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Hair stories

My Hair Journey

In 2005 I was interviewed by Heather Barnes, who was working on a documentary project on women and their relationship to their hair from a personal and political perspective. Her blog for the project, Hair Stories, is up and running.

The stories might relate to shaving, first haircuts, having long or short hair, losing their hair, hair and ethnicity, stigma about body hair (either too much or too little), and the cultural and social significance of hair in all its manifestations.
Here's my interview. She's intercut it with photos from my hair journey web page. When you watch it you'll see a tortured hair history in the school photos -- while I'm the product of two black parents, neither had kinky hair; it took a while for my mom to figure out how to take care of mine, particularly dealing with the humidity in NC.

In the past, people sometimes emailed me to say that they didn't understand how or why hair is political. After Don Imus and the whole "nappy-headed hos" mess, they got a taste of why it is very political. What the former radio talk show host did was touch upon the third rail of race in a way opened up discussions of matters not usually heard in public conversations.

Most black women know what it's like to have an arsenal of hair care products, particularly if you choose to wear your hair straightened with chemical relaxers. [Ironically, most of the Rutgers women's basketball team members had chemically straightened hair, which goes to show you that Imus reduced them to his assumption that black women=nappy hair=unattractive.] I had a cabinet full of "hair product" when I wore processed styles.

And oh, the dreaded hot comb. I am old enough to have experienced the "pleasure" of the thermal hot comb -- you rested it over the gas flame of the stove to heat it up. Then the pressing oil was carefully applied to your hair and that comb sizzled through the kinks till it was bone straight, hissing as you prayed the comb didn't touch your scalp. This is what black women did to emulate straight hair. I say emulate because all it took was water or merely a humid day to revert the hair back to its natural state. But that was the only acceptable style for the working black woman working in the dominant culture.

Full freedom for me finally came when I decided in the 90s to toss out the relaxer and cut the dry damaged hair off. I wore a short natural for several years.  I began the process of growing locs in November 2000, a style I wear today. Free from the burning hot comb sizzling my scalp, curling irons, flat irons or other instruments of hair torture.

The status quo is still straightened hair, even though we see more natural styles in vogue now.  Black women are unfortunately still chastised by family and significant others not to 1) cut their hair or 2) let it be kinky. It's one of those "dirty laundry" matters that people don't want to discuss openly, but when you have such poisonous, enabled self-loathing, it needs sunlight upon it. Look at this ad. It implies that the woman got the job because her hair was chemically straightened. The self-loathing is so culturally ingrained, so pathological -- there is nothing wrong with our hair, but nearly every signal received by the dominant culture is that it needs to be "corrected."

Here we go, the downward spiral. 1970s. The horrid phase. See me morph... Yes. this is me again, in elementary school. I think first grade.
Oh, no. It's bad... Third freakin' grade. Second grade was too horrific to show you.
Fourth. No improvement. As you can see, I was tiring of this in fifth..
Stop the madness. The hair is uncontrollable. More horror. My 7th grade shot. Removed for your safety.
On to the fried, lyed period.
  Not sure when this one was taken. This was about as long as I ever let my hair grow out, and boy was it punished with the relaxers, curlers and curling irons. It started to feel like straw, even if it looked good.
Taken around 1983, on MacDonough St in Brooklyn. In appreciation of the "urban art." Later in 1983.

Brooklyn, 1990. My hair is in two strand twists. It was about half relaxed and half natural. I grew it out about another couple of inches before cutting it again. I didn't let it loc.

[This is the style I have again today (below). ]

I'm holding a cousin's baby. In Brooklyn, August 1999. I had this style, a close natural, for about 6 years.
As of November, 2000 I let it grow to about 2 inches and started back with two strand twists with the intention of loc'ing it. Both February 2001. Sorry for the poor resolution. These were taken by my PalmPix cam.
Both April 2001. Not a lot of change. I am washing it every day to combat the pollen. You can't really tell here, but it is quite a bit longer now than last time and the "kitchen area" ones don't need retwisting much, they are maturing nicely.


Update (October 2001): It's my one-year anniversary! My hair is totally locked. This will be my first winter with them locked. See sidebar for more details.

July 2001. At the beach. I have it pulled back in a headband.  
January 2002. Freedom from the lye continues. As you can see, I'm happy with my hair. At last. I took some more detailed pix this time around (below, still Jan '02) so you can see the progress more closely below.

