Professor explores hair's cultural implications for African-Americans
Until the birth of his daughter 15 years ago, Neal Lester had never given much thought to head hair.
Jasmine, the child of an African-American father and Italian-Argentine mother, was born with what Lester recalls as "bouncy, thick, ringlets." Her locks, like the shade of her skin, became the discussion of family, friends and strangers.
"People often commented on how ˜nice' or ˜good' her hair was," Lester says. "What they clearly meant was that it wasn't nappy."
As a professor of English specializing in African-American literary and cultural studies, and chair of ASU's Department of English, Lester is well-schooled on the gender and race politics of African-American hair. There is no shortage of head-hair references and treatments in African-American folklore, literature and popular culture.
"The rhetoric is clear that blacks' hair in a ˜natural' state is undesirable," he says. "It needs to be ˜tamed,' as if blackness is wild and animalistic, and whiteness is tamed and civilized."
Until he became a father, however, Lester admits he was not as tuned in to the central role hair continues to play in African-American identity; this despite the fact that his own mother wore long, straight wigs for a good part of her life – and he, himself, experimented with straightening his hair in the 1980s.
"I had earlier dismissed these events as insignificant," Lester says. "Now, however, they signify for me continuing racial and gender biases about head hair both within and outside black cultural experiences. They can affect everything from pop culture, to hiring practices, to student conduct policies."
In addition to studying and teaching courses on African-American literature, folklore, cinema and drama, Lester continues to lecture extensively on the race and gender politics of hair to broad and diverse audiences across the country. He wants others to explore the issue as not one of the past, but one that continues to complicate African-Americans' self-identities and broader social ideals of beauty.
Lester's work helped inform the acclaimed exhibition "HairStories" that is traveling through art galleries across the country"”in Arizona, Chicago and Atlanta, for instance. Its final stop is the 40 Acres Art Gallery in Sacramento, Calif., where it opened July 9 and continues through Sept. 11.
The exhibition examines the complex phenomena of blacks' hair in America as a vehicle for self-expression and artistic invention, and Lester's centerpiece essay in the "HairStories" exhibition catalog weaves together historical and personal insights.
His own "hairstory" includes his decision to grow dreadlocks eight years ago – a socio-political and spiritual decision to take back control of a life he felt was slipping away because of some legal struggles with an Alabama public school system.
While his students thought his new 'do was "cool," his family questioned just how "professional" it was for a university professor. Strangers have wanted to touch it, an experience that reminds him of his first white college roommate's curious request to touch his hair. That roommate expressed great surprise to see that his hair did not feel like steel wool or a Brillo pad.
"With dreadlocks, my hair for the first time in my life became a main topic of conversation," he says. "I've been mistaken for a musician and a Rastafarian – I was never mistaken for anyone when I wore a flat-top fade all the years before 'locking. For me, the issue is not that people are curious about my hairstyle, but that public representations and acceptance of such hairstyles and hair decisions are far from mainstream in this country."
His hairstory also includes his teenage daughter's decision to chemically straighten her curly hair – a moment that, for Lester, marked her passage from childhood to womanhood.
"For many African-American girls, that rite of passage means going from ˜natural' hair to straight hair," Lester says. "Our society forces that ideal of beauty that is unattainable by most African-American women without chemical treatment."
And even then, as rapper KRS-1 clarifies, the alleged "perm"(anent) is but "a temporary" when moisture makes contact.
Much of Lester's work focuses on how this straight/nappy "hair ideal" affects children, particularly young girls. He is interested in African-American children's literature and the extent to which black readership magazines and commercials target the straight-hair ideals typically to mothers of these girls.
When boys and men are attracted to "Barbie-doll-Rapunzel-straight-haired little girls," Lester adds, the gender politics are more all-encompassing.
While such African-American adult literature, as Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," and Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" deal with young black girls coming to terms with their "nappy" hair in the face of culturally competing beauty mythologies, Lester notes that very few children's books create positive messages for young children about their natural hair.
The 1997 children's picture book "Nappy Hair," by Carolivia Herron, and the national controversy it created are the centerpiece of his lectures on hair and shows that conversations about hair can be self-celebratory for African-Americans despite historical and social baggage.
"There are multitudes of messages being sent to little black girls and their mothers about the necessity of transforming themselves into someone else's cultural image of beauty," Lester says. "Among African-Americans, there are so many hairstyles: dreadlocked, ˜natural,' curled, faded, braided, twisted, straightened, permed, crimped, cornrowed and even bald. I'd like to see all of these images represented and celebrated."
Lester's research, presentations and talks on hair afford another important lens through which to read culture and identity, highlighting ultimately that this discussion of difference can lead to personal "hairstories" and the realization that, as Angelou has proclaimed: "We are more alike than we are unalike."
By Sharon Keeler. Keeler, with Marketing & Strategic Communications, can be reached at (480) 965-4012 or (firstname.lastname@example.org).
August 8, 2005