Sunday, February 28, 2010

Beneatha and "Good Hair"

The issue of African American women and hair is explored in the documentary “Good Hair.” The film stars and is produced by Chris Rock. The comedian travels the country talking to people of various backgrounds, status levels, and experiences. The main idea is not a new one to anyone who has taken a Sociology class: African Americans go to great lengths and spend vast amounts of money and time to make their hair look more European, which is to say straight. It isn’t only African American women that do this, but clearly the vast majority of consumers of hair straightening products are black women. The main ingredient is sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and it is found in most of these “relaxers.” As comedian Paul Mooney proclaims (beneath an Afro wig), “If your hair is relaxed [white people] are relaxed. If it’s nappy, they ain’t happy.”

The moment that Beneatha decides to let her natural hair show is both touching and powerful in “A Raisin in the Sun.” Such a decision draws criticism and ire from her own family illustrating the pressure from even within the black community to conform to European ideals of beauty and vanity. Most of Beneatha’s character is an affront to this family who simply want to be seen and accepted as American. She rejects the accommodationism of Booker T. Washington. Even Asagai, who encourages her to embrace her African-ism, sees her as too uncompromising – an idealist with a strident attitude.

It is difficult to imagine a time when the kind of decision that Beneatha made would be an easy one. But, it would seem to be especially hard during the post-war period during which the play is set. The Civil Rights movement had not picked up steam yet. Blacks were still segregated in places like the military and had just broken the color line in the nation’s most popular sport - baseball. Although she is a fictional character, Beneatha makes a stand that pre-dates Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton. Even 50 to 60 years later, African Americans still find themselves under enormous pressure to conform to norms exerted on them by an indifferent and sometimes hostile culture.

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