Dr. Bronner's still rules! I still use no grooming products. Occasionally I will dilute the conditioner that comes with the hair dye (10 parts water) and pour that over my hair during the rinse process. I make sure it is all rinsed clear, since I don't want any buildup in my hair.

Since it is winter, I wash it about 3x a week. I still do the towel thing to dry partially, then blow dry as I did before for about 10 minutes, concentrating on getting the roots dry. If I have time, I usually walk around and let them air dry for a half hour or so, then go back and blow dry them more if they feel damp and I want to go to bed, for instance.


The following four shots are from May 2002.  
I went to Hawaii in June 2002 (right). Here is a pic of my hair - the intense sun bleached the Feria #84 even more.
April 2003. It's getting long enough to easily ponytail. July 2004


Pam | Tim | Mom | Family | Pets | Friends | 1984 B&W portraits



Black women and Their Hair - Back in the Day

This essay is a post from the Black Hair Yahoo Group

by Ta Ankh

I would like to express something to the members here, many of whom are obviously of a younger generation, who have not seen what we older ones have.

I am 38 years old. That is young enough to not be a total stranger to this generation but old enough to have caught a glimpse of the world before it changed into what it is now.

Let me paint you all a picture of that time.


Black people had been told for centuries that we were ugly, from the top of our nappy hair to the bottom of our bad feet. Yes, we felt bad about our natural hair, and there was not bullshitting about it either.

At the same time, there were white girls all over the t.v., magazines, music scene...whatever. White girls with long, luxurious blonde hair that was straight and bounced all over the place and that their t.v. mothers brushed and combed like EVERY show. If you saw Whoopi Goldberg in the beginning in her one woman show, she did a bit about putting a shirt on her head and swinging her "long luxurious blonde hair". Well, anyone you know my age or better laughed their butt off at that one, because we all been there and done that.

Now mind you, there were not a lot of black girls on t.v. at the time. No music videos, not on the soap operas, (oops I forgot about the maid), not in the movies, (oops I forgot about the maid)...nowhere.

In addition, all we had back then was the straightening comb and wigs. So if you saw a black girl anywhere with the bouncing straight hair you so desired, trust me she either was born with "good hair" or it was a wig, because I am sorry, no disrespect to the late great Madame C.J. Walker, but the hot comb just simply did not deliver all like that. And since the hot comb was all most of us had, (the conkaline of Malcolm X fame had been done away with thank God), we were left to drool over the white girls with no realistic way to get there except the wigs. And sometimes, little girls in elementary school would put on a full cheap wig to get the straight hair, and oh yes, it was just as pathetic as you are imagining it.

In contrast to the white girls who had been so obviously blessed by God, was us. Now again, a few of us had "good hair", but the most of us didn't. With nothing but the straightening comb to your repertoire, you couldn't forget that your hair was nappy for too long. And you all just gonna have to trust me when I say that you were trying to forget. They don't have all those words and phrases with a negative connotations about our hair, (our naps, our peasy hair, our kitchen area, etc.), for nothing. Bad enough you were doing backflips not to let your hair "go back". You always lost, and when you did, here come the insults.

So, we all hated our hair. There was not bullshit back then because a spade was a spade. It was understood as a common sense type thing that if you were going to take a searing hot piece of metal to your head to alter it then it wasn't because you thought your natural hair was fly. And oh yes, white girl hair was the goal. No bullshit, no diggedy, no doubt.

That is how relaxer came to be all over the shelves of the ghetto. Accomodating our need to be a little whiter.

So here is the problem. You younger ones show up at a later date, and the relaxer and other straightening implements are just magically there. The girl you are emulating on your block or in your class or in your family or on the music video is black with a relaxer AND a weave, so you get to wrestle with the illusion that white people and not accepting yourself have nothing to do with your choice , when the notion of the techniques of straightening as well as the skin lightening, nose jobs, blue contacts, etc. would not have been thought about had it not been for the whole slave process. But you have no connection to your past to know what you were doing before they got to you, because you have been taught to be "American" and not care about all that "African stuff". And you don't want to "dwell in the past", so you have no notion of what they did to you to keep you an obedient slave. So you can't see the connection. You are angry, not at those who did this to you, or rather to US, but to those who would try to set us free. And that is a natural shame.

