African American female service members comprise the highest percentage of women in the military. And with these sister servicewomen enlisting in the military at higher rates than their White, Asian and Latina sisters to serve and die for our country, the last thing the military should be squawking about is our hair.
In March the Army released an updated policy on appearance and grooming, titled ”AR 670-1,” limiting or banning hairstyles — braids, twists, cornrows, and dreadlocks — inimitable to African American women.
The Congressional Black Caucus outraged sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stating ”that the Army policy’s language was ‘offensive’ and ‘biased.”
While many sisters today might use a hot comb on their hair, hot combs (also called straightening combs) were around in the 1880’s, sold in Sears and Bloomingdale’s catalogs to a predominately White female clientele. Madam C.J. Walker, the first African American millionaire for her inventions of Black hair products, didn’t invent the hot comb; she popularized its use by remedying the perceived ”curse” of nappy hair with her hair-straightening products that continues to this day to bring comfort to many Black women.
While the etymology of the word “nappy” derives from Britain meaning a baby’s cotton napkin or diaper, in America the word became racialized to mean unkempt, wild and wooly hair associated with people of African descent. And it is used to demean and to degrade African Americans.
But even with good intentions the landmine can be detonated. In 1998 Ruth Ann Sherman, a White third-grade teacher, who taught in a predominately African American and Latino elementary school in Brooklyn, learned that lesson when she read African American author Carolivia Herron’s award winning children’s book Nappy Hair, a celebration of Black hair.
Renowned African American feminist author Alice Walker spoke about the constraints of hair and beauty ideals in African American culture. In her address ”Oppressed hair puts a ceiling on the brain” Walker, at the all-women’s historically Black college Spelman in Atlanta in April 1987, stated the following:
“I realized I have never been given the opportunity to appreciate my hair for it true self… Eventually, I knew precisely what hair wanted: it wanted to grow, to be itself…to be left alone by anyone, including me, who did not love it as it was.”
While many African American women today wear their hair in afros, cornrows, locks, braids, Senegalese twists, wraps or bald, our hair — both symbolically and literally — continues to be a battlefield in this country’s politics of hair and beauty aesthetics within and outside of the African American community.
Rev. Irene Monroe is a Huffington Post blogger and freelance journalist.