Why must we look so continental?

I once saw an advertisement featuring an African-American NBA player which described his hair style as “continental.”  It was clear the continent he was referring to was Europe and not Africa.

This weekend, I had the eye-opening experience of watching Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair, and the new French film 35 Shots of Rum (35 Rhums).

The later film was notable for its normalcy.   There were no extreme comedy, action scenes or violence.  It portrayed a French train engineer and his college student daughter.    There was tenderness, subtlety and a riveting dialogue about economics and Africa set in a college classroom.   Having just watched Good Hair, it occurred to me that the blacks in the film who lived in Europe, most specifically the fashion capital of France, were depicted as quite comfortable with their blackness, and were generally trying to identify with their African heritage.

In Good Hair, we saw an interview with Rev. Al Sharpton who reminisced about the perm he got at the behest of James Brown, the architect of the Afro as the performer of “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”  in the 1960s.

We also saw the theatrics of the Bronner Brothers Hair Show and Rock’s comical attempts to see some clearly African hair to a retailer.  The economics of hair shaved as part of Indian religious rituals being packaged and sold to African-Americans at a tremendous markup by a Korean cartel spoke for itself.

Several black leading ladies told Rock they couldn’t stay in the movie business without their weaves–or get a date.

The contrast between the depictions in the two films was too obvious to ignore.  Part of Rock’s genius in Good Hair was that he avoided the temptation to pass judgment on the authentic beliefs and choices of his subjects–either the parents giving perms to three year olds or the priests shaving the hair of toddlers to sell it overseas.

But there is a question to ponder. If black folks who live in Europe aren’t trying to look European, why should African-Americans go in debt to do so?

If the answer is that society values a certain look, then perhaps a better response is to change society, beginning with the broadcast and film images that lead to distorted self-worth.  We need think no further than the upcoming release of the first products from the Michael Jackson abortive tour to understand the path that troubled images in the mirror leads to.

The Nobel Peace Prize and 2008 election should be an indication that there is a road to success through authenticity.


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