Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Trixie Raconteur's Tale of Good Hair: An Essay

Ask any black woman of her first memories in school and eventually you will hear her discuss the first time a white playmate asked to touch her hair. This is very nearly a thing that can get your ass kicked. Asking to touch a black woman's hair, if you are a white person, is quite frankly one of the most offensive comments that can be made to a black woman. It never bothered me particularly and I remember the very first time I was asked that question at about five years old.

I had just come from swimming practice with the rest of my kindergarten class at the JCC. As my hair began to dry out, it bushed into a huge poof that fell behind my back. Think of Rudi's hair on The Cosby Show. My hair was very long and very, very thick exactly like Rudi's. That day my hair was particularly problematic because I'd broken the rubber band that had secured it into the pony tail my mother had made that morning. It was still some hours before we would be going home and no one had a rubber band or a scrunchy or anything, not even my favorite teacher Lakshmi who always begged my mother to leave my hair for her to comb.

Lakshmi was an Indian woman with a red dot in the center of her forehead and a long, thick black braid that draped over her shoulder. And she thought my hair was glorious. Some mornings my mother would pack the comb and brush and hand me over to Lakshmi who always was so gentle as she combed and parted and braided my hair into pig-tails. For some reason with Lakshmi I never thought of my hair as different.

But today it was hot and my hair was on my nerves. As it pouffed into a massive cloud my best friend Kevin looked at me and said, "What's wrong with your hair?" And I started to cry. He hadn't hurt my feelings exactly. I knew my hair was a mess. But I was hot and tired and five and my hair was a mess. Ugh. It was the proverbial Worst Bad Hair Day Ever.

 Hair is a very emotional issue for black women. You learn in church that your hair is "your crown of glory." It's a verse from Proverbs 16:31 "Grey hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life."
But from a very early age the vision of the ultimate crown of glory features lustrous locks that ripple down one's back. Like Lakshmi's did. Like some of the white mom's of my friends. Like my mother's.

My mother and her mother had Good Hair. In Black Woman Speak Good Hair is perhaps one of the most treasured and envied gifts a woman can have. But what if you aren't blessed with that gift? Whether you have the glossy thick hair that flows and flops or simply a naturally tightly curled, close cropped hair this subject of hair can decide the self-image of a black woman from a very early age.

At my house Saturday was Hair Day. "Time to get your hair done!" my mother would say. I'd kneel on one of the kitchen chairs with my head over the sink and she'd wash it with the hose. Shampoo. Condition. Pick and comb out the tangles as I sat on the floor between her two knees locking my head still. Then she'd part it in several braids. By that time we were both hugely exhausted and it was naptime. I'm sure it couldn't have taken more than ninety minutes for this routine but for a three, four, five year old that's a long time.

I remember watching my mother brush out her own long hair. I'd sit on her bed as she sat in front of the vanity working with rollers and hot curling irons. I couldn't wait to be a big girl so I could have hair like that. As it turned out I became a big girl rather soon. Because by the time I was three years old I would set off at a dead run when I saw her with the comb and brush. 

"It's time to get your hair combed!" she's sing sweetly. At first.

"Noooo!" I'd say.

"Yes. You have to have your hair combed. Look at you," she'd cajole

"I don't want to!" I'd say.

"Girl I don't have time to be fooling with you. Now come on," an edge of steel creeping into her voice. So that was the cue that diplomatic relations had failed entirely.

I had no choice but to run for it. So all in all, counting the time it took to argue with a three year old, added to the time it took washing,  combing and braiding, you see, an entire Saturday might be devoted entirely to my hair.

She took me to the hair salon to get me my first relaxer at age three. Now depending on who you ask it's a scandalous thing to relax a child's hair so young. And some folks said so. But I had