Happy Nappy Girls

Getting their hair straightened for the first time was a rite of passage. But a group of Dallas women has found freedom in reclaiming nappier days.

"Hair is not just expression
It's a form of oppression
regardless of what ignorant justifications
they've taught you to think
We all scared of the kink..."

--from "Madam CJ" by Dallas-born poet Von, from The Slave Tree, Balance Books, 2000

It is a rite of passage for an African-American girl, an entry into the world of respectable hair. Straight hair. Go to church, go to work, get a job, get a man hair.

Journalist Linda Jones, founded A Nappy Hair Affair to help free African-American women from bondage to their hair.
Mark Graham
Journalist Linda Jones, founded A Nappy Hair Affair to help free African-American women from bondage to their hair.

It begins around age 8 or 9, when she is ushered into an auntie's kitchen and seated in a chair by the stove, where a metal comb is roasting on a bare burner. The woman draws out a section of the girl's hair, then lifts the wood-handled comb and rubs it in a towel to take the edge off the heat. She smooths the hair with the comb's back side, rubs in some pomade, then slowly rakes the hair with the smoking hot teeth. The girl sits perfectly still, head locked in place lest her ears get singed.

Some 30 minutes later, the woolly-haired child emerges as a straight-haired young lady, the proud bearer of "good hair." And so begins a lifetime of Saturdays spent in beauty salons, of a fight against rain, humidity, perspiration--all the natural things that war against pressed or processed hair. It is, she learns, an endless and very costly struggle to maintain one's precarious hold on "good hair."

Kellie Baker had sat in that kitchen chair as a young girl, but there came a time when she viewed the ritual as a form of cultural bondage. Some four years ago, she rebelled. She bought a pair of clippers and, over the course of a few months, cut away every trace of her straightened hair, revealing beneath it the wiry, kinky original.

She'd never meant to be a revolutionary. "I'm about the bourgiest black person you will ever see," she says today, laughing. She just got tired of slathering her hair with harsh chemicals that burned it, thinned it and left sores on her scalp. She grew weary of paying exorbitant prices in salons to have her hair done and sitting there all day for the privilege.

"I got frustrated with the salon system," she says. "Powerful black women at the mercy of uninformed and poorly trained 'technicians' who really didn't have a clue about how to care for my hair and didn't listen to what I wanted. My hair just didn't thrive. It was dry and brittle and just not happy."

Nonetheless, Baker, a 38-year-old Dallas woman who designs the packaging for retail fashion goods, recalls that she was terrified when she made the move to natural. So much of your self-esteem, your image, is connected to your hair, she says. For most of her life, Baker believed that hair was the thing that defined her as a black woman, and having long, straight hair was the most beautiful of all. It was scary to turn her back on that image. "Once you let go of that stereotype, you have to come face to face with who you really are," she says. "It can be overwhelming."

When she took the scissors to her straightened locks, she realized she hadn't seen her real hair in more than two decades. It was like becoming reacquainted with a child she'd given up for adoption and didn't particularly care to meet.

Not everyone approved of the new look.

It was spring about three years ago, and she'd started twisting her natural hair in pencil-sized dreadlocks. She hadn't told her parents. She feared their reaction, and rightly so.

They had come to visit her in Dallas, and Baker met them with her head wrapped in a scarf. After some small talk, she sat her parents down. I want you to see what I've done with my hair, she said. Her parents waited with anticipation. Perhaps they hoped she'd come to her senses and straightened her hair again. She hadn't.

"I took off my scarf, and they saw my hair," Baker says. "My mother walked off. She just looked at me, shook her head and walked off."

Afro hair has had lots of names over the centuries, none of them complimentary. Kinky. Woolly. Brillo. Bush.

Nappy is the one that has stuck the longest. It's a pejorative, used by African-Americans as a way of denigrating themselves and others. Little kids wield it as an insult: "Your hair's so nappy, you could scrub pots with it!" Mothers use the word to tut-tut disapprovingly while doing their daughters' hair: "Why does your hair have to be so nappy?" For centuries, nappy has equaled bad hair.

That will stop, if Linda Jones has her way. "I'm taking it back," she says. "Nappy is simply a description of a type of hair. I say it's rich, willful hair." Jones, a "fortysomething" Dallas Morning News feature writer who is on a one-year sabbatical, founded a group called A Nappy Hair Affair, which is dedicated to supporting women who have decided to defy centuries of African-American expectations and go natural. Its cause is growing through informal "Hair Days" all over the country, in Atlanta, Detroit, San Diego, Washington, D.C., and even London, where like-minded, like-headed women, mostly middle-aged professionals, gather in each other's homes and talk and do natural hair.

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