So I am saying that in the sixties and seventies, it was so easy for almost the whole group of us younger ones, (and many older ones too), to go natural. There was just no bullshit in the way. We KNEW we hated our hair so when it was time to fight for our rights, and to say "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud", you knew you wanted to be natural saying it. Having nappy hair was part of being black for most of us, and we were deeply ashamed of that and any other trait that was uniquely ours. So saying we were proud meant dropping the straightener for many. It was all common sense and quite simple. I don't even think anybody went around to try to convince us to go natural. Someone showed up at some rally with an afro or cornrows and a dashiki, and then the next thing you know, every young person just automatically did it too, whether they had a political thought in their head or not.

That brings us to our going back to straighteners. We made a fatal mistake. We did not call the straightener out for what it was. We went natural, and let the straightener drop. But we did not analyze and expound on what the straightener was, and what it had to do with our oppression and our low self-esteem.

Going natural was easy. We didn't have to chop all our hair off the way we do today behind the relaxer. We just had to take a shower and BAM!!! natural again! We simply stopped straightening, and I don't remember us saying much about it.

But after the gains of the sixties, we were beginning to have a place in corporate America, and it was already all Massah could do to tolerate our black behinds in the first place. He wasn't hardly having no dashikis and afros and whatnot all over the Big House. So back out came the straighteners. Since we never sat down and said what it meant to be natural, and that it was important, nappy hair became the same as straight hair...a "hairstyling option". And who the hell was going to let HAIR get in the way of making some money for the first time in each of our families??? Shoot, one of my doggoned uncles had a cabin with chickens in the yard and NO FLOOR. Now, you cannot tell me that a slave cabin was any different than his house. My other aunts and uncles were wealthy compared to him. THEY had outhouses! He just had a bucket, lol.

So here is the thing. You would have thought that after those years of "Saying it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" and Afro sheen and "Watu Wazuri, use Afrosheen! Beautiful feeling, beautiful sheen!" (I know you feel me Prema!!!), and afro blowout kits and afro pics with the fist on top or the red and green folding handles and the beads for your cornrows too, well you would think that we had fell in love with ourselves never to lose that love again. Hell, if you didn't have a big bushy head of nappy hair on you back in them days, I didn't care how fine a boy you were, you couldn't even PAY for my attention.

But that's just it. When I went natural ten years ago, it was hard, as if I hadn't spent all that time primping and loving my naps back in the day. Hair straightening makes a kind of poison in the spirit. Its like taking dope or something. You really should love the way you feel when you are clean and drug free but once you get the dope in your system, well that's just it you are stuck. And I wasn't the only one. It was a big defiant act of some kind for all of us to go natural pretty much when the nineties came. We left the door open to being sucked back into our own self-hate by not calling the straightening for what is was, and we simply lost the ground that we gained.

But how do we explain that to this generation? As all young people do, they think they are young and hip and that everything is all changed (just like we did). They have been trained that freedom is about having as many options as possible, ignoring the quality of those options. But for us, this is more than a campus debate or a theory of some kind. We know from experience that just like you can't turn poison into Kool-aid, you can't turn straightening into a healthy enterprise for black people, but there is not enough communication between us and them to tell them what we have learned. They think WE are the enemy and are heated at us, but of course, not at the folk who did this to all of us.

Also, there is the matter of "choice". People say that women have "chosen" the relaxer.

Also back in the day, there was something called the age of reckoning, or the age of reason. Your mama made you go to church till about 12 or 13 or so, and then you were on your own, meaning you could kinda start thinking for yourself. I remember straightening starting WAY before that. I remember being a little kid getting the hot comb and those big ol' bangs we all used to wear and Shirley Temple curls on special occasions, which meant the hot comb AND the hot curlers. Hot curlers heated on the stove took PARTICULAR skill to operate.

I don't remember a whole lot of intelligent conversation about relaxers.

I remember:

-Discussion of which brands would get your hair the straightest. -Discussion of which brands your favorite salon used (Dudley was EXTREMELY popular back when I was getting relaxer, and if my nose is on point, it still is) -Health discussions always centered around a negative reaction of your hair and/or scalp to a particular product which always meant switching products and NEVER meant no more relaxer. -Discussion of which brands would get your hair the straightest.

-Topics of conversation of the blue/green film under every black woman's scalp from years of relaxer didn't happen.

-Conjecture of what all those chemicals in your bloodstream were doing to you didn't happen.

-Discussion of what it meant for us to be straightening our hair didn't happen.

-Discussion of the history of hair straightening didn't happen.

As a matter of fact, up until today when I discuss these things with my girlfriends, there is never any deep discussion. We all lined up just like little sheep to get our hair straightened. We were black girls. Of course we must alter ourselves. It was even like a rites of passage, the day you started getting relaxer, and according to the little girls that have been telling me how much they want their hair straightened, it still is.

