by Ciara Miller
Both Gwendolyn Brooks and Carolyn Rodgers address the impact of Black beauty culture on Black women’s perception of self within their poems. According to Robert L. Boyd’s article “the Great Migration to the North and the Rise of Ethnic Niches for African American Women in Beauty Culture and Hairdressing, 1910-1920”, few studies have examined the impact of the Great Migration on the economic opportunities of African-American women. The vast majority of African-American women worked low status jobs, and many responded to this labor market disadvantage by becoming self-employed in occupations within the African-American community. The most popular of these occupations were beauty culture and hairdressing, which provided African-American women with an ethnic niche which can be defined as an activity in which members of an ethnic group are concentrated and gain economic benefits. This enables them to “cope with modest skills and employer discrimination.” An ethnic niche is also an entrepreneurial occupation that lends itself to self-employment and can be the foundation of an ethnic enclave economy for a particular ethnic minority group. An ethnic enclave economy is an arrangement of ethnic-owned businesses that, by providing opportunities for self-employment, help members of the ethnic group avoid entrapment in the secondary labor market of the larger economy.
In Chicago, the number of businesses owned by African Americans rose from 371 in 1908 to 1, 260 in 1921— an increase of nearly 240 percent. Most of the African American owned businesses created in the north during the early years of the Great Migration involving close contact with customers were namely: barbering, beauty culture, and hairdressing. The growth and segregation of the black population and white merchants’ desires for social distance created protected markets for African Americans in personal services. These protected markets supported the ethnic niches that provided African-American women and men with their best prospects for business ownership and self-employment. The most famous ethnic niche story of the early 20th century was that of Madame C.J. Walker of Indianapolis, who developed a hair-relaxer in 1905 and later founded a company that manufactured cosmetics. When she died in 1919, her wealth was estimated at over a million dollars, making her the first woman in the United States to become a self-made millionaire.
As early as the nineteenth century, Black women’s bodies became a battleground in the resistance to and development of a modern Black womanhood. A heightened discourse and debate ensued over the practice and consumption of hairstyles and bodily adornment during the period of the Great Migration. Black women inserted their own visions into the mass marketplace to create a Black beauty culture. More than simply a politics of “straight vs. natural,” the specific consumption habits and tastes of Black migrant women reconstructed white commercial beauty standards. Black women’s entry into beauty culture created new sources of employment. Madame C.J. Walker argued that her company offered working women relative autonomy over their civic, economic, and aesthetic choices in both the private and public world. Walker never intended for her hair straightening products to represent a means of a social progression, but instead placed pictures and images of her accomplishments in ads as a source of female desire.
Walker’s national organizer, Chicagoan Marjorie Stewart Joyner, took students to Europe to exchange the latest beauty and hair care techniques. She also engaged actively in politics and lobbied the Illinois state senate for the protection of hair care businesses. The growing popularity of Black beauty products redefined acceptable representations and occupations for working-class African American women. Women like Madame C.J. Walker and Marjorie Joyner and the people who purchased their products transformed beauty culture into a sphere of race pride, labor, and politics.
Although Madame C.J. Walker never intended to draw a rift between women with natural and relaxed hair, once African-American women were able to straighten their hair through her products, there became a politicized division between African-American women who maintained their natural hair and those who presented a more assimilated look. Madame C.J. Walker’s Black haircare business even impacted the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks. In Brooks’ poem “at the hairdresser’s” in A Street in Bronzeville republished in her collected works Blacks, the speaker sassily declares:
Gimme an upsweep, Minnie,
With humpteen baby curls.
‘Bout time I got some glamour.
I’ll show them girls.
They think they so fly a-struttin’
With they wool a-blowin’ ‘round.
Wait’ll they see my upsweep.
That’ll jop ‘em back on ground.
Got Madam C.J. Walker’s first.
Got Poro Grower next.
Ain’t none of ‘em worked with me, Min.
But I ain’t vexed.
Long hair’s out of style anyhow, ain’t it?
Now it’s tie it up high with curls.
So gimme an upsweep, Minnie.
I’ll show them girls.
Brooks’ poem highlights the impact of Black haircare businesses on Black women’s sense of self value. The speaker of her poem notes that she tried both Madame C.J. Walker’s hair straightening products as well as Chicagoan Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone’s Poro Grower, which was intended to lengthen Black women’s hair. However, neither of these products worked for her hair. She then asserts that her “upsweep” will allow her to compete with other Black women. This signals the respectability politics associated with Black women’s hair. In order to assert her worth, the speaker has to find another avenue to compete with prevailing ideals of Black feminine beauty.
