About a year and a half ago, I got tired of relaxing (straightening) my hair every six weeks. Why would I relax it every six weeks? Well, I would have to go back over one hundred years to give you that reason. I cannot and will not ever understand why African-originated features have always been seen as unattractive, but our hair is no exception.
One of the main features that define us from other races (apart from our skin, of course) is our hair. From Indonesian, to Pacific Islander, to African cultures, the hair is distinct from other ethnicities in other regions. (My apologies for missing some ethnicities—I am sure that I am.) You would think this would make us exotic, but unfortunately, it made those with very curly hair seem to be the opposite—something to fear. That fear was pronounced in hate, along with something to denounce. So it should not come as a shock to Americans that the first black millionairess in the USA was Madame CJ Walker, the inventor of the first relaxer.
Black women were lining up in droves to get their hands on the little “miracle in a jar.” It would finally allow them to have hair that was free of very curly hair, something closer to straight, European hair. From that point on, in many black families, women were passing this little miracle in a jar to their daughters from generation to generation. My family is no exception in this. I can still remember the day my mother allowed me to skip school so that she could have my hair relaxed for the first time, and then have lunch with my father so that I could show off my new straight, long hair.
I kind of laugh at this now and think how ridiculous that was. But when you think that is what is supposed to happen, you think it is the norm. Please do not think my parents are not educated. Between both of my parents, they hold four degrees. They were both raised by men and women who held advanced degrees as well. Acquiring a higher education is not an option in my family, but a requirement. But you also have to remember, they received degrees from schools established in a society that told all of America that African descent hair is “different,” and again, not in a good way.
So back to why I decided to break this ugly cycle … I simply got tired of relaxing my hair. My laziness made me want to stop. The relaxing process took about three and half hours to complete every six weeks. Also, every week I had to sit under a dryer with curlers in my hair. I hated it! So I decided to put my hair in braids (extensions in a braided form). I did not really need to do much with it. This made it so much easier for me to manage my hair.
That brings me to the present day. I just took my braids out of my hair and got the beautiful shock of my life. The relaxed hair was pretty much gone. (I think it probably broke off with the high amount of braiding, combing, and tugging on my hair that has been needed with two different textures in my hair at one time.) I was left with a six- to seven-inch long afro. In my own bathroom, I thought it was beautiful. I could not keep this huge smile on my face. But then, I started thinking even more about this beautiful, natural head of hair I now had. I started thinking of friends of mine, and people in movies and books I have read who would compare their hair when it was not done to their liking to an afro.
I know you have heard this before. How many of you with non-African descent hair have ever said or heard someone say, “I woke up and my hair looked like a fro!” or “The humidity made me look like I had a fro on my head.” “I came out of the wind and my hair looked like a fro.” Everyone has said this. But it did not dawn on me until I was staring at my own fro that there was something wrong with these statements. Why would someone compare the messy state of their hair to a fro? Why would someone buy so many products to make sure their hair would not reach the state of a fro? What is so wrong with having your hair look like mine … a fro? Is it because a fro only looks good on black skin? Well, if straight hair looks good on every single type of skin, why can’t the same be said for a fro?
So the hesitation began to flow in my mind. I didn’t know if I had the willpower to allow so many people to stare at me. After a number of hours, I got hungry and had to leave my apartment, so I got over it quickly and left my apartment to show my new afro to the rest of my world. I was a bit scared; I won’t lie. I was afraid people would treat me differently. I was afraid of the disgust or simply being ignored by black, white, Asian, and Hispanic men for having very, very, curly hair and not soft hair. I was just afraid of what I was going to encounter, afraid of being let down. As I got to the supermarket, I could feel the glaring eyes. I felt like my hair was going to explode with the number of eyes on it. I felt like I had a bull’s eye right on the top of my head.
I stopped at the beer section and a group of college-aged white boys stopped next to me. I heard one of them say to me, “Mam, sorry to bother you, but I just wanted to let you know I think your hair is awesome! I wish I could do that to my hair!” Yes, it is safe to say I was taken aback beyond belief. I realized my own experiences of what others have said to me in the past had allowed me to cloud my judgment on those I had not even given a chance. Sure, people were staring at me, but my past experiences and knowledge on how my culture’s hair was perceived in our society did not allow me to think that maybe people were staring because it was something different, finally exotic (and not in a bad way).
This is something I learned about others and myself. It is funny that something as simple as hair has so many meanings to it in this world. Racism is an ugly thing. Oppression is a foul state to be in. It continues to question that small little remark, or that quick stair, that quick grab for the purse, etc. Believe me, I would love to never have to question them again, but speaking for myself, I will need some time. That is all I ask for, just a bit more time to wrap my mind around it all. I’m getting there, though, thanks to my hair. It made me realize how much more conversations and dialogue is necessary for our country to engage to finally get there. I will love to continue doing this while showing the world the real, natural me.