All I am trying to say is that I made the mistake any person who is older in years and/or experience tends to make. I tell myself that I lived through 38 years of life, ten years of being natural, 2 periods of "endarkenment" in New York City which I guess is the afrocentric capital of the world where all things black are analyzed over and over, I have lived through down south back in the day which is as close a picture of slavery and post-slavery as you are going to get, and through African spirituality besides. I tell myself that the things I have learned I can pass on to the next generation so they don't have to wander around and learn the same old lessons I did, and re-invent the wheel. That if I clap my hands hard enough everyone will awaken and everything will be fine.

I also thought that for the things that we went through, the old days were harder than now. After all, everyone has DVD players and money and education and what-not. But that is wrong. Today is MUCH harder.

I once was down south and some old white lady wouldn't sell me a soda. She said straight up that they didn't served "coloreds" at their restaurant. Like I said before, everything was straight up, and no bullshit.

But today, if a white man doesn't want you working in his firm because you are black, he will not tell you so directly. Even the most seasoned veteran of racism will be left to wonder at best if he has been a victim of discrimination. If you are young and unseasoned, you will probably not even be aware of what just happened. Then you will go around proclaiming that racism is dead.

But the older ones know better. They know good and well that racism didn't just die the minute white people found out they could get in trouble for it. Human nature just don't change that much, that fast. They know it went underground, and sometimes they can even smell it. And if you are younger, you feel sorry for the older ones and what they went through, but it is they that should feel sorry for you. They were free to pick up and work at liberating themselves because everything was overt and easy to pinpoint. You all have to fight your way through all the bullshit first. You all have to go through hell and highwater just to realize that liberation is in order. I see many fine young people making sense of this day and age, but I don't envy any of you one bit.

So, I cannot make you see, and I cannot stop you from having to take a 28 year trip to learn what I could tell you in 15 minutes. But I can tell you what to look out for so that you can make an informed decision:

1. Make damned good use of your elders. They know what happened before you got here.

2. If you think straightening is just a hairstyling option, why is it more popular than natural even though it is expensive, time consuming, a health hazard etc.?

3. If you think straightening is just a hairstyling option, why does it not pass away like other styles did? Remember the jherri curl. I know that it took a frighteningly long time for it to disappear from the rest of the country, but o.k., eventually, it DID die. Why does straight hair never go out of style whereas the curl and even natural hair does?

4. If you think straightening is just a hairstyling option, think about the reaction that you got if you changed from fingerwaves, to the wrap, to the scrunch for example. Now some of those styles your friends and family cared for on you more than others. Think of their reactions. Now think of the reactions of those same people when you went natural. Any difference?

5. If you think straightening is harmless to the black psyche, why did a whole generation of us go natural, and then start hating our hair again once we started relaxing?

6. If times have really changed, then why is the Black Hair!!! archive full of horror stories from all over the country from mostly young women of what they had to endure once they went natural?

7. Imagine this. What if the FDA came out tomorrow and announced that it was a proven fact that all relaxers caused cancer? What do you think the reaction of black women would be?

8. Imagine this. What if we did a Thurgood Marshall-like experiment? What if we lined up a bunch of black dolls and gave a bunch of black people from children to the elderly and both men and women one natural hair doll and one straight haired dolls, who do you think the people would pick as the most attractive? (Be honest).

9. Would you think it is a cool thing if most picked the doll that did NOT look like them? What would it say about their self-esteem? A long time ago, this experiment was done with southern black children getting a choice between white dolls and black dolls. The children didn't pick the dolls that looked like them then, either. The whole experience of black folks had warped our entire sense of beauty. What we thought was "our taste" had been turned away from ourselves, which is unnatural. And it was considered a sign of damage that we were in this condition. That was how the school system became desegregated.

10. Last, what turns you on most, a sweet lie, or a truthful statement that packs a wallop? If I was there to see the root of some of how things came to be this way with our hair, would you like me to tell you sweet lies so we could all feel good about the state we are in? A very on point Bible scripture is that "The truth shall make you free". It didn't say nothing about lyes.

I have learned a valuable lesson that I can't be making decisions for others, they have to do that for themselves, so I will be more careful about that. No one will use me as an excuse and a distraction from the real business at hand.

But I ain't about to lye either, because that helps no one.

Anyway, lyes are never permanent for black folk.

They only last 4 to 6 weeks.

Ta Ankh

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