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.

Dedra Arthur and her mother, Gwen Swinton, are the sort of women who have always had their hair done. Neither can recall a time when they weren't straightening their hair with hot combs or relaxers. But they both remember when they stopped.

"It was 1995," says Swinton, a retired teacher. At 78, she is the oldest member of the Dallas ANHA group. "I remember, because the woman I went to spiked my hair"--like a punk rocker--"and I asked her why, and she wouldn't answer me...I haven't been back since."

Arthur, a 49-year-old Duncanville schools community liaison officer, went natural in 1997. She'd been having problems locating a stylist after moving back to Dallas from Washington, D.C. A lifetime of perming and coloring had left her hair dry, strawlike and brittle. So she braided it with hair extensions for 18 months, then shed them one Thanksgiving. "I see my hair as a rebellion," Arthur says. "I can be whoever I want and do what I want. I am my own person."

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.

The irony is that mother and daughter have what African-Americans would term "good hair": soft hair with a wavy pattern, reddish brown in color. Yet both women still felt it necessary to straighten their hair. It's just what you did, Swinton explains.

"You didn't want to be left out," she says. "You had to have the hair completely straight. It wasn't something you talked about, this old slave mentality. It was just something that passed from generation to generation." Swinton, in fact, passed it to her daughter when she hot-combed her hair as a girl.

Peace, self-acceptance, a life free from drugs: Jones says these testimonials only scratch the surface. This time, she says, the natural-hair movement will last, unlike the death of the Afro when Black Power was subsumed by disco culture. "Once we are feeling better about ourselves," Jones says, "we feel we deserve better. It's deeper than hair."

Kaylois Henry, a former Dallas Observer staff writer, lives with her husband in Birmingham, England, where she is a radio producer for the British Broadcasting Corp. Henry has worn her hair natural since 1994, though her mother still asks, "When are you going to get that mess done?"

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