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52. “Hair Story: The History of Black Hair in America,” Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps

July 29, 2010 Leave a comment

A historical and cultural examination of the meanings assigned to Black hair in the US.

This was a really interesting and enlightening book. I did have some understanding of Black hair care (and myths, mythos, superstitions, and general bullshit) before reading, but this book was lush with first-person accounts and extremely balanced in its reporting of history and the meanings of history.

When I was younger, I had long, very textured and curly hair and if left to its own devises, my hair would dred a little. But this book really argues that it’s not the hair itself as much as it is the history of the hair that makes it so fraught. In most West African societies in (and long before) the 1600s, hair care and styling was incredibly ritualized, with different hair styles holding symbolic meaning and the creation and upkeep of them a cultural affair. When Africans were kidnapped and enslaved, their kidnappers shaved their heads, stripping them of their identities. After months in the belly of slave ships, they emerged with dirty, matted hair incomprehensible to their slavers. In a new continent, new climate, and inhuman (not merely inhumane) conditions, slaves had to come up with new ways of caring for, or more often, merely taming or containing their hair.

Enter the hot comb, grease, do-rags, followed up by relaxers, braids, Afros, Jerri Curl, weaves, cornrows, perms, dreds, and blow-dryers.

Along the way, White people, of course, have had a lot of shit to say about Black hair, such that smooth, silky, combable hair becomes good hair, worthy of both envy and derision, and textured, kinky hair is “bad” hair (but sometimes afforded a sort of grudging respect at particular political moments).

I mentioned my own hair earlier because it has always been kind of difficult for me to understand why many Black people are quick to snap that their hair is not curly, it’s kinky and that White people don’t really have dreds even when they, well, have dreds (because White hair usually requires intervention to make it dred, while kinky Black hair doesn’t). But reading this book helped me to understand the cultural meaning of kinky hair and how it probably feels like white washing to have it euphemized by White folks as curly. And White surfers with dreds, or me pointing out that my hair used to have a lot of texture, too, definitely smacks of appropriation of an extremely loaded topic by someone who simply doesn’t get the same cultural baggage with the hairstyle.

So, as I said, a really interesting book, and, I think, a good one for White people to read. Because the average Black person definitely knows more about caring for White hair than the average White person knows about caring for Black hair and that’s not comfortable to me.

Since it’s my favorite axe to grind with this genre, there were a few organizational/editing problems, though. Parts of it were set up almost like a magazine with vocab lists, profiles of five Black men who changed hair, a bio of Jesse Jackson (I didn’t know that his bouffant was originally cut and styled by his mentor and surrogate father James Brown, who made him promise to wear his hair like that until Brown died), and other interesting asides, but they are plopped in sort of randomly. Also, the time line kind of jumped around so that it wasn’t always in historical order, or we’d get an in-depth profile of Madam CJ Walker and her business and then, twenty pages later, have her explained again.

Overall, a solid B+.

Page count: 198
Page total: 14,376
Call number: E185.86.B96 2001x

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6. “Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America,” Scott Poulson-Bryant

December 21, 2009 1 comment

I started reading this in October, mostly via eBrary, which is a pretty cool site. It lets you highlight the text and, the really cool part, copy it. I was making such slow progress with it, though, that I had to give up and order it through the BPL.

This book pretty much what the title says, a meditation on (US American) discourse constructing the black man as hung. It’s written in the first person, which I think required, to use the metaphor Poulson-Bryant expands upon in the past third of the book, a pretty big dick. He peppers his writing with anecdotes about his own dick and the dicks of guys he knows. Drawing on his career writing for magazines, he’s able to reference a lot of Black NFL and NBA stars, as well as hip-hop and rap artists and draw common links between their sexualization and the sexualization of old movies like “Mandingo,” right through Lexington Steele’s porn.

The writing is pretty good, too, though occasionally self-consciously so. There’s a chapter where he quotes liberally from an old journal, which always kind of bothers me, and the book begins with some references to his college journalism career. Overall, I think I was expecting something a little more academic (more citations, less ancedata), but it was pretty good for what it was: one man’s personal attempts to understand the myth of the big black penis and all it means for him and America.

Here are a few quotes:
A (white) woman, upon seeing his penis, remarks that she thought he’d have a bigger one. “I thought I’d have a bigger dick, too. There was shame in that response but also a nagging question, as in: Why the shame?” (12)

James Baldwin in “Just Above My Head”: “It was more a matter of its color than its size… its color was its size.” (quoted on 14)

Gunnar Myrdal study: White Southerners were asked what Blacks most wanted. They rated intermarriage and sex with whites #1 of 6 options (20)

“The white men who invented America weren’t trying to create a monster to subjugate. They needed a monster against which to measure their own monstrous actions. […] It’s a measuring stick of self-worth, capabilities and fallablities.” (22)

“It’s the men’s magazines that run articles about dick size […] because for so many men, it’s the very definition of who they are.” (23)

“I could cite position papers and speeches and documents detailing the African-American male’s continued status as less than endowed on the economic, social, and political totem poles. But it almost seems to defeat the point because pop-culture-wise, black men are the cream of the crop, the definers of image, and the valued sites of desire and cultural anointment, endowed, as it were, like myths. And maybe, eventually, that’s all we have. Maybe, eventually, that will be our salvation, as America, and not just hiphop, makes its mad dash to the finish line of high capitalism. Maybe, eventually, it is the Michael Jordans and Puff Daddys of our world who will signify what it means to be a black man, who will be the sole signposts to follow along the road to true endowment. Perhaps the myth will hold because there are men like our pop-culture and sports icons who put a face on the American dream of bigness, whether it’s the real financial thing or the big-dicked-ness everyone surmises them to have. Not that Jordan and his crew are immune to adhering to some of the same mythic qualities in the American obsession. “(198)

Page count: 224
Page total: 11,85

53. “The Color Purple,” Alice Walker

August 16, 2009 2 comments

Wow.

Page count: 295
Page total: 22,512

46. “Big Fish,” Daniel Wallace

July 9, 2009 Leave a comment

I was pretty disappointed by this book. The sentence structure is really inconsistent and the very short sentences and fragments did nothing for me. If you enjoyed the movie, I would not recommend the book. The movie, however, is lyrical, sad, and exhilarating, so check it out.

Page count: 180
Page total: 20,588

44. “Devil Bones,” Kathy Reichs

June 29, 2009 Leave a comment

Why, this isn’t like the TV show at all!

Page count: 304
Page total: 20,102