Professor of Afro-American studies Neal Lester has started a campaign against hair straightening for blacks. After marrying a white woman from Argentina and having a baby girl, Lester began to realize that chemical hair straightening was in his young daughter’s future?unless he did something about it.

Jasmine was born 15 years ago and her hair isn’t what typically African-American. Lester says, “People often commented on how ‘nice’ or ‘good’ her hair was. What they clearly meant was that it wasn’t nappy. The rhetoric is clear that blacks? hair in a ‘natural’ state is undesirable. It needs to be ‘tamed’ as if blackness is wild and animalistic, and whiteness is tamed and civilized.” Lester also has a teenaged daughter, who decided to chemically straighten her hair after she reached young adulthood. He says, “For many African American girls that rite of passage means going from ‘natural’ hair to straight hair. Our society forces that ideal of beauty which is unattainable by most African American women without chemical treatment.”

While strange beauty habits abound in Africa, such as tattoos, extreme neck elongation, and the insertion of plates into lips, hair straightening is unknown there. Lester?s mother wore long, straight wigs for a good part of her life and Lester himself experimented with straightening his hair in the 1980s. He now wears dreadlocks, which some white people, such as author Anne LaMott, have adopted as well. He thinks it is sometimes harder for women with “natural” hair to be hired or promoted. Lester thinks that adopting this hairstyle may have affected his professional life as a university professor, but he?s not sure whether it’s a positive or negative influence. His students think his hairstyle is “cool.”

Wearing an “afro” or dreadlocks can be seen as a leftist political statement. Lester says, “With dreadlocks?I?ve been mistaken for a musician and a Rastafarian?I was never mistaken for anyone when I wore a flat-top fade all the years before locking.” Strangers?of all races?come up to him and want to touch his hair, which reminds him of being a college student when his white roommate asked to touch his hair and was surprised that it didn’t feel like a Brillo pad.

Lester has organized an exhibition called “HairStories” which is traveling through art galleries in Arizona, Chicago, Atlanta and Sacramento, where it continues through September 11.

Art credit:

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