It was the 1980s and there was a new hairstyle on the loose called the Jheri Curl. I had dreams of this product loosening my kinky tangles into glossy curls that would eventually hang down my back, making me glamorous and beautiful. As I rode the bus home from the country school house I attended during my middle school years, my sister and I discussed the possibilities with our neighbors, who were like sisters to us.
“Are ya’ll getting a Curl, too?” we asked. “Yea, mama said we could do it,” they answered.
“Who did your mama say was putting it in for you?” They gave us a name. We’d never been to actual professional beauticians. We excitedly made our appointments and went….
The result was not what we had hoped. Our curls didn’t take. We had already chemically processed it with perms out of boxes. They said no-lye but that was a lie because those chemicals were harsh and our hair was breaking.
We were told to keep putting moisturizer on it, sleeping in our plastic caps to keep the moisture in, and allow the new growth to come in. It just didn’t work, and we gave up on it soon after. What I had never told my friends, and hesitate to do so now, is that a boy had looked at my hair one day and called it, “greasy, kinky, s—t.” The stories of how unruly and difficult to comb my hair was were legendary, and even I had laughed at the stories and even told them myself. But I was looking for a way to correct all this.
Hair…It drove us nuts as teens, and it drives our behavior as adults. Black women spend millions of dollars a year on hair products, and that number shocks even us. We know that our hair is often a measure of our beauty, the way white women’s waistlines often measure theirs. We want it to give us glam, beauty, favor, and sex appeal. We wonder if our own hair is enough, or if someone else’s would be better. We lament the difficulty of managing our woolly textures, each one uniquely different from the next. We wonder how to keep it looking a certain way for the least amount of effort.
When I finally decided to go “natural”, I dreamed about afros. When I looked at the trees outside, they looked like bunches of green afro ladies gossiping by the roadsides. The moment my kind stylist cut all the chemically straightened ends off and I saw my natural hair for the first time in over 20 years, I felt tears spring to my eyes. I was seeing me! It was a gorgeous, stunning moment.
I woke in the mornings, however, panicked about what to do. Through the years, I had lost any connection to my natural hair and had to be taught how to care for it and to style it. I began watching youtube videos for guidance. I felt insecure, self-conscious, and needed constant reassurance from others that my hair looked “alright.” Mixed with this was as strange defiance to wear it natural to prove my worthy point. That point was that who God created me to be and the way he created me to look were acceptable. Even if others didn’t accept it, I was going to. This led to strange moments of freedom and self-esteem boosting. The many compliments I received from friends and strangers gave me even more confidence.
Hair is a journey of self-discovery for many African American women. We have a complex relationship with our hair, oscillating between great pride and amazing creativity and also shame and hiding.
Our hair is often a metaphor for the history of our race–seen yet unseen, needed but not wanted, disliked and degraded, yet essential to everything. I remember the shock and anger I felt when a woman I respected as very proud of her heritage told me she didn’t like afros and didn’t find them sexy at all. I thought, How could one who lived through the civil rights movement and espoused a love for black people feel so negatively about something as fundamental as the natural texture of our hair? It showed me that even our pride can be mixed with shame, and our espoused self-love was often precarious.
Choosing to wear my hair natural has taught me that my journey toward self-love had been sublimated for many years, and that I still had work to do on it. It doesn’t mean this for everyone. And I’m not saying that I’ll never wear my hair straight again. It does mean that I don’t feel chained to the idea that I must wear my hair straight in order to be acceptable and beautiful. If I choose to be free in this arena—to be free of harmful chemicals that lay it flat, and to walk outside triumphantly with the hair God creatively chose for me to have, I am not ugly, inferior, or unrefined. It means that I can show this long hidden part of me to the world, and smile in self-acceptance, hoping that others will smile back in return.
That’s my black hairstory!