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.

A Nappy Hair Affair was there for Baker when her mother walked off at the sight of her dreads and as she went through struggles, both internal and external, to come to terms with her natural hair. It has also been there for many other women, as Jones' idea has blossomed into a nationwide movement. She says she is constantly getting phone calls and e-mails from women asking how to get a Hair Day started.

ANHA, Jones says, is a rally against the "chemical pushers" in black hair salons who don't respect black women, make you wait, charge too much and urge you to adopt a look that pulls you far away from who you really are. The average African-American woman, she says, will spend nearly $3,000 a year on her hair to achieve an ideal born of self-hatred--combing in caustic chemicals, sewing, gluing and braiding on hair extensions, all to cover the kink.

Can hair equal happiness? Jones thinks so, when it is au naturel and leads to a life of self-acceptance. That's why ANHA provides more than a day out for free hair care. It's an underground campaign touching some of the deepest issues in the lives of African-American women, and it spreads its message via word of mouth, e-mail and a Web site, www.nappyhairaffair.com. The message is simple: Free your hair and the rest will follow.

ANHA member Kellie Baker, was terrified when she first made the move to natural hair. Now she wears her hair in pencil-sized dreadlocks.
Mark Graham
ANHA member Kellie Baker, was terrified when she first made the move to natural hair. Now she wears her hair in pencil-sized dreadlocks.
Lady Nelson, an American Airlines flight attendant, says her hair is liberated. "No attachments, no extensions, nothing, just me."
Mark Graham
Lady Nelson, an American Airlines flight attendant, says her hair is liberated. "No attachments, no extensions, nothing, just me."

"I see this as a movement back to being ourselves, a homecoming," Jones says. "African-American women are appreciating their own unique characteristics. We're setting our own standards of beauty now. For so long, we've been conditioned to think that what we had and what we were born with was inferior or tainted in some way."

"When you got off the boat in Virginia

holding on to the African spirit within you

Your whole entirety immediately degraded

quickly migrated

to the North, to the South

Bought, sold, bartered, lynched,

Killed, slaughtered...and eventually some slave woman in Delaware

Sat amidst the fields, in tears, ashamed of her nappy hair."

--from "Madam CJ" by Von

Any African-American woman can tell you hair isn't just hair. It's a signifier, a ranking, an object of desire. The obsession with making kinky hair straight can be traced back to slavery. In their 2001 book Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, authors Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps explain how African slaves came to hate their hair. Uprooted from their traditional hair-care rituals, they were afforded little time for grooming. Most wore scarves to hide their matting hair.

What they soon noted were the advantages of having straight hair. It wasn't merely the ease of styling (what hair implements they did have were European hand-me-downs, small-toothed combs and boars-bristle brushes, ill-suited for Afro hair); slaves with straight hair, usually the offspring of slave owners, were given special privileges, including lighter workloads. African-Americans began to classify "grades" of hair: "Good hair" was straight or wavy, easy to comb. "Bad hair" was what they had: tight, coarse, curly.

They searched for ways to beat genetics. Heat was the first and most successful way to get rid of the kink. A metal comb is placed on a hot surface, like a fire or an element on a stove. Once heated to a certain temperature, it is used to comb hair that has been primed with a combination of pomade and water. The comb sizzles as it comes in contact with the hair, and the result is straightened tresses that last, so long as the wearer doesn't get her hair near water or sweat.

After the hot comb came the permanent. Relaxers, or perms, remove the kink until it grows out. A perm works by breaking down the hair structure chemically so it can be smoothed. To do this, lye or some other caustic chemical is mixed with a stabilizer base. It is slathered onto the head and then smoothed out and left to set. After washing and rinsing, the result is straight hair that can survive the vagaries of weather. The chemicals are harsh: They can burn the skin, cause allergic reactions and must be applied with gloves. If left on too long, they can end up removing hair. But African-American women braved these risks for the sake of straight hair.

Nurturing "good hair" inevitably would become a race against nature and time. Newly growing roots, sometimes called naps or kitchens (because they needed to be fixed at the stove), must be retouched. Going to the salon becomes a ritual. You make an appointment and walk in, your senses assaulted by the pungent smell of relaxer. Most of the time, you wait, sometimes hours, for time in the beautician's chair as she juggles the stages in several customers' hair-straightening processes.

You will return at least every six weeks, spending $30, $40 or $50, fully entangled in hair bondage.

For the enslaved, there is always a champion, someone to show a better way. In Dallas, this is Linda Jones. Her almost messianic devotion to helping women come to terms with their natural hair has earned her the nickname "Mosetta."

"A friend told me I was like Moses, leading my people out of hair bondage into the Promised Land," Jones says with a laugh. "But she had to put a sister-girl twist on it, so it's Mosetta."

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