It was black-black, so thick it drank two containers of relaxer at the salon, so full it took hours under the hooded dryer, and, when finally released from pink plastic rollers, sprang free and full, flowing down her back like a celebration. Her father called it a crown of glory.
—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
How do I begin? With the lyrics of Erykah Badu: Pick yo Afro Daddy, cause it’s flat on one side. Or I am not my hair, by India Arie; maybe, Beyonce: Call Becky with the good hair.
No! That’s the tease.
Underneath the dirt, rocks, and slow crawling ants, a growing bed of healthy hair-care seeds. Rosemary herb holds curls in place even on damp, bad hair days. Yucca and garden sage harvest clean, well-groomed and colorful, vibrant hair. The roots of these plants create enough lather for a gentle washing and yet leave the hair moist. Free landscape ingredients from Mother Nature. Imagine: a garden of plants as the untapped source to beautiful hair. Not so fast. Unique, complex and raw describes the black hair Southerners call Can’t Cha, Don’t Cha—Can’t Comb It, Don’t Try.
The colored past is often untold. Or riddled with lies. Or in Annie Malone’s case, that’s not how I heard it. An orphan, Malone dreamed of becoming a beauty doctor when Negroes didn’t have the luxury of straightening nappy hair. Shy and smart, Malone studied chemistry and in her late twenties developed a healthy solution to tame the “wool” in our native hair texture. A monumental discovery overlooked in history and an untangled web, much like black hair.
Malone’s ground-breaking beauty product, Wonderful Hair Grower (a healthy batch of vegetables, herbs, coconut oil, beeswax, violet extract, sulfur, petroleum), took care of the naps without damaging any strands. A gentle comparison to the old straightening formula —a mix of cooking grease, lye, butter, and goose fat.
In 1902, Malone put her bottles of Wonderful Hair Grower on display at the World’s Fair when black women wanted a sleeker look and not the braided cornrows that reflected slavery. Malone’s magic potion boomed so fast she opened her first shop in St. Louis and hired three door-to-door sales agents. This is where her name drops off in the history books.
History does show Malone’s second marriage along with the stock market crash, lawsuits, and bad money decisions caused her empire to collapse. Her sales agent, Madame C. J. Walker, fared much better and historians attributed the creation of the black beauty business to her.
In moments of hair rage, (when I can’t get a relaxer for less than $100), I wonder what Malone would consider natural black hair? During the late nineties, black women started a new hair wave, wearing braids or twists to promote natural hair. You’d think natural would be cheaper, no? No! The beauty business profits billions annually from millions of black women who pay as much as $2,000 a month to maintain their hair— whether it’s natural, chemically straightened or fake. My Hispanic stylist in the nation’s chocolate capital trains his white staff to do black hair. His words: “Sistas come every week and will keep money in your pockets, not white girls.”
A painstaking and embarrassing confession: If I invested the thousands of dollars I’ve paid to hair stylists over the years, I could be a millionaire. Misplaced hair priorities and a deflated wallet later, I offer no excuses or apologies. Life as a black girl! Can’t cha, don’t cha is a catch 22.
My hair journey started at age eight when Mother introduced me to the hot comb. A world she and my sister —lucky duo with the good hair—knew nothing about. Those genes missed me and instead of straight, I got half-thick, half-wavy with unruly, curly and nappy edges. It doesn’t get more can’t cha, don’t cha than this.
On Sunday nights, dressed in P-J’s, with a towel on my shoulders to catch stray splashes of hot grease, I position myself to comfortably squat in-between Mother’s vanilla-colored, healthy, shapely legs; the pressing begins when she sections off my hair into small manageable chunks and uses her index finger to grease the roots with hair dressing. Starting at the base, she fries each part until it is straight, then repeat, repeat, repeat, pausing only for a two minute warning: “Okay, be still now. Or else I’ll burn your neck.” Whenever she got too close, I prayed not to feel the sting of the hot comb and held my ears to keep them free of burns. A twice-a-month ritual I dreaded, but loved afterwards.
