Black Hair Talk: 100% Indian Hair
“In tight jeans, Chinese eyes/Indian hair/Black girl a**/let me pour you a glass of Belvi” – Memphis Bleek, “Do My”
I have a close friend who is half Japanese and half Ethiopian. I have another who is half Panamanian and half Filipino. Both of these women expect to hear a common catcall in the street “Hey Indian Hair! What’s good?” Neither one of them as a single drop of Indian blood, so what gives?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas from TLC is of both Indian and Native American descent, and her baby hair game is notorious.
Google “Indian hair” and your search will yield page after page of hair from the Asian subcontinent for sale. Indian people typically have hair that is thicker than either European or East Asian hair, is usually devoid of chemicals, and is less prone to breakage. But when it comes down to it, our idea of “Indian hair” is really about the stupidity of the American lexicon resulting from Christopher Columbus’ original assumption that he’d landed somewhere in the Indian Ocean and not in the Americas. Yes, I mean the old feather versus dot situation. When we started revering “Indian hair,” we originally meant Native Americans, not people from India.
Feather on the left, dot on the right. Don’t get it twisted.
First, a little history: When Africans arrived on this continent it was inevitable that we would mingle with both Europeans and Native Americans, with “Negro/Indian” marriages documented as early as the seventeenth century. Many escaped slaves found refuge among the tribes, learned the language, and passed for Indian to avoid recapture. Free blacks married Indian women so that their children would also be free by law, and Native American women married black men because of the post-warefare decline of available men in their tribes. Other blacks were enslaved by Native American tribes, and although the slavery was far less brutal it was just as legal as European slavery. In fact, by 1750 many colonies made it a criminal act to bring blacks to Native American settlements, considering it a threat to the security of the colonies and to the profitable institution of European-run slavery itself. Have you ever wondered why “I’m part Cherokee” is such a popular claim? It’s because the Cherokee held more African slaves than any other Native American tribe, and not until 2006 after a lengthy legal battle was the Cherokee nation required to recognize 1000 black members of their nation who’d previously been shunned. Although the history of Black Indians is often ignored, one of our favorite claims (and most eye-roll-inducing) is having some “Indian in yo’ family,” which helps account for the rainbow of features that American blacks uniquely possess. In fact, experts estimate that 90% of black Americans have Native American ancestry, so doesn’t it sound extra stupid to brag about having Native American blood instead of simply being proud of our typical American slave background? Are we existing in the bowels of ignorance or what?
A Black Indian woman c. 1900
Race mixing in America traditionally leads to skin and hair hierarchies driven by the phenotype of those in power, and the interaction between Native Americans and blacks was no exception. Mirroring the valuation of European features in the mixture between whites and blacks, the idea of “good hair” has always meant having Indian blood just as much as it meant having white blood. Today the idea of “good hair” is still entrenched in our thinking about beauty, and black folks see something special about a person with brown, skin and long, straight, thick, dark hair. It’s right up there with the “black but not too black” beauty found in a sister with green eyes. Thanks to the European standard of beauty, women of all backgrounds feel pressure to straighten their hair to fit in, whether Jewish, Italian and curly, or of African descent. It makes sense that black women, whose hair tends to be the coarsest, feel more pressure to do so, and even more sense that physical features associated with oppression are less valued than those associated with freedom. It also makes sense that seeing the words “Indian hair,” trigger a yearning in black women to have that good stuff, no matter what continent it comes from.
A beauty supply store in Los Angeles. The banner flew so proudly I had to snap a photo.
What intrigues me about the black experience is our group quest for self-acceptance, a quest that is always influenced by how “anything but black but still black” we can appear. However, replacing our kinky hair with something else is much more complicated than “trying to be white.” Paradoxically, we’ve ended up trying to be more of what we already are in the first place. Isn’t it preferable to be a black woman with naturally thick, straight, dark hair that looks Indian instead of naturally fine, light, and thin hair that looks European? Do you feel bamboozled yet? Without really thinking about it too hard, many of us are trying to be some kind of “Indian.” And guess what – we are.