Parkwood/HBO

Beyoncé’s Lemonade And What Black Girls Really Mean By ‘Good Hair’

Sorry: It's not what you think

While the Internet -- thirsty and splashing Lemonade everywhere -- was busy trying to hack a carefully coded lyric from Beyoncé’s new visual album, some were attempting more reflective conversations about the film: on black women’s invisibility; on their vulnerability; and, oh, did you catch the Mothers Martin, Garner, and Brown clutching photographs of their fallen sons?

But, OK, not even the wisdom of Warsan Shire, unspooling across the singer’s hourlong HBO meditation, could distract entirely from the social media spectacle. The BeyHive swarmed and onlookers puzzled: Exactly who was this Becky who'd apparently dared to come between Beyoncé and husband Jay Z, hip-hop’s Bonnie and Clyde?

On the song “Sorry,” Bey offered just one rather inscrutable clue as to the other woman’s identity: Becky had “good hair.”

In the post "7 Times Rachael Ray Actually Had Good Hair (Though She Is Not Becky)," People magazine leapt at that hint and attempted to solve the riddle of the Rachels. They pointed out that gravelly voiced TV cook Ray was not to be confused with fashion designer Rachel Roy, who seemed to out herself as Becky the morning after the album's release with a none-too-subtle Instagram post. Poor Rachael Ray and her good head of hair had simply gotten caught in the conjecture crossfire, the magazine suggested. But like so many, they were missing the lyric’s deeper meaning.

To those of us who prize our edges, know the specific sizzle of a hot comb or the liberation of a big chop -- that is to say, to black girls -- the phrase “good hair” has nothing to do with the promise of a trip to Drybar.

The idea of good hair actually has its roots in slavery, when white owners would deliberately separate and assign slaves with light skin and straighter "good hair" to household work, leaving the punishing field work to those with darker skin and kinky African hair. In their essential guide, Hair Story, authors Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps explain what happened next and for generations to come:

Black people themselves internalized the concept ... [and] propagated the notion that darker-skinned Blacks with kinkier hair were less attractive, less intelligent, and worth less than their lighter-hued brothers and sisters.

These damaging messages were passed on for centuries, and black women and girls in particular had to do the work of deprogramming. Spike Lee famously tackled the painful subject in a musical number called "Good and Bad Hair" in School Daze, his 1988 comedy about fraternity and sorority members at odds at a historically black college. More recently, comedian Chris Rock revealed that he was compelled to shoot his 2009 documentary on the subject after his daughter Lola confronted him with the question, "Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?”

So when Beyonce tells her cheating man he "better call Becky with the good hair," she's nodding to our historical baggage and signifying far more than just a girl with a bouncy blowout.