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In response to Cheryl Underwood and her 'nappy' hair remark
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D. Barbara McWhite grew up in York County, S.C., and lives in Orange Park, Fla., with her husband and cat. Her column is published here each Tuesday. Opinions expressed are solely her own.

“Why would you save afro hair?” That’s the question comedian Cheryl Underwood asked on her new show, “The Talk,” which aired on August 30.

On the show, model Heidi Klum admits to saving her children’s hair after haircuts, which led Underwood to ask why anyone would save afro hair. She then went on to say that you never hear of women in hair stores asking for “curly, nappy, beady” hair. And when her co-host said that she, too, saves her children’s hair, Underwood replied that the hair was “probably some beautiful, long, silky stuff.”

Now, it would be easy for me to jump on the bandwagon with the throng of commenters who have flooded twitter denouncing Underwood’s comments as ignorant and saying Underwood’s views represent a mentality of self-hatred and a hatred for the natural physical beauty that defines African Americans.

But the temptation to join the clamor is tempered by the nugget of truth her otherwise ridiculous and sad comments contain: African American women have mentally and physically bought onto the notion that beautiful hair means long, silky and straight.

Ever since Madam C. J. Walker became the first female, self-made millionaire by inventing and marketing a line of hair care products for blacks, African American women have been willing to fork over considerable amounts of money to achieve long, silky manes. And toward that effort, through the years, black hair has been exposed to lye, dye, grease, hot combs, stocking caps, Jheri curls, wigs, weave, glue-in and sew-in. As the late comedian Redd Foxx once quipped, black hair has been “fried, dyed and laid to the side.”

While hair store owners have become richer through the sale of hair straighteners and weave, for many African American women, the result has been that we have spent huge sums of money to achieve thin and damaged hair that left us dependent on wigs and weaves to try to hide the weakened condition of our own hair.

I was a teenager in the ’70s when everyone wanted big afros like the Jackson Five wore. I wore an afro back then, though I never got it to grow big enough to rival Michael Jackson’s. Even back then, many “natural hair” wearers used products and processes to soften or enhance their natural styles. Do you remember the “blow out?” Remember Stay Soft Fro?

But gradually afros became Jheri curls, curls became relaxers and relaxers gave way to weaves. And for many women of color, like Michael Jackson, the continued pursuit of European beauty brought disastrous results.

Now at last, African American women are saying, “No more.” Finally, women of color are beginning to embrace the beauty of our own natural hair. It is a welcome change – a change our scalps and, I dare say, our wallets thank us for.

Everywhere I look these days, I find a sassy sister looking fly while sporting a “curly, nappy, beady” do. Natural hair is in again, and I am glad of it.

For years I have worn my hair in a relaxed style. And while the new and beautiful trend is tempting, for now my choice is to continue with relaxed hair. Still, I smile every time I pass a head of wild kinky hair or a beautifully sculpted head of hair worn nappy, and I rejoice that black women are allowing ourselves to again choose natural styles as an option.

I don’t believe that hair, natural or straightened, defines my blackness or that wearing relaxed hair expresses a desire to be white any more than tanning, lip fillers or butt implants expresses a desire for whites to be black.

What I do believe is that, for too long, society has relegated natural black hair to the proverbial “closet of shame.” And like other occupants of that closet, black hair has had to hide its true identity in an attempt to conform to American norms.

Now at last, black hair is coming out. Black heads are throwing off their wigs and weaves and claiming their true identities. Each head of natural hair is an announcement to the world that “I am nappy, curly, kinky, beady and proud.”

Black heads are saying, “This is the real me - the way God made me.”

And with that announcement is the unspoken and age-old question to society: “Will you love and accept me for my real self?”

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October 7, 2015
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