Brooks’ poem also utilizes communal Black beauty salon language. The reader is expected to have an understanding of an “upsweep” or arguments surrounding Black feminine beauty. The poem oscillates between quatrains and quintains, creating both an even and uneven disposition. The penultimate stanza is written as a quatrain and the final stanza is one verse which, if combined with the previous stanza, would leave the poem on an uneven versed stanza which alludes to the disjointedness of Black women as it relates to Black feminine beauty standards. Brooks, concluding the poem with, “I’ll show those girls” showcases the speaker as separate from other Black girls who embrace a different beauty aesthetic.
In her book Primer for Blacks, Brooks writes about the impact perms had on Black women in her poem entitled “To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals.” As Brooks often does in her writings, she places herself outside of this experience of naturalness. She writes:
I love you.
Because you love you.
Although Brooks often writes in third person, she is not totally against the use of the “I” in this poem which calls attention to her own battles with perceiving herself as beautiful. She writes:
You have not wanted to be white. Nor have you testified to adoration of that state with the advertisement of imitation (never successful because the hot-comb is laughing too).
Brooks salutes the willpower of women who wear their natural hair while also subtlety calling attention to both her strength in being able to confess a desire to be white or imitate whiteness as well as the weakness of not being able to fully accept herself. The poem has a bit of a misleading title because Brooks’ folks are not just women who maintained their natural hair considering the speaker, herself, does not remain natural. Brooks’ readership is expected to be those concerned with the ways in which media affects how Black women perceive themselves.
In later years, Carolyn Rodgers would embody the “natural haired woman” that Brooks praises. In Rodgers’ poem “For Sistuhs Wearin Straight Hair” from her collection Songs from a Blackbird, she writes about her own handlings with her natural hair and confronts women with permed hair:
I never could keep my edges and kitchen
straight even after supercool straighter
perm had burned whiteness onto my scalp.
The poem implies that perms and other products to straighten or tame her hair never fully worked because her hair always returned to its natural state or that she always returned to a state that distanced her from whites.
Structurally, Rodgers’ 1976 National Book Award nominated How I Got Ovah has less special gaps in the writing. Her stanzas are organized more geometrically. It has less commands in terms of the ways in which she seeks to galvanize Blacks into action. It is a book more concerned with the “I”. The book was written after Rodgers graduated from the University of Illinois, earning her Bachelor’s degree and it shows a more structured approach to activism. At the time the book was published, she had entered the University of Chicago to achieve her MA in English.
For Rodgers, Black women’s hair is symbolic of their politics. Rodgers opens the book with “for muh’ dear” still addressing the significance of the mother or mother-figure in Black women’s quest for self-definition. In this poem, the Black mother hasn’t changed much from a figure of contention for the speaker. However, the speaker is more concise and owns her Blackness. The mother and speaker clearly depart:
“told my sweet mama to leave me
alone about my wild free knotty a
nd nappy hair cause I was gon lay
back and let it grow so high
it could reroute its root
and highjack the sky!”
Her primary focus in this poem is to define the self as an individual despite advocating for Black collectivity. Rodgers assists the reader in understanding her own poetic aesthetics by juxtaposing herself and her mother. She makes a definitive point to highlight the contrast between older generations of thought regarding Black feminine beauty and her own rebelliousness. She believes her mother to be too docile. Relatedly, her poetry rebels not only against canonized poetic formalities but it also rebels against the traditional displays of Black femininity.
Both Brooks and Rodgers assert who their folk are by claiming their interests and concerns as it relates to Black women’s hair. A community is a portion of the dominant society which is connected through similar interests, ideals, or location. Through perspectives on Black hair politics, both poets showcase who their words and visual appearance address. For Brooks, she writes for Black women who are on both sides of the fence regarding Black beauty aesthetics. She admires women who wear their natural hair while also acknowledging, for herself, the bravery she lacks to “go natural.” For Rodgers, her folk are those who embrace a natural Blackness that removes itself from the need for approval. Her writing seeks to galvanize Black women to commit to a particular idea of Black self-love. She appeals to those who believe in Blackness as an identity that can sufficiently define itself without depending on white societal ideals of beauty or worth. Both writers allow readers to see the political divisions that played out in Chicago amongst Black women who chose to embrace a particular beauty aesthetic.
Ciara Miller, a native of Chicago, holds both an MFA and MA in Poetry and African American/African Diaspora Studies from Indiana University. She also received her BA in Liberal Arts from Sarah Lawrence College. She has served as the cohost and co-coordinator of Bloomington, Indiana’s poetry slam series for three consecutive years. She is also the founder of Chicago Artists Against Gun Violence.