It took some doing, but Mother once fried my shoulder length hair bone-straight to resemble the white actress, Mia Farrow, whose blond hair was parted in the middle and hung straight on her shoulders. How long did it take the actress to do her hair? My guess: half-hour max. Two hours I sat; the odor unmistakeable; burnt hair smells like a toasted, smoky tire.
In 1872, and a zillion miles away from colored girls, Parisian hair dresser Marcel Grateau used the hot comb to turn coarse, curly hair straight. European pressing combs were designed for Egyptian women. Hair is more of a struggle for the Negro girl.
Some stylists swear a weave is the black hair cure-all and will sprout new growth. “Plain old common sense,” my stylist says. Leaving your hair alone is similar to the Beatles song, Let it be. With black hair, the lyrics are: “let it be, let it grow.”
Women of color around the globe have jumped on the weave bandwagon. In a tiny salon tucked away on a quiet Paris corner where tourists seldom travel, I stare awkwardly for minutes at the French-African women in the make-me beautiful chairs who are getting the expensive, artificial tresses sewn or glued into their hair. Standing on the rugged stairs leading to the M5 subway, the magnitude of the salon’s blackness jumps out, including the well decorated walls, which are adorned with poster billboards of black women with giant afros and braids; a silhouette of every beauty parlor I’ve visited. The upscale Manhattan salon where twenty dollar tips are common; the three chair neighborhood joint in “the hood”and home basement one-sink setups with dirt cheap prices. Gossip, laughter is visible from the window; a world fitted to our coloring lines; where time is put on hold. Four hours at the hairdresser is standard waiting time. Patience is mastered daydreaming through stacks of Ebony and Jet magazines. White buckets of chemical relaxers parked on the shelves; heavy duty curling irons and jars of hair grease and oils not seen in white salons.
How would Annie Malone answer the burning question: weave or not to weave? Is it a healthy alternative or another argument to criticize black women for being submissive to white America?
“This does not mean you have white hair and if you get it wet, it will knot up. You can’t go out in the rain without a rain bonnet on,”Mother forewarned after my first relaxer, which we called a ‘permanent,’ albeit it was only temporary. Regardless, at age thirteen, it transformed me into a perfect Mia Farrow. So, is this how white girls locks feel? Straight, silky, shiny hair that falls into place with a pat of the hand. I still rolled it at night with the pink foam snap-on rollers and tied a scarf on to keep it smooth while I slept. Remember, Mother said, I’m not white. Still, new hair, new me. Even pinned up or tied in a pony tail, my straight “do” made me feel special. Every three months, I got transformed.
While Angela Davis sported a hanging afro and yelled black pride, I clung to my white makeover. As an eighth grader, hair and politics didn’t coexist in the same sentence. I am pretty with straight hair like Mia Farrow. I whip my hair back and forth.
“I need money to get my hair done,” I’d tell Daddy every Friday when he got paid. Every Friday: “Didn’t you just get your hair done, girl?” Pulling teeth minus novocaine is how I maintained my silky, straight hair.
In the fall of 2016, a federal appeals court issued an alarming ruling: “Employees don’t have a right to wear dreadlocks.” This debate happened in the heart of the coloring lines, Mobile, Alabama. An insurance firm refused to hire a woman with dreadlocks, claiming they are too messy and the court basically agreed, rejecting the argument the law protects hairstyles culturally associated with race.
In South Africa, an all-black girls high school protested against ‘racist’ hair rules after a teacher told a thirteen-year-old her afro was too unruly.
A black mother screamed WTF on Facebook about a white teacher who re-did her daughter’s curly hair. The mother said she thought the teacher knew the unspoken rule: Whites are not to touch black hair. The mother argued what many black women speak loudly about. Why should beauty and worth be defined by whites?
“That’s an animal I can’t tame,” is how a white stylist referred to a black client’s textured hair. Subsequently, he was fired after the woman gave gripping soundbites of discrimination to the local NBC television station in Minneapolis. The anchors chatted they were unaware of their white hair privilege until the story, reported by a black journalist, hit their airwaves.
