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The ritual.

I spent a recent Saturday getting my hair done. The whole day. For me, the monthly hair ritual consist, of rising early to untwist my thick, "awfully curly" (one woman's description) tresses. The untwisting - always accompanied by good music (Aretha Franklin, Cassandra Wilson and Alice Coltrane somehow seem appropriate) and a good book (Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, and Toni Cade Bambara have been the choices of late) - usually takes three or four hours if I'm doing it alone, which, given the daunting nature of the project, I usually am. Then I wash and condition it thoroughly (which, contrary to popular belief, I and most other people who wear twists, braids, or locks do quite often). Then I hook up with the kindhearted sister who will re-twist it, which usually takes four to six hours, depending on how lively our conversations become and how frequent and long our breaks are. So the hair ritual literally takes all day.

Sometimes, I'm embarrassed to tell people about the ritual. I'll simply say that I can't meet them for lunch or can't make the cookout because I'll be tied up all day. I hesitate to elaborate because, unfortunately, many people view getting the hair done as a frivolous expenditure of time. These are the same folks who compliment well-coifed women and men but who obviously don't understand the time that must be invested to get the |do.

Never mind the fact that my particular hair ritual is rooted in ancient African traditions: For centuries women have communed together while scratching secrets from each other's heads; black women, in Africa and throughout the diaspora, have a long history of greasing, combing, twisting, and braiding each other's locks while contemplating and sometimes solving the problems of the world, both big and small. Never mind that one day is a small price to pay for at least a month of carefree (and, in my case, natural) curls. For these naysayers and unbelievers, getting the hair done is a frivolous pursuit that they greet with plenty of scoffing and eye-rolling, even in this day and age of post-afro enlightenment.

Which brings us to James Brown, whose wife Adrienne (according to Jet magazine) groomed and styled his hair on her weekly trips to see him in prison. James Brown, who is free at last and still funky. James Brown, whose hair is an essential part of his image. James Brown, the Funkmeister himself.

I bet James Brown is never embarrassed to tell people he's got an appointment with his hair stylist. And why should he be? For James Brown, the black cultural icon, hair is a manifestation of who he has become. And it serves that purpose for the rest of us as well. Whether nappy or straight, black hair - hair that defies gravity, hair that only powerful chemicals can tame into long- term submission, hair that's so strong, actress/comedian/funktition Phyllis Stickney theorizes, our ancestors used it to lift the Pyramids to their wondrous heights; hair that never strays from its essentially black roots, even when fried, dyed, and laid to the side - has become a quintessential expression of The Funk.

That's right, The Funk.

Some of us are afraid or ashamed of the Funk aesthetic that James Brown represents. It's a rawness, an on-the-edge passion that's in yo' face. This Funk, this black thang, screams out with unchecked emotion like Sister Edwards at the Pentecostal church, or Chaka Khan - or James Brown. It doesn't censor itself, and it doesn't take too kindly to being admonished not to make a scene. The Funk - the essence of blackness - always makes a scene. In America, it makes a scene simply by virtue of its presence in a man-made, white-washed world largely devoid of The Funk.

The Funk is the genius of black folks, the almost tangible, smellable, tastable collective contribution of African Americans.

But there are some among us who want to tame The Funk. Whites historically have attempted to impose their unimaginative aesthetics - indeed, their very mind sets - on us forever. But that's another story. Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed black arbiters of what is "proper" or "politically correct" for African Americans seek to impose their constrictions on our arts and our culture, not to mention our hairstyles.

These arbiters of properness usually get their early training in middle-class homes, then go off to colleges and universities - finishing schools, in effect - where they learn how to talk proper ... ly and "how to behave," as Toni Morrison puts it in her novel The Bluest Eye (68).

In their miseducation, these black intellectual wannabes often learn "the careful development of thrift, patience, high morals, and good manners," in Morrison's words. "In short, how to get rid of the funkiness. The dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions" (68).

Witness the following quote from The Bluest Eye. Morrison's they refers to certain types of black women from Mobile or Meridian or Aiken, but it can be broadened to include many folks who take an elitist approach to black arts, culture, and aesthetics:

Wherever it erupts, this Funk, they wipe it away; where it crusts, they dissolve it; wherever it drips, flowers, or clings, they find it and fight it until it dies. They fight this battle to the grave. The laugh that is a little too loud; the enunciation a little too round; the gesture a little too generous. They hold their behind in for fear of a sway too free; when they wear lipstick, they never cover the entire mouth for fear of lips too thick, and they worry, worry, worry about the edges of their hair. (68)

The women Toni Morrison speaks of worry about the nappy edges, just as far too many of us do today, even on the cusp of the 21st century.

Those of us who are enlightened (or enblackened) beyond the point of straightening our hair worry about the edges of our collective hair, too. We are shamed by James Brown's aesthetic; we wish the brother would get a haircut.

But James Brown - processed hair and all - is the the ultimate eruption of The Funk. James Brown represents the connection between educated black folks, who recognize his masterful contribution to music (black, white, and otherwise), and those other black folks, sometimes thought of as members of an outlaw underclass, who also listen to JB's music but who read Donald Goines instead of Toni Morrison and who sometimes actually wear their hair like James Brown.

James Brown's funky music brings both these groups of black folks - and everybody in between - together. And his grunts and rhythms, familiar as our own heartbeats, help us to recognize our commonalities rather than harp on our differences. James Brown - with all his soul, his splits, his screams, his cold sweats, his grittiness, his swaggering ego, his contradictions, his pride and his appeal - is The Funk personified.

Yet there are arbiters of properness among us who would say that James Brown and any notion of The Funk have no place in a serious discussion of African American arts, culture, and aesthetics. These fighters of The Funk no doubt would prefer to deal exclusively with "serious" art, such as African American classical music (jazz) and literature. Well, I would argue that all that serious, proper stuff - jazz, literature, fine art, dance - is full of The Funk, viewed in its broad sense as the essence of blackness.

The Funk is that inexplicable quality that allows you to recognize the brother or sister who (even in the '90s) is passing for white. It's that wonderful way with words we have, that innate and unshakable sense of style, that incredible rhythmicity.

The Funk is us.

And we needn't worry about the edges of our hair.

Instead, we ought to celebrate black folks in all artistic, cultural, and aesthetic diversity. We should even acknowledge the confusion that's inevitably kicked up as we African Americans continue the struggle to invent ourselves.

That inventive Funk is unbridled and unbroken, even given our legacy of oppression. It is graceful and gracious. It's intelligent, it's irreverent, it's experimental, it's funny, it's alternately articulate and unspeakable.

The Uncut Funk is loud sometimes, and sometimes it ain't pretty. But it is us - and it commands/demands/deserves our respect and attention.

It's that black thang. You understand?

Work Cited

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. 1970. New York: Pocket, 1972.
COPYRIGHT 1993 African American Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Section 1: Black South Culture; an Afro-American woman getting her hair done
Author:Boyd, Valerie
Publication:African American Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:1405
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