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Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women's Consciouness

Ingrid Banks
New York University Press: New York
0814713378 (pb); 081471336X (hb)
US$17.50 (pb); US$55.00 (hb)

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Much has been written about the place of hair in the lives of African American women, but apart from Noliwe Rooks' recent historical study, there has been little investigative work to supplement personal anecdote and cultural analysis (Rooks, 1996). Ingrid Banks addresses this absence in Hair Matters. Posing questions that go to the heart of political debates about whether the use of straightening agents or relaxants are a mark of 'self hatred' and 'desire to be white', Banks skilfully presents diversity among the women she interviewed. This study is a fine example of the use of qualitative research to inform our understandings of contemporary cultural politics.

Banks conducted interviews with sixty-one black girls and women between 1996 and 1998. Most women (forty-three) responded to her questions in one-to-one semi-structured interviews. The rest participated in five focus groups in which teenagers, young adults, graduate students, physicians and women on low incomes discussed hair matters with their friends. Most of the interviews were conducted in Oakland, Berkeley, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, California, but some were completed in Atlanta. The group interview with low-income women was conducted in Washington D.C.. The women were recruited using snowball-sampling techniques directed at including women of different ages, occupations and income groups with different hair textures and hairstyles.

As a researcher in this field, Banks was an 'insider', an African American woman talking to other women about hair practices in which they all participated. At another level she was a woman with short 'natural' (unstraightened) hair. This did not, however, stop women from talking about short hair as 'masculine', nor did it prompt them to agree with the argument that straightening indicates 'self hatred' among black women. Rebellion against political and parental pressures to adopt a 'natural' style, experimentation, and a tradition of hair altering practices in black communities were all cited as reasons why women use relaxants, perms, hair extensions and the pressing comb invented by the enterprising Madame C. J. Walker.

One of the women interviewed suggested that African American women might not 'have an option of having it [their hair] natural' (p. 55) and did things to their hair 'to have men attracted to us'. Other women indicated that certain hairstyles (like braids and dreadlocks) might be fine for graduate students, but not for women who want to 'look professional for a job interview' (pp. 38-9). Physicians said that they had more freedom to choose their hairstyles than lawyers working in the corporate sector (p. 128- 9). One of the older women spoke about straightening as a way 'to improve my looks', not an attempt to look like a white person. Stacy, on the other hand, looked critically at this passion for 'improvement' and saw it as a manifestation of the way women generally 'walk around with that feeling of lack' (p. 68). Some of the younger women hoped that the fathers of their children would have the 'right' sort of hair so that their children would have 'good' rather than tightly coiled hair. Other women passionately rejected the 'good' and 'bad' hair distinction.

Bank argues that 'hair shapes black women's ideas about race, gender, class, sexuality, images of beauty, and power' (p. 3). The political dimensions of African American hair are starkly illustrated in Hair Matters. But it is possible to recognise that political, sexual and class identities are enacted through hair while at the same time recognising the impact of historical and contemporary discourses on how women wear their hair. This is nicely illustrated by a comment from Laurie who states that the current diversity in hairstyling practices among African American women 'has something to do with the consciousness of black women now' (p.143). Slavery, racial discrimination, the civil rights movement, black power, contemporary feminism, and traditional African hairstyling practices shape women's hair practices. Location in a corporate law office, a university, a hospital or a retail outlet can also have an impact on hair choices. Laurie argues: 'Maybe it's repeating itself in hair, but maybe it's not hair that's the issue'.

Banks argues that hair is an issue for many African American women, but the responses of the women interviewed suggested that it is not 'the' issue, despite the millions of dollars spent on hair products by black women in the USA. The right to choose how you look, the pleasures of variety, and the need at times to resist political correctness or embrace an 'African' identity shape what these women do with their hair. Banks provides her own analysis, but generously gives us access to the theorising of her research participants. Readers can draw their own conclusions about how hair and beauty are shot through with ethnicity, class and the complexities associated with the embodied construction of political communities.

Rosemary DuPlessis
University of Canterbury


ROOKS, NOLIWE (1996) Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

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