Repost: Afro In Exile – A Short History Of My Hair

Monday, June 03, 2013

This is a reboot of a entry I wrote for my old blog back in September of 2010. It’s not about sex but it is very personal. I’m reposting it here as it’s directly related to a new entry coming later in the week.

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Yesterday…I got my hair did.

I have a standing appointment every eight weeks to have my hair washed, trimmed and relaxed.  If you’re unfamiliar with the intricacies of black people hair, relaxing is a chemical process that breaks down the bonds of my super-kinky, naturally nappy hair, leaving it straight.

If I had a recent picture of myself with my hair au naturel, I would post it.  But such a photo does not exist. I’ve been processing my hair for well over twenty years now.

Left to it’s own devices, not only is my hair intensely curly, it’s impossibly thick, has a coarse texture similar to that of synthetic furniture stuffing and left unbraided, prefers to point up rather than down.

As a child, I hated everything about my hair.  I hated the thickness that could obliterate lesser combs.  I hated the ordeal of having my head scrubbed every Saturday morning with the special “for-black-people” shampoo that smelled terrible, followed by two hours of pain while my mom combed out the extensive net of knots that had formed.

Young and nap-tural!

But most of all, I hated that my head was topped by stiff plaits when my friends had long, soft, easy hair that actually moved as they did.  Back then I would have gladly traded a limb in exchange for a long, swingy ponytail.

Because I’m female, because I’m black and because I live in the part of the world that I do, having healthy hair-esteem is a challenge. When we very little my cousins and I would put yellow blankets on our heads to simulate the free-flowing blondness we saw in commercials and re-runs of Charlie’s Angels. I was in my twenties, before I saw ad for hair products that included a woman of colour shaking her glorious mane with slow-motion vigour.  And even then, her hair was as straight and silken as her Caucasian compatriots.  The marketing mantra of desirable female hair has been basically then same my entire life: Long. Shiny. Bouncy. In it’s natural state, my hair is exactly the opposite of this.

When I was a girl, white people were baffled and fascinated by my hair.  I remember a woman, a stranger,  actually fingering one of my nappy braids and saying, “It doesn’t even feel like hair.”  That sucked.

It also sucked that while white women regarded my hair with insensitive astonishment, black women – primarily members of my own family – perpetuated “good hair” myths with a vengeance.  Once I hit about ten, the pressure to tame my fuzz and do “something” about my hair was ON!

“You can’t run around looking like some African wild-child,” one aunt-admonished me.   (Side note: Try-Not-To-Seem-Too-African was a driving force amongst my grandparents’ generation of Black West Indians).

I also got, “You’d be pretty if you did something with your hair.”  And the most direct criticism from a family friend, “Your hair makes you look ugly.”

My mom tried her best to counter all the hair negativity.  But my mother’s natural hair texture is a lot looser than mine and much more in line with conventional standards of beauty.  So every time she tried to instill me with a sense of pride in my nappy head, I’d look at her wavy, long, bouncy, shiny hair and think, ‘What the hell to you know?’

Fro-licious!

By the time I was eleven, I succumbed.  I began badgering my parents until they conceded to let me have my hair relaxed.  My mom took me to a salon on a Friday after school.   I was so excited when we arrived, I ran inside and practically jumped into the beautician’s chair.

Relaxer is a cream made of standard conditioning agents, fragrance and an assload of sodium hydroxide.  When the stylist  first applied to my head it felt goopy and kind of cold.  After a few minutes it started to tingle.  Then it kind of started itching.  And then…it began to burn.

I didn’t cry that first time, but I came close.  I was chanting the f-word very, very quietly (Mom within in earshot) and contemplating running to the bathroom and putting my head in the toilet. Finally the stylist ushered me over to the sink, hosed my head down with cold water and put me out of my misery.

 

Why would anyone do this to themselves? I wondered.  I decided that had been my first and last relaxer, because only an idiot would willing subject themselves to that type of pain of a regular basis. Then the stylist turned me around to face the mirror.

Holy. Fucking. Shit.  For the first time in my life, I had “normal” hair.  It was loose and straight and shiny and it moved! It was some sort of hair miracle!  I could not stop touching it.  The minute we got home, I tied it back and started shaking my head around like a pony-tailed fool.  The kids at school went crazy for it.  White people left me alone!  Black people nodded approvingly!   Pain? Who cared? What was 20 minutes of scalp torture when compared with unprecedented social acceptance?

Like so many black women before me, I came to fully embrace relaxer or, “the creamy crack”, as it’s wryly referred to.  Relaxer gave me the ability to experience ponytails and approval.  But there were negatives. You can’t really get relaxed hair wet, which meant wearing covering my hair in various plastic caps in the shower, when I swam and on rainy days. I had to go back to the salon every few weeks to get my roots touched up. At best it was a very painful process. Much worse were the few times I sustained chemical burns on my scalp.

I briefly broke my addiction to the creamy crack the summer after eight grade.  I wanted to swim without having to wear my granny-looking bathing cap.  So I had my hair cut short and let my ‘fro return. I was actually kind of okay with the whole thing for about five minutes. Then high school began.

I went into ninth grade full frizzy fro and NO ONE was having that!   Within a week, the popular black kids were calling me “Buckwheat”.  The popular white kids picked it up. By October, I’m pretty sure most people thought that was actually my name.  One day during art, two of my classmates decided to dump an entire tin of blue powder paint on my head.  Another kid cried out, “Hey! Buckwheat’s black and blue!”  Everyone laughed.  Even the teacher kind of chuckled for a second before he remembered that he had to pretend this wasn’t cool. (After sentencing the paint-bombers to detention, he pulled me aside and kindly suggested that perhaps I could avoid such incidences in the future, if I tried harder to fit in and look like the other students).

That was it. I felt isolated and traumatized.  My hair was not my crowning glory.  It was the bane of my existence.  Not long after, I was back on the creamy crack.  I have been ever since.

I lived many, many years, well into adulthood, simply accepting that my

natural hair was bad.  I’m not sure when I began to rethink that.  I do know that it took a long time before I decided  that my hair is just my hair.  It’s not bad.  It’s not good.  It’s just a bunch of dead protein strands coming out of my head.   The marketing, the gawking, the names, the pressure…it’s all just a remnant of a bunch of oppressive, Euro-normative crap.  I know this.

Because I know this, I have to ask myself, “Self, why do you still relax your hair?”  The answer…because generally speaking, that Euro-normative crap is still the basis for our standards of beauty.  And the truth is, I’m afraid of what it means to defy those standards…at least when it comes to my hair. I don’t want people gawking at my head and fondling my strands like I’m one woman petting zoo. I don’t want to constantly defend my tresses to family members. I don’t want to be mocked or painted blue again. There is a part of me that wants to go back to my natural texture, I’m afraid that I can’t do it in a non-provacative way.

My straight hair is a total concession to The Man. It pretty much violates my feminist and anti-oppressive beliefs.  I imagine there are those who see my hair and judge me as lacking the courage of my convictions.   I certainly judge myself that way, at times.  Casting directors have occasionally cited my hair as a barrier to getting film and TV work.  American producers prefer relaxed hair; however they prefer the long, luxurious look of a weave.  Canadian producers, like a little kink; however, it’s typically a longer, looser curl than I can achieve.

The thought of fighting the fight of race and gender on a part of my body I can’t even see unless I look in the mirror is wearying.  I hope someday I’ll find the resolve to ignore the ignorant but I have to admit that I’m not there yet. If relaxed is what it takes for people to relax for the time being I’ll do it and hope that eventually, I’ll it myself straightened out.