Ranging from the shaving of newborns to the coiffing of the dead, from the anecdotal to the scholarly, and from antebellum America to contemporary Africa, this remarkable array of writings and images illuminates black women's hair and its cultural meaning.
What could make a smart woman ignore doctor's orders?
What could get a hardworking employee fired from her job?
What could get a black woman in hot water with her white boyfriend?
In a word...
When does a few ounces feel like a few tons? When a doctor advises a black woman to start an exercise program and she wonders how she can do it without breaking a sweat. When an employer fires her for wearing a cultural hairstyle that's “unprofessional,” and she has to go to court to plead for her job. When she's with her man, and the moment she's supposed to let loose, she stops to secure her head scarf so he doesn't disturb the 'do.
Yes, definitely. All black women are, in one way or another.
The issue is not only about looking good, but about feeling adequate in a society where the beauty standards are unobtainable for most women. “Tenderheaded” boldly throws open the closet where black women's skeletons have been threatening to burst down the door. In poems, essays, cartoons, photos, and excerpts from novels and plays, women and men speak to the meaning hair has for them, and for society. In an intimate letter, A'Leila Perry Bundles pays tribute to her great-grandmother, hair-care pioneer Madam C.J. Walker, who launched a generation of African-American businesswomen. Corporate consultant Cherilyn “Liv” Wright interviews men and women on the hilarious ways they handle “the hair issue” between the sheets. Art historian Henry John Drewal explores how hairstyles, in Yoruba culture, indicate spiritual destiny, and activist Angela Davis questions how her message of revolution got reduced to a hairstyle.
“Tenderheaded” is as rich and diverse as the children of the African diaspora. With works by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, bell hooks, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and other writers of passion, persuasion, and humor — this is sure to be one of the most talked-about books of the year.
Juliette Harris is the editor of International Review of African-American Art, published by Hampton University Museum in Virginia. She has also written award-winning television and film documentaries. Pamela Johnson
is a former senior editor of and a current columnist for Essence magazine. She is the author of the novel Santa and Pete, which was adapted for a TV movie.