"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.
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.
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.
"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
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."
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
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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?"