When I first read the headlines that Halle Berry took her ex, Gabriel Aubry, to court over her daughter’s hair three weeks ago, I immediately dismissed it as attention-seeking, celebrity nonsense. However, when I read the article and the complaints hurled at Gabriel for trying to white wash their daughter’s image, my interest was piqued.
In her Complaint, Halle accuses Gabriel of trying to erase signs of her daugher’s African American roots by chemically straightening her hair and dying it blonde. Some fans agree that she’s protecting her daughter, while others think she’s just attempting to stretch out the custody battle for no reason. I’m not really taking a side as it relates specifically to Halle and her not so merry band of exes.
For all practical purposes, Halle’s daughter, Nahla, appears as a young, tanned Caucasian girl, with brown curly hair. Really, her hair is the only thing that “gives her away” as having African American roots. We’ve all heard of mixed individuals who “passed” as white back in the day. Back then, if you could pass, you did so out of self-preservation, and often at the cost of never seeing your family ever again or never learning about a part of your culture.
Some of Halle Berry’s white fans have been reported as calling her crazy, claiming that Nahla is mostly white anyway. I joked with my husband that, if that were the case, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen “the one drop rule” not applied.
But seriously, our history is steeped with laws that curtailed an African American woman’s right to wear her her naturally, or be seen as beautiful, or just even acceptable. Some regulations are as recent as the military debacle discriminatorily restricting the way African American female personnel may wear their hair. Others are almost as old as America’s independence. For example, the Tignon Laws were enacted in 1786 in Louisiana under the administration of Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miró. These laws required that all women of color cover their hair with a tignon (a scarf or handkerchief).
At the time in Louisiana, women of African descent (particularly mixed women with light skin) vied equally with white woman in beauty, style, and manners. White men often openly kept these women as mistresses and pursued them without reservation. This incurred the jealousy and anger of their wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and fiancées.
Governor Miró signed into law this decree in order to reduce the excessive attention these women received, to denote class distinctions, and to curtail the efforts of the women who competed too freely with white women for status (thereby threatening the social order). Though it is true that the intent backfired (the women of Afro descent turned the tignon into a fashion statement, using the finest materials and jewelry to create elaborate styles, which in turn still received the attention of the white males), the problem is the intent was written into law as a means to assign inferiority to the black woman.
In Halle’s lawsuit, a turn of events takes place. The judge ruled that neither parent is allowed to alter Nahla’s natural hair for the duration of her childhood. It is a small order and in reality only affects Halle, Gabriel and Nahla . . . but it does indicate the potential for change. Imagine if, for once, the right to wear our hair the way it grows out of our scalp was protected by law, rather than denigrated by it.
Food for thought.