‘Health, Hair and Heritage’ at the Smithsonian


Students in Congo, where elaborate hairstyles signifiy wearers’ wealth and congeniality. (Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives/NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN ART)

Historically, popular culture’s relationship with black women’s hair ranges from indifferent to insulting to fetishized. But black women’s relationship to what’s growing out of their own heads has always proved especially tangled.

A frequent, clarifying shorthand contends hair is to black women what weight is to white women. But it’s heavier than that. For white women, size rarely becomes a proxy for personhood, while black hair raises questions of beauty, authenticity and the politics of racial identity.

The panel discussion “Health, Hair and Heritage,” sponsored by the National Museum of African Art on Friday, intends to sort some of that out.

“I think there are few discussions that are of greater interest to a large number of African American women,” says museum director Johnnetta Betsch Cole. “It is no secret that we say among ourselves the struggle with the hair continues.”

The discussion comes at a time when natural hairstyles — those that don’t rely on chemical or heat-straightening techniques — are ascendant. The natural hair-care handbook “Better Than Good Hair,” which came out in January, made the Publishers Weekly bestseller list and inspired meet-ups for women to bond and share tips and hair product information. But it also comes at a time, say experts, when damage to black women’s hair, and by extension their well-being, is widespread.

“The relationship black women have or do not have with their hair largely determines their sense of wholeness,” says panelist Monte Harris, a Chevy Chase plastic and hair restoration surgeon and a member of the Sanaa Circle, a friends group of the museum presenting the discussion. A museum is a natural place to entertain questions of beauty and identity, he says, “but health is rarely woven in. For the museum, it’s a step into a 21st-century role.”

In his practice, Harris says he sees almost epidemic rates of hair loss in black women. Tightly coiled hair has more break points, making it more susceptible to damage related to daily stressors: chemical straighteners, braiding and heat. He says he tries to repair the damage and connect patients to a sense of themselves that goes deeper than hairstyle. “Having a relationship with the natural texture of your hair is really a doorway to having a deep relationship to your self. Your holistic self. I don’t think there’s a better doorway for the contemporary woman of African descent.”

There’s also a centrality to hair throughout African arts, says panelist Karen Milbourne, a curator at the Museum of African Art. “Hair is a place to show cultivation, sophistication and beauty.” She recalls an artist from Congo photographing a hairstyle that took 50 hours to accomplish. “It shows significance on multiple levels,” Milbourne says. A woman has to have the wealth and means to devote 50 hours to her hair, and be nice enough that someone would want to spend that kind of time with her. Hair is a sign of prestige and creativity, says Milbourne, and for both men and women, “it is part of identity and racial politics in the U.S. and around the world.”

Cole, who wore her hair natural for 40 years, chemically straightened it for about 10, and is back to being natural, recounts a long history of hair descriptors, loaded with freight and judgment; “good hair,” is closer to white people’s, and bad hair “is what we were born with.”

“Here is the thing I think we’ve now got to struggle with: that is to find a way to have conversations that are not launched with accusations. Because I do not perm my hair, I really need to be careful about sweeping statements about women who do,” Cole says. “Because I don’t have a weave, I need to take time before issuing a concern about what weaves are doing from a health standpoint to women from Africa, and all over the diaspora.”

It is a matter, she says, of both physical and mental health.

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