Good Hair, Good God! The Divine Politics of African-American Hair
By Anthea Butler

Hair is a religion, especially if you’re a black woman. Yes, I know you purists won’t believe me, but when you are a black woman you can conceivably, depending on how much you worship hair, spend half your life in the beauty salon—and the rest in church.

My favorite philosopher of the comedy circuit, Chris Rock, has created a gem of a documentary called Good Hair, exploring the intricate ways in which black hair effects individuals, families, economics, social location, sexuality, and yes, even religion. Rarely have I seen a documentary that has made me laugh hysterically, want to cry, or become an activist—all at the same time.

The film scrutinizes black hair care: from the beauty salon to the hair show, and from chemical relaxers to the Indian hair that fuels the hair weave industry. Deftly using his daughters as a focus, Rock puts together a cogent argument for the ways in which hair has become just another type of slavery for black women. And I should know this, in ways that pain me to this day.

In order to write my book, Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World, I had to wear my hair bone-straight in order for many of the women in the denomination to accept me. Had I come with the 1970s retro hairstyle I rock today, I doubt seriously if the book would have been finished. Hair acted as a marker in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) from the very beginnings of the denomination: their holiness and purity codes in the early 20th century forbade the processing or pressing of hair (like Madam C.J. Walker’s revolutionary hair-straightening process.)

As the denomination grew in cities during the 1940s, straight hair became the currency of charismatic authority and power for the church mothers and pastors’ wives. Lighter skin, straighter hair, and European features became a precious commodity within a closed religious system; darker-skinned, kinky-haired women could look forward to becoming the head of the usher board, but never a vaunted evangelist or pastor’s wife. Although I would have loved to talk about this within the confines of my book, the pictures of bishops, their wives, and other pastoral couples left me both vexed and afraid. I didn’t want to risk offending people who had not figured out the politics of hair, even if they had deployed it almost as surely as sanctification had been used to cut the wheat from the chaff. Watching Good Hair brought up all of those memories, and more, from the research of my book.

The Marriage of Hinduism and Black Hair Care

Apart from being a good film, Good Hair has a religious subtext that is important to look at within the context of the study of religion. You see, most of the “weave hair” (if you don’t know what a weave is, hit the link—you’ll understand) comes from the practice of tonsure, or ritual haircutting, in Hinduism. The sacrifice of hair to the gods is the source of much of the human hair business in the United States. In fact, Rock’s documentary informs us that the hair cut for temple sacrifices is now the number-one export out of India. The fact that tonsure, a religious act, has turned into a profiteering scheme is remarkable. But there also exist unscrupulous people who are stealing women’s hair, either while they sleep or in movie theaters where their braids or hair hang over the seats; while a woman is enjoying the latest from Bollywood, someone is cutting her hair and exporting it to be sold in Los Angeles.
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