exclusively black dolls, all of it. And yet my two little sisters and I all had relaxers by fifth grade. She wasn’t doing it to help us avoid getting spat on at school. She was a busy working mom with an insane to-do list, and wrestling with three heads of tangled curls (a generation before the rise of texture-loving hair care and vlogger tutorials) was not on it.
How could I teach my daughter to love her springy spirals if I was flattening the hell out of mine?
In Nappily Ever After, Violet’s straight-hair-obsessed mother is the villain. And, admittedly, she is the worst. She ruled over her daughter with hot combs and relaxers, creating a woman terrified of rain and pools, who wakes up hours before her (fine, did I mention?) boyfriend, to smooth out her blowout. What black audiences know is that she’s operating from inherited trauma, but I loved that the film didn’t feel the need to provide context for this. I saw this in Crazy Rich Asians, which peppered in gloriously authentic, unexplained cultural inside jokes. And if you didn’t get them—well, they weren’t meant for you. That novel and film didn’t explain themselves to non-Asian America, and we’re no longer explaining ourselves to non-black America. Progress, no?
In any event, like Violet, I had a relaxer forever, until my daughter was three, in 2011. Lina is a black Dominican girl with a riot of thick, endless ringlets, but she wanted the long, silken strands of Disney princesses—and her mom. I refused to raise a daughter who wasn’t proud of her looks. But how could I teach her to love her springy spirals if I was flattening the hell out of mine? After the second time she announced that “curls weren’t pwetty,” I never touched a relaxer again. It was life-changing. Beyond the excitement of discovering my own curls (and loving them—so early Whitney!), it changed my daughter’s mind about her own hair. Suddenly curls were dope! When she came home with a self-portrait of herself with a massively poufy side-ponytail, I burst into tears on the spot.
In Nappily, the mom had everything to do with Violet’s relationship to hair. I know that I have everything to do with shaping Lina’s too. Mothers are the prototype of womanhood for daughters. And black mothers need to approach the beauty conversation with intention—drilling it into their heads that their natural hair is beautiful. They need to believe this truth before they get out in the world, because media, fashion, and schoolmates will teach them otherwise. Telling little black girls repeatedly that their hair and skin is glorious (and teaching your black sons to adore it) isn’t modeling vanity. It’s gifting them armor.
During the movie, I reflected on the parts of the late-nineties, early-aughts natural-hair revolution that felt a bit rigid to me, back when the Nappily Ever After novel debuted. The mood in Brooklyn was heavy-handed, sure. But revolutions are supposed to be. Sometimes you have to go way left to pull folks to the center. And we’ve come far since the divisive early days of the #revolution. No spoilers, but at the end Violet says in an advertising board meeting, “Women can wear weaves if they want to. They can straighten their hair if they want to. It’s a choice, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But they also need to know that there’s beauty in their natural hair.”
Word. Viva la revolución.
–Sanaa Lathan: ‘Natural Hair Is Beautiful, but It Should Be a Choice’
–This Meteorologist Had a Powerful Response to a Complaint That Her Hair Wasn’t ‘Normal’
–Why Are My Daughter’s Beauty Apps Othering Brown Girls?