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.

Jones didn't set out to save the world through hair. She wanted to do it through writing, and she has been a journalist for more than 20 years. The southern Dallas resident has taken a year off from her job to see where the for-profit A Nappy Hair Affair will lead her. She started the group four years ago as a place for her friends with natural hair to unwind and get their hair done. Now ANHA has a volunteer staff of three, publishes a newsletter and sells memberships ($35 for the "Kitchen" level, $60 for the "Kink" level). ANHA peddles T-shirts and cards and has produced a spoken-word CD extolling kinky hair. "I've become this de facto natural-hair guru," Jones says, a bit bewildered by the popularity of Hair Days. She isn't making much money from the enterprise, though, and figures she'll return to work when her unpaid sabbatical ends.

Jones says her own hair journey was typical of many African-American women. When she was younger, she endured the weekly two-hour hot-comb sessions in the kitchen and wore her hair straight through much of high school. She tried a relaxer but found she couldn't afford to keep going to the salon for maintenance.

Toward the tail end of high school, in the 1970s with Black Power in full swing, she went natural. She wore an Afro and later cornrows. In her hometown of Akron, Ohio, she was part of a small but visible band of rebels.

Dedra Arthur, left, and her mother, Gwen Swinton, were born with what many African-Americans consider "good hair." But they decided to shed the "old slave mentality" that identifies straight hair with beauty.
Mark Graham
Dedra Arthur, left, and her mother, Gwen Swinton, were born with what many African-Americans consider "good hair." But they decided to shed the "old slave mentality" that identifies straight hair with beauty.

In college, she added braid extensions to her hair. She did this for years, until she noticed her hair was thinning. She was diagnosed with alopecia, a hereditary condition that causes hair loss. Jones' grandmother had it; she remembers her being bald on top. Jones now wears lock extensions to hide her thinning hair, but she'll tell anyone who asks that they aren't hers. She recognizes the irony that a woman who is losing her hair and wears extensions is also at the forefront of getting women to accept their natural supply. "I'm not on a trip to get everyone to embrace natural hair because I don't have as much as I want," she says. "People who know me know I have never been obsessed with having or wanting lots of hair."

What she does want is for natural hair, which she defines as chemical-free hair, to be accepted as a rightful choice, a beautiful choice. She wants women to stop falling out with their families or friends or even losing jobs because of a choice of hairstyle.

The latter isn't as unlikely as it sounds, thanks to some large corporations--and the Dallas Police Department, which recently fired some officers for violating its hair-grooming policies. In the mid-1980s, in fact, corporate America had problems with women wearing their hair in braids or cornrows. Women were told these hairstyles were "too ethnic" or "not professional," despite being worn in an "acceptable" style, such as a bob or pulled into a bun. Even black magazines such as Essence chastised women for wanting to wear their hair natural. "You either look professional or you don't," sniffed one article, although it did offer "appropriate 9 to 5 braid styles." Eventually these restrictions in the workplace were relaxed after a series of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuits awarded huge damages to women who had been fired for wearing braids.

The new black-hair bogeyman is dreadlocks. Locks are created when hair is twisted together in strands and allowed to mat, forming cylindrical locks. Although the look is centuries-old, it was popularized in recent decades by the Rastafarians of Jamaica. Dreadlocks are an uncompromising hairstyle. To wear them is a long-term commitment, because they can't be styled. The only way to get rid of them is to cut them off.

Certain myths are attached to dreadlocks, the chief one being that they are unclean, that you can't wash your hair. While a visit to real Rastafarians in the mountains of Jamaica may convince you otherwise, locks must be washed in order to lock. Cleanliness aside, people identify dreadlocks with a certain uncompromising political attitude. They scare people.

"Dreadlocks are the absolute real way [an African-American] would look if you left your hair to its own devices," she says. "People don't want to accept that." Dreadlocks keep you from hiding, keep you from assimilating into the wider culture. "They make you stand out," Jones says.

Earlier this year, Dallas police suspended or fired three African-American officers who it says ran afoul of its grooming guidelines. Others avoided discipline by cutting their hair. Never mind that some of these officers had worn dreadlocks or braids for years within the department. A grooming committee determined that their hair was not in compliance, though it's not clear which specific rule the officers transgressed. The guidelines, written in the 1970s, say officers must present a "neutral and uniform image, to effectively relate to all segments of the population they serve." Male officers' hair must be tapered on the sides and back and cannot be ragged, unkempt or extreme. Female officers are allowed to wear braided hairstyles close to the head but are not allowed to wear ponytails or pigtails.

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