Short, kinky, and curly is how a Shreveport, Louisiana meteorologist wore her hair. She was fired, not because of it, but for defending her natural hair on the station’s Facebook page.
Viewer: The black lady that does the news is a very nice lady. The only thing is she needs to wear a wig or grow some more hair.
Meteorologist: I am sorry you don’t like my ethnic hair. I am very proud of my African- American ancestry which includes my hair. For your edification: traditionally our hair doesn’t grow downward. It grows upward.
Big and full is how twelve-year-old Vanessa Van Dyke likes her locks. Her private school in Florida threatened to expel her because of her natural hair. After the story made national news, the school decided real quick it was no longer threatening and didn’t take action.
A blog dedicated to black hair raises an interesting question. “Is nappy the new N word?” A white teacher in New York almost lost her job for reading the book Nappy Hair to third graders. Nappy Hair, which tells the story of a little girl with nappy hair, should be applauded for celebrating racial differences.
There is no shortage of incidents where black hair has come under attack. Thankfully, the criticism has created a thriving natural black hair community; a yearly festival for naturally curly women to share information and a slew of books dedicated to black hair. ( Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America; The Politics of Black Women’s Hair; Nappy Hair; Hair Matters:Beauty, Power and Black Women’s Consciousness; Hair Raising; Tenderheaded: A Comb Bending Collection of Hair Stories) .These books didn’t exist during my childhood.
While black girls have turned the clock back to afros, the queen of the “natural do,” the straight, flowing hair maintains its prominence. Weaveologists sew in partial installs, hair replacements and glue in extensions so perfectly, only the trained eye know it’s fake; straight hair wigs with natural-looking parts sell in abundance. This new-pricey hair includes cornrows, braids, and dreadlocks. Fake is in and real is outdated. Even black men get dreads weaved into their scalps. Coloring within the lines gets more blurred with time.
Stylists who take a stand against relaxed hair, push for a new chemical process known as Keratin or Brazilian. One more controversy to stir in the hair pot. Both are reported to contain the toxic ingredient formaldehyde—the stinking chemical morticians use during embalming. It smells as wretched as death, but gets the hair straight. The chemical is plastered on the hair, then blow-dried, and flat-ironed at an extremely high temperature. Afterwards, the hair can’t be washed or put in a ponytail for 48 hours. Forget exercising. No sweating allowed during this two-day period. If that’s not enough, the hair can only be washed with sulfate-free shampoo. The final result: smooth, silky, frizz-free hair for maybe two or three months. Cost: $300-$500. Dozens of these trends are bound to surface, disappear and are reinvented over and over.
In the eighties, the Jheri Curl was the simple alternative to the relaxer. Glossy, loose-dangling curls. The mandatory curl activator spray made the hair greasy and left a stain on anything it came in contact with. A big mess! To keep the hair from drying out, people slept in plastic caps or what Spike Lee joked, a permanent plastic helmet. Whenever he spotted one of the shower cap people in public, my father ridiculed them fiercely.
“Why in the hell would you come out of the damn house with a damn plastic bag on your head with water dripping down your damn neck?”
Does any other race carry around so much fuss about hair? I’ve tried to cross the coloring lines only to realize white stylists can cut black hair but they are lost on style and maintenance.
“I don’t know anything about ethnic hair,”is the refusal treatment I got from a couple of white hairdressers at a prominent department store. Mainstream beauty schools study caucasian hair, not minority. It’s that simple and disappointing.
The hanging afro, thick, coarse, wide and full, should be a proud outward ethic expression. Sadly, some professional women, myself included, question its worth. Am I too black, too aggressive? Why can’t weaves and extensions be seen as a combination of both black and white beauty? Diversity that straddles the coloring lines.
How should I end? Indie Arie sings: At the turn of the century it’s time for us to redefine who we be. Don’t need a trip to the beauty shop because I love what I’ve got on top.