Generations of black American women remember weekend afternoons spent watching an iron comb glow like molten lava on the burner of the stove. We waited for our mothers to wield the hot comb like a weapon, ready to subdue our thicket of coils to make us more culturally acceptable. Even at a young age, I wondered who I was supposed to impress.
When I was deemed old enough, I “switched over” to chemical straighteners that frequently blistered my scalp – all for a fuzzy bob that I hated. “Beauty is pain,” my hairdresser chirped as she kneaded the chemical cream into my roots and I winced. In my mid-twenties, I decided beauty wasn’t worth it this pain, so I cut off most of my hair and have since maintained a very short, natural style.
“When black women’s hair is the butt of jokes, the very real and myriad forms of multiple marginalization against black women are erased and even justified,” Joseph noted. “It hurts.”
Even though jokes about us and our hair predate Rock, we don’t need him to lead the way in exposing the savagery of the practice, let alone on Hollywood’s Biggest Night.
Like director Jane Campion’s faux pas a few weeks ago at another awards show (which, sadly, also involved the Williams sisters, one of the themes of Will Smith’s “King Richard” film), this removal of a black woman stings even more for being unleashed by someone who should know better – in Rock’s case, as a black father of daughters; at Campion’s, as a woman who likely also faced gendered professional affronts. But the result was the same each time: Black women were expected to smile and take the hit.
In a sense, the whole task of the Oscars, and its wave of embarrassment and apology, could have been avoided by choosing not to drag a black woman by the hair. Yet for too long and too long it’s seemed irresistible to stay out, to meddle we.
So, to anyone who feels the need to poke fun, I’ll rephrase Will Smith’s warning on the show: keep the mention of black women’s hair out of your mouth.