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Locks of controversy

Rumors that Angelina Jolie had cut off her adopted daughter's hair caused an outrage. Why is hair such a highly charged symbol in the black community?

(Illustration Tim Bower)

JUNE WAS A busy month for celebrity news (Paris Hilton went to jail, Kelly Clarkson canceled her tour, Matthew McConaughey is still a superbachelor). So you probably missed word that Zahara Marley Jolie-Pitt, the second of Brad and Angie's four children (she's from Ethiopia), may have received a drastic haircut and that this haircut was deeply upsetting for certain stargazers with Internet access.

"I think they shaved the poor kid's head cause they have no clue in how to style her hair. I think they should get a professional African braider to braid her hair," wrote Sexycocoa in a post to the black gossip site Media Take Out. On the same site, Akan5 wrote, "I DON'T TRUST THESE PEOPLE AT ALL. Why cut her hair. WHY! IN THIS COUNTRY people always let the girls' hair grow." That's a representative sample of what wound up on various message boards late last month, from Take Out to E! Online, and in people's inboxes, including mine.

Whether they realize it or not, Jolie and Pitt have wandered into the fraught zone of black hair care, particularly as it concerns black women. For centuries, the identities of African-American women have been bound up in what they've chosen to do with their hair: straighten it, get extensions, get a press 'n' curl, get a Jheri curl (yes, it's still an option), get cornrows, grow dreadlocks, twist it, wear a weave, wear a wig, or just leave it natural. It's a prideful question asked in the poorest homes and the toniest houses -- a question from which no black female living in America is immune. Oprah Winfrey might be able to do anything she wants with her hair today, but when she first started out, she had to face the same dilemma as a lot of black women breaking into TV: whether or not to get rid of the kinks.

Now, arguably the two most famous parents on earth will have to tackle what all nonblack adoptive parents of black children inevitably do. But they will have to figure it out with the world's camera lenses focused on little Z. And according to a growing number of concerned black folk, Z's parents may not be fully prepared. With more and more black chat lines demanding to know why one little black girl's hair isn't fuller, thicker, or at least more moisturized, a "Save Zahara" campaign may not be far behind.

Black hair is personal. Black hair is political. Black hair is lucrative: In 2004, black-hair-care products were a $1.7 billion industry; that's a figure that doesn't include the hundreds of millions spent on styling.

Black hair is also a ritual that's been bringing black women together for centuries, whether it's at a beauty shop or in somebody's cousin's kitchen on the Saturday night before church, the week's biggest hair event. (Part of that ritual traditionally featured the hot comb, the controversial straightener embraced by the grooming pioneer Madame C. J. Walker.) In some neighborhoods, parlor owners double as community leaders. Books like "Tenderheaded: A Comb-Bending Collection of Hair Stories" and "Chicken Soup for the African-American Woman's Soul" provide a vivid sense of the heritage associated with black hair -- doing and undoing it, celebrating and questioning it. There are hair parties, trade shows, and magazines such as Hype Hair and Sophisticate's Black Hair Styles and Care Guide.

More than anything, black hair epitomizes the deep disconnect between white society and black society. By and large, most whites are oblivious to the cultural minefield young black girls are born into, just by virtue of having hair that doesn't bounce and behave. The issues it raises are complex and seemingly eternal, and while only a few of the most hostile emails and message board posts begrudge Jolie and Pitt the right to raise a black daughter, from the moment Zahara was adopted in 2005 there was an almost unanimous consensus that her parents should be doing something else with her hair.

An African baby in this country will have the politics of appearance thrust upon her, and even the most well-meaning, open-hearted parents will be judged through that lens. Part of that scrutiny is over texture. Notoriously and unceasingly, black hair is jammed into two categories: "good" and "bad" -- good being straight, manageable, "white"; bad being kinky and unmanageable. Spike Lee's 1986 "School Daze" featured a big-band musical number on the subject -- called, succinctly enough, "Good and Bad Hair" -- in which the light- and dark-skinned women of a fictional historically black college square off at a hair salon.

Topic A in this scene is hair. Topic B is identity politics: Why would you want kinky hair when you could have it long and luxurious like this? (Whether you grew or bought it notwithstanding.) But when the fair-skinned women in Lee's movie sing, "My hair is straight, you see?" their darker-skinned opponents note that "[your] soul's crooked as can be." In the song, for the light-skinned girls, "nappy" is a no-no.

This, of course, is partly why Don Imus's scandalous reduction of the Rutgers women's basketball team earlier this year was appalling: He was talking about good and bad hair. Never mind that nappy connotes unyielding hair and that, once upon a time, a nappy head meant a strong woman. Now, nappy is the other n-word. One of Malcolm X's selling points for the Nation of Islam was, "We teach you to love the hair that God gave you."

A few years ago, the folk-soul singer India.Arie, sick of all the signifying, decided to get rid of her dreadlocks and was nearly bald for several months. She even wrote and recorded a kind of protest song on the subject: "I Am Not My Hair." It was a wishful moment. Arie's hair is back -- and thick, too. She has made her peace with the politics.

As it happens, Zahara's hair wasn't shaved. It had been swept into a ponytail somewhere in the back of her head, rendering it invisible in some of the thousands of paparazzi photographs of the baby. But it didn't matter, really. This was bigger than whether she had no hair or whether the little hair she had was being styled "properly."

Wide Horizons, the Waltham-based international adoption agency that helped Jolie adopt Zahara, offers help to American parents with foreign-born children, and tries to put them in touch with similar families. According to a spokeswoman, the agency offers "culture camps," social networking opportunities, and, yes, advice on hair care. It also encourages aspiring adopters to talk to other parents on a Wide Horizons resource list.

Dru Davies, a white mother who two black children in Marshfield, says her 23-year-old daughter sometimes looks at photos from her girlhood and asks, "How you could let me look like that?" They have a good relationship. But Davies says even though she did the best she could, she could have done a little better.

"Grooming and hair in the black culture are extremely important," she says. "You really have to be aware of it or you're doing your child a disservice in terms of being part of their culture."

Shellee Mendes, the owner of Salon Monet, Newbury Street's only black-owned business, has a dozen suggestions for what mothers like Jolie might do with their daughters' hair, stressing that for a woman of any race, hair is a showcase for her personality. But she does note an exception.

"With a little girl, her hair doesn't say as much about her personality as it does her mother's," Mendes says of Zahara. "And this little girl's hair says her mother doesn't know what to do."

Wesley Morris is a Globe film critic. E-mail Francie Latour of the Globe staff contributed to this article.