Assata on Hair

I finished Assata: An Autobiography in two days. I should have read it years ago. It a page turner down to the very last word. I read it every chance I got– on the subway, in Starbucks, at work, at home. I soaked up her words as I would the sun if I were sunbathing. Her story was compelling, her words well written. But everything about her story left me wanting more.

For obvious reasons she wouldn’t divulge many details about her time living underground. She did the same with her escape from prison in 1979 and the New Jersey Turnpike incident that left Zayd Shakur and State Trooper Werner Foerster dead. I understand her reasons from withholding certain information. I think the book would have had to be well over 600 pages to document her life. I still wanted more. I wanted to learn about her daughter, and if she lived in Cuba with her once they were reunited. What about her daughter’s father? How did her relationship with Afeni Shakur develop? I wanted every detail. I finished the book with a tremendous amount of gratitude. I don’t know that I could have lived through everything she’s endured. Her book reinforced the work we still have to do and the debt we owe our ancestors. Assata’s autobiography reminded me why we must always remember our history is so much more than slavery. Slavery is only one fraction of it. We possess the blood of greatness long before the atrocity of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade.

Now on to the post. As I was deeply engrossed in the book I curiously read about her journey to cut the conk out of her hair to wear her hair natural. She made some observations that are worth noting here.

Full disclaimer: As sure as my name is Bené someone will charge me of creating a natural vs. relaxed hair debate. I’m not. I’m also not endorsing, agreeing with or disagreeing with her statements here. Just think they are worthy of being noted. Emphasis are my own.

Assata writes:

One day a friend asked me why i didn’t wear my hair in an Afro, natural. The thought had honestly never occurred to me. In those days, there weren’t too many Afros on the set. But the more i thought about it, the better it sounded…

And then i became aware of a whole new generation of Black women hiding under wigs. Ashamed of their hair–if they had any left. It was sad and disgusting…People are right when they say it’s not what you have on your head but what you have in it. You can be a revolutionary-thinking person and have your hair fried up. And you can have an Afro and be a traitor to Black people. But for me, how you dress and how you look reflected what you have to say about yourself. When you go through all your life processing and abusing your hair so it will look like the hair of another race of people, then you are making a statement and the statement is clear.

…For me, it was important not just because of how good it made me feel but because of the world in which i lived. In a country that is trying to completely negate the image of Black people, that constantly tells us we are nothing, our culture is nothing, i felt and still feel that we have got to constantly make positive statements about ourselves. Our desire to be free has got to manifest itself in everything we are and do. We have accepted too much of a negative lifestyle and a negative culture and have to consciously act to rid ourselves of that negative influence. Maybe in another time, when everybody is equal and free, it won’t matter how anybody wears their hair or dresses or looks. Then there won’t be any oppressors to mimic or avoid mimicking. But right now i think it’s important for us to look and feel like strong, proud Black men and women who are looking toward Africa for guidance.


  • Toya Townsend


  • Tamracannon

    I remember the first time I read her autobiography and couldn’t put it down. I also remember posting that very excerpt on my facebook page and waited for the responses. They were defensive and ill-informed at best, but it was definitely thought provoking for some. I had recently chopped off my processed hair when I began reading her book and it was reassuring to know that decades ago, a young, educated and strong sista was having the same enlightened moment that I had had just weeks ago. But beyond that, the book was amazing.

  • Hello All!

    Not to start a natural vs. relaxed debate, because in my opinion there is none to be had. BUT… I do have a question, being a black woman who does not wear her hair in it’s natural state, what does it mean if I AM black… by birth? I have always been taken back by people’s strong declarations of naturally black hair. At the end of the day do people truly characterize your worth as a black person, let alone simply a person at all, by the texture of your hair and the choices you make in reference to it? Personally I am a fan of doing what makes you happy, and what works best with your lifestyle. In January of this year I decided to begin the transition process of growing out my permed hair. I stuck with it for about 8 months, and then decided to re-perm my hair because I simply did not have time to work with it. In fact, it was the day of my law school orientation when it took me 3 hours to do my hair that I decided that “going natural” did not work with my current lifestyle. It was not a choice that was fueled by hatred of my own race, dislike of my natural hair, feelings of conformity to the majority race, or anything of the sort. It was simply a lack of time, and a desire to spend what free time I do have now doing things that make me happy  (i.e. sleeping for more than 5 hours a night lol… I must also say that I work full time in addition to attending law school). When I saw my closest friends after having re-permed my hair you would have thought that I had done something offensive or disappointing in nature. I was “jokingly” called a sell out. To be honest, that actually hurt my feelings. To think that other black women, who at one point or another made a decision to go natural, would consider me a sell out to my entire race because of a decision based on the needs of my lifestyle was in fact disappointing itself. I guess my real gripe is that it seems to be the trend that despite your actual desires/needs going natural is what you must do if you are not ashamed of being a black woman. And, of this I do not agree. I think that as black women we should cherish each other on our ability to uplift one another, help each other through hard times, be there to congratulate each other on jobs well done, encourage each other to simply do better and continuously grow. As black women we should be fighting the fights that need to be fought, side by side. Not creating separations between each other based on physical attributes. If dying your hair blonde makes you happy, go for it! I don’t pick the people I have in my life based on hair… or even skin color for that matter. I pick them based on invaluable qualities.
    By the way, I am in no was insinuating or claiming that you have created a separation between black women, but simply from experience I have seen it occur in various shapes and fashions. Pride is one thing, but making someone else feel bad for their choice is another.Please correct me if I am wrong.PS: Bene’, I am truly enjoying your posts 🙂 

