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"Hair Story"

I remember the first time I realized that I did not love my hair. I was a teenager, 15 maybe 16 years old when one hot summer day the boy I was crazy about stopped by unexpectedly not long after I'd washed my hair. (We didn't say "shampooed" then as later, turning a noun into a verb). Back in the day we washed our hair and we didn't always use shampoo either. Sometimes it was detergent. I recall the panic I felt at the thought of him seeing my hair in its natural state – a wild, untamed bush turned loose like an angry mob. Startled, a deer caught in the headlights, I groped for the towel around my shoulders and struggled to shove my resistant hair beneath it. I pressed the towel down on top of my head as though sheltering it from the rain, but my hair kept springing out here then there like a disobedient, undisciplined child. I felt embarrassed – ashamed even. He walked towards me. "Don't do that," he said softly, attempting to lift the towel from my head. "Don't ever do that!"

But I had already been conditioned. My hair was straightened with a hot comb from the time I was old enough to wear it in its unnatural state. At first it was just for special occasions like Christmas or Easter. But as I grew into adolescence, I joined the Saturday night ritual of tens of thousands of little black girls across America -- sitting on the kitchen floor between my mother's or older sister's legs next to the stove, a jar of hair grease, a flame and a metal straightening comb at the ready. The heat of the comb was tested on a towel, leaving a pattern of burn marks behind as evidence, before taking it to my hair. My neck angled awkwardly, my mother would start with the kitchen, that telling area at the nape of the neck, and work her way up to the front, me holding my ears so they wouldn't get burned as she approached the temples. Drawing the hot comb through my hair, grease sizzling, leaving a trail of smoke behind, it soon lay flat on my head, straighter and more manageable.

In the 60s, we not only struggled for Civil Rights, we also freed our hair. I had a huge Fro that I rolled in pink rollers at night. In the morning, I would draw it out with my fingertips and lift it with a pick whose handle was shaped like a fist, symbolizing Black power, until it became this magnificent crown of Black Pride. I can still remember those Wazu Wazuri Afro Sheen commercials where Black women were depicted as the great queens of Africa. We were beauty, dignity and grace personified. I also wore my hair pulled back tightly against my skull with a fall, a long ponytail with a comb clipped into my own hair.

In my twenties, I got a perm. What an occasion it was. No more worrying about water or sweating it back on humid days. In fact, it wouldn't go back to its natural state for around six weeks –five of the most glorious weeks I'd ever experienced in my entire life. The sixth was always a little troubling, a critical juncture where my roots began reverting back to their natural state like embarrassing relatives revealing the true you. That sixth week was a mad rush to a "touch up." Even though it burned sometimes and the upkeep was both costly and time consuming, I welcomed that lye on those roots. It was a different form of freedom.

For nearly 20 years I straightened my hair, robbing it of its strength as I transformed it into more compliant behavior. It no longer stood tall, wild and undisciplined; was no longer an embarrassment when set free. It lay on my shoulders and moved with me when I walked. It bounced and swayed and returned to its unnatural state whenever the wind blew.

As I approached 40 and grew into greater spiritual consciousness, I found myself admiring locked hair. It began in earnest on a trip to Jamaica. Early in the mornings I'd stand on my hotel balcony and watch the Rastas run along the beach, buff and bronzed, their hair flowing behind them like lions' manes. Thick ropes of hair bleached golden by sun and sea water. Oh Lion of Judah!

For the next several years, I found myself drawn to locked hair and the spirit of people with locked hair. They were mostly conscious Black people, spiritually and culturally. People brave enough to be themselves.

I was drawn to the drama of natty dreadlocks, the bold statement they made about identity and freedom of a different sort. There was something so beautiful and natural about locks, something so real. I knew I wanted them.

The winter of my 40th year, while planning my first trip to the Motherland, I decided that I would no longer put chemicals in my hair upon my return.

I committed to lock my hair. When I came back from West Africa, my roots had already begun their journey back. But instead of experiencing panic I began getting reacquainted with my hair. Lying in bed at night I would run my fingers along the parts in my hair, feeling the rhythm of the roots, soft and wavy and pleasant to the touch. As the weeks passed, more and more of my natural hair appeared, moving up the hair shaft, swelling as it rose, becoming thicker and stronger. More and more the processed hair morphed into a texture that was mesmerizing beneath my fingertips. Like springs in a mattress, the hair coiled into soft roundness. My fingertips traced the furrows along the parts, neat and orderly like rows of peas. I was falling in love with my hair for the very first time in my life.

One day I couldn't wait any longer and so I cut off what was left of the processed hair on the ends. Now all the chemicals were gone.

And so I began the journey called locking. I began to twist and shape and play with and fall ever more madly in love with my hair as it began its transformation, a tangible symbol of my spiritual journey. My hands were like appendages of my hair. Reading, working, relaxing, I was always twisting and twirling and wrapping my hair. I observed the way the light played through the chunky twists, highlighting shades of auburn, brown and black with hints of gold. I admired the way each twist stood erect pick-a-ninny style – an homage to the ancestors. A friend said, "Did you know that we're the only people whose hair will stand erect," proclaiming, "We have hair with muscles!"

Months went by and the locks began to fall, ever so slightly. Suddenly six months had passed and one day I attempted to re-shape a lock after shampooing and realized that it had become fixed. I officially had locks. Reactions were mixed -- largely uncomfortable for most people. "Why are you doing that to your hair?" from a colleague. "Comb your hair. You ought to be ashamed of yourself," from an angry man. "You used to be so cute," from my Mom, "Do you wash your hair?" from a stranger. The saddest encounter though was when a woman kneeling beside me during prayer time at church, refused to hold my hand. When we rose from praying she turned to me and sneered, "You look like Whoopie Goldberg," as though tossing an insult. I got it but I didn't really because I happen to think Whoopie is beautiful. But I was on my path and it really didn't matter what people thought. I loved my hair. It was like falling in love with an old friend you hardly knew.

The longer my locks grew, the more acceptable they became. People began to admire them, compliment them, ask questions about the process, express their desire for and fear of locking their own hair -- and always questions about the washing. If only they knew how much I relished the ritual of shampooing my locks, palm rolling them with lock gel until they were tight and neat, the new growth and loose hair captured in each shiny lock. I especially loved to sit on the back porch on hot summer afternoons grooming my luxurious locks after shampooing.

For nearly 20 years I embraced my hair, enjoyed each stage of its development. As it grew longer and longer I began to trim, then cut it until finally one day, and I began my own transformation I knew it was time to shear my locks. And so I did.

Today I wear my hair short and natural. I love the way it feels beneath my palms, soft as cotton. I never would have imagined 25 years ago that I would cut off all my hair and wear it this way. But I did and continue to do so.

There's that freedom thing again. Sometimes I sit and run my hands over and through my hair, feeling its strength and goodness. Menopause has thinned it and made it straighter. I no longer have those furrows beneath my fingertips -- just a smooth softness. The irony of that is not lost on that little black girl between her mother's knees and that panic-stricken teen. Good hair, I think. That's what I've got – good hair because good hair is healthy, strong, shiny hair -- hair with muscles.