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.

It's attitudes like this that infuriate Jones. For people in this day to be discriminated against for something as simple as hair, she says, is a travesty. "It's not just about changing hairstyles, it's changing mindsets," Jones says. "People are...disfiguring themselves because they think that what they have naturally isn't good. Why should people go natural? They should do it to be themselves. To empower them.

"Look, I know a woman who says her keeping her hair natural keeps her off drugs. Another girl lost her best friend because she went natural. Her hair! What about her character? Oh girl, let me calm down." Jones takes a deep breath. "Look, this is one set of sisters who don't give a follicle what anybody thinks."

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.

Attending a Hair Day is a bit like walking into a crowded, all-sisters family reunion. At a recent session in Duncanville, the hostess' house was packed with women ranging in age from teens to late 70s. Several professions were represented, from housewife to lawyer, but most were middle-class women trying to shake off a bit of the middle-class mindset.

Virtually all had hair in varying degrees of undress: hair getting washed, twisted, plaited or cornrowed. Other women waited for their turns, while one offered free foot massages. There was a long line of takers.

This was more house party than revolutionary cell. The table was laden with fried chicken, potato salad and coleslaw. But the conversations were hair-obsessed, with many tales coming out in each twist and plait. For the equivalent of beauty shop talk, those stories had a lot of heartache.

Charlotte's is a story about the redemptive power of hair. She says going natural saved her life, and she isn't being melodramatic.

For nearly four years, Charlotte, which isn't her real name, was a crack cocaine addict. She had been married for years, had two children and lived well, but it didn't stop her from experimenting with crack cocaine first with a friend, then slowly getting hooked.

Charlotte says she tried many times to get away from the lifestyle that found her so many times in squalid crack dens. She moved far away from South Dallas, where she bought her drugs, to far North Dallas. She still ended up in her car, driving south to her old haunts to pick up drugs.

Then one night, she figured out what was triggering her regression. She was standing in the bathroom, curling her hair with a curling iron, having added a little spritz to make it set. Then she heard the sound.


That sizzle of a hot curling iron on damp, straightened hair was the exact same sound as a hot comb greasing through naps, she said. It was also the exact same sound as a rock of crack cocaine cooking in a spoon: the sound of a good hit calling.

"I did half my head and started wanting a fix. I just had to leave. My son knew where I was going. He said, 'Ma, don't get drugs.'" She didn't listen. She stuck a baseball cap over her half-done hair and left to find a fix.

When she got back, she locked the door to her bedroom and cooked the rock. She heard the sizzle. But somehow, she wasn't able to enjoy her high that night.

Her solution--for her, a life-and-death matter--was to go natural. In 1994, she cut off all her hair into a tiny Afro. Today, the divorced 47-year-old shopkeeper says the battleground has shifted. Instead of crack cocaine, she fights perceptions about her hair. Men her age won't date her because she wears it in twists, she says, and her best friend of 23 years refuses to be seen in public with her. The lesson is implicit. No one minded when she was a crack addict, but go natural, and people shun you. Not that Charlotte cares.

"When you get to this point, it's the beginning of the end of vanity," she says. "You can look in the mirror and you don't think about who that is. You know who that is. That's what I'm about."

Lady Nelson, who spoke while fixing a plate of food, had fought her hair for decades. First, she fought herself, with hair as the foil. From age 14 to 29, her hair reflected her own inner turmoil. It was cut when she hurt, straightened and bleached blond when she was in denial of who she was. She and her hair were "emotionally distraught," she says.

In her 30s, that changed when she styled her hair in braids and became a flight attendant for American Airlines. It was the early 1980s, and American was one of many companies that saw braided hairstyles as unprofessional. Nelson ended up becoming part of the protests that led American to change its policies, Nelson says.

Now, at 51, she, her hair and American Airlines are at peace. "My hair said, 'Let's get liberated.' No attachments, no extensions, nothing, just me." Liberated for her meant dreadlocks, which she's had for two years. She's encountered few problems, though receiving the support of her compatriots during ANHA's monthly meetings has helped, she says. "It is the most beautiful bouquet of women," Nelson says. "The common denominator is hair. All other differences are aside. You come here once a month and charge your batteries and reaffirm who you are."

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