    • Thanks for reading and dropping me a line. New readers are always a good thing.

      I’ve written about this topic for Essence.com and Clutch so I won’t go into a long comment here. But I will say that I am one who supports women having the choice to do as they please with their hair. One’s hair does not determine self-love or level of consciousness. And I think the hair conversation can get divisive fast, which was the focus of the article I wrote last year for Essence.com. I just took a 16″ sew-in out of my head & dare someone tell me I’m self-hating because of it. LOL. With that said, I wholeheartedly believe there is truth to what Assata is saying. When you really reflect on her words you have to acknowledge what is going on in the black community. Black women are spending 9 billion dollars in the hair care industry yet our median net worth was said to be $5 according to some survey. Collectively black women and children are among the poorest in the country, but collectively we’re spending 9 billion dollars to alter our natural look. What does that say? Really think about that. It’s not really our fault because we’ve been conditioned for over a century. It is engrained in all women that the standard of beauty is European– light eyes, pale skin, long straight hair and skinny. So when an entire group of women have been fed images of the “ideal beauty” that looks the exact opposite of what we are, what are we going to think about ourselves? No group of women are told they’re not good enough more than black women. Of course we can’t make sweeping generalizations here about women who relax or weave their hair. But to ignore Assata’s statement is to disregard the validity in what she’s saying.

      Girl, transitioning is hard. I transitioned for six months and then decided to do the big chop. I don’t suggest transitioning, but I know people do it to retain their length. Length was never my issue because I’ve worn short hair and prefer it actually. What was hard was rethinking what I thought was beautiful. It’s still a struggle because black women, especially natural black women, aren’t celebrated in society. But I can honestly say it’s rewarding to push against that faux European ideal beauty. To each its own. No judgment here.

    • Pow!itskim

      Hey Adara,

      I have heard this point stated on  numerous occasions ( Natural hair is too time consuming). Its a valid, and understandable argument.

      I have only considered myself a true natural for about 3 years now, even though I have technically been one since birth. Being natural to me, means re-educating yourself, learning, and going through the process of unlearning all these things we have been told about our hair, and how it should be styled (ex: gel it down, no stray hairs!) one of them being the point you expressed, the lengthy time it requires to care for it. I am not going to lie, in the beginning, It took over three hours to do my hair- just wash, plus keeping up twist-out styles (testing the hair and undoing them, typically done overnight and taken out in the a.m) every night, or every other, detangling… I probably spent over 6-8 hours a week on my hair regimen. But jump to the present, I now spend about 1.5 hours a week or every 10 days on average, styling, washing, conditioning, and detangling my hair. Despite all the possible styles and curl enhancing products showcased on Youtube, I have found two that work for me, a natural African soap, and Organic Deep/Regular Condition. Along with my Shea Butter, this provides all I need, and is a manageable routine that fits perfectly into my hectic college lifestyle (first year by the way).

      I guess my point is, the pay-off is well worth the difficult and trouble-some beginnings. It is all a learning process. Many naturals go through the same doubts (whether they’ll be able to keep the long routines up). Youtube is a great resource, but once you find what works for you, limit your intake of their advice. If not, your natural journey will just get more difficult, more worrisome, more confusing, and a lot more expensive. Anyway, enough on my Youtube spiel. Naturals rave about going natural, because it is such a freeing experience, at least its the main reason I do. Not so sound overtly cultured, but you almost feel a connection to your heritage, your roots. It so liberating to walk out amongst “typical beauties” and be comfortable within yourself sporting your fro’ along side a straight haired beauty. The confidence and self- appreciation you gain is indescribable. Going natural becomes so much more than just “the hair,” it is about creating a connection with your self, that brings you to place with new values, higher levels of confidence, and ultimately, a brand-spankin’ new outlook on life.

      Let me know what you think, and other naturals feel free to chime in!
      -Kim P.