Trying to improve my life
My hair was a mess. I was that little black girl with the kinky roots and broken off damaged straightened ends. I rocked the short cut way before Rihanna; not because I was chic and ahead of my time but because my hair was damaged and I couldn’t retain length.
I have fine strands in contrast to my sister who has a jungle on her head. My sister got the “good” hair in the family. I don’t mean she has a curly texture instead of a kinky texture. In fact, her hair is just a kinky as mine. I mean she has a cool widow’s peak in the front, and a lot of thick strands, with no problem retaining length. When we were little I remember my mother combing her hair with those black rubber combs that have “Unbreakable” stamped on the side. Guess what. They’re not unbreakable. Her hair broke two of those combs and numerous teeth on the attachments to the blow dryer. Not my hair. There are pictures of me as a child with paint brush pony tails. No I’m not jealous of my sister’s hair…that’s a lie, yes I am.
My first relaxer was administered by my mother, who was a school teacher by trade, not a licensed cosmetologist. I was 9 or 10 years old at the time. I think it was a Hawaiian Silky relaxer, the one professionals use; premixed, no kit. It smelled like sulfur and rotten eggs. It burned like nothing else I’d ever felt. I cried. She kept telling me just a little longer so that she could get my hair completely straight. Finally she washed it out. Then my nightmare began. Within weeks my hair began to break off and fall out. My mother acknowledged that it had been a bad idea to relax my hair and began braiding it. Every two weeks she would wash and condition my hair and braid it in cute styles. Through this process my hair grew to the longest it had been.
Here comes six grade. My mother had been braiding my hair for a least a year at this point. It had grown back nicely and was healthy. She asked if I wanted to continue having my hair braided or if I wanted to go to the salon and have it relaxed. There in lies the problem. I had low self esteem. When I was around seven years old I began experiencing skin issues. Large pustules would form on my nose. I was teased about this. I didn’t always have the nicest clothes either. All the things we are judged by as people. When I looked around at the other girls most had given up the “childish” braids and wore their hair in straightened styles. I wanted to fit in with them. I wanted to conform. Off to the salon I went.
My hair was too fine, too weak for relaxers. Once my hair was straightened it was limp with no body. So the stylist would then spray spritz, a sticky hair goo, on my hair and then take a hot curling iron to it. Needless to say I ended up with stiff, immobile curls. Then the hair breakage would begin. Because my hair was so stiff from the spray if it rubbed against my shirt collar or pillowcase the hairs would break off. So in high school I just took to wearing wraps.
Freshman year in college I met my friend Marsha. She was a senior and had been protective styling for 4 years. She was able to do her own braided extensions, so when one style was over she would buy some hair and put another one in. Marsha eventually took her braids out to reveal the biggest afro puffs I had ever seen. She had ringlets much like my mom’s hair, and would zigzag part her hair into the puffs. The seeds to “natural” hair were sewn. At the time though there wasn’t a movement, no online communities, there wasn’t even a YouTube. We didn’t call it going natural. I still wasn’t really even considering growing out my hair at that time. I just liked the fro. A couple of years later the shampoo girl at the salon I went to faded her hair. I thought it was chic so I decided to do it to. That’s when the insults like “That’s a man,” started, or the assumptions “She must be gay.” Sigh. There were no support communities that I knew of at the time so I quickly buckled under the pressure and went back to relaxing my hair even though I really liked my fade. After a couple of months of relaxers I decided to buck up and faded my hair again. This was more of a financial issue than courage. It was just cheaper to rock the fade. Plus I was tired of the self and friend administered relaxers that were leaving abrasions on my scalp. When I think about all the things I’ve done to my hair, I’m surprised that I have even a strand left on my head.
I remember being in my mid 20s and I had been natural for a couple of years at that point. I was in a moment of crisis, a crossroads. I was sitting on my living room floor debating with myself whether or not to relax my hair. I knew that I liked my natural hair but I was feeling an overwhelming sense of doubt. My hair was in a TWA and people were saying the worse things to me, “I looked like a man”, “I needed a relaxer”, and then that word again. UGLY. That I was ugly. I remembered a book that I had read by Toni Morrison called The Bluest Eye. It’s the story of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl who wishes that her eyes will turn blue so that people will see her and consider her to be beautiful.
“The Breedloves did not live in a storefront because they were having temporary difficulty adjusting to the cutbacks at the plant. They lived there because they were poor and black, and they stayed there because they believed they were ugly…-Ms. Breedlove, Sammy Breedlove, and Pecola Breedlove-wore their ugliness, put it on so to speak, although it did not belong to them…You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, “You are ugly people.” They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning from every billboard, every movie, every glance. “Yes,” they had said. “You are right.” And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.”
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison copyright 1970
I remembered reading this book in my late teens and reading this passage. I remembered the warm feeling below my eyes from tears. I had to put the book down. I didn’t pick it back for months to finish reading the story. I felt like she had exposed me, but exposed is not the correct word. Striped, revealed, or called-out perhaps? “…it came from conviction, their conviction.” But where did my conviction come from? Who told me I was ugly and why did I believe it? Then I began thinking of the faces of the people who had called me ugly. Dark brown skin, wide noses, a reflection of myself and I thought,”How dare you call me ugly”. It was childish. It’s a childish thing to say. The childish taunts of small children, except these weren’t 5 year olds. A bitterness and resentment against what is inherent. I’m reminded of the school yard game of Caps, Playing the Dozens, Yo Mama. Games of insults, the winner rewarded with approval of the crowd. How many times did I hear “Yo mama so black…”? African American children turning dark skin into an insult. Why is being black an insult to black people?
I sat there that night and asked myself if there was any reason, any good reason, why I should straighten my hair. I heard crickets chirping. NO! I wanted to be ok with me. I wanted to get to the point where I could look in the mirror and be happy with who was looking back. So I never looked back. I’ve been natural for about 15 years. I have no desire to straighten my hair. I don’t find straight hair any more or less professional or special than kinky hair. It’s just hair. I went natural because I liked a hairstyle. I’ve stayed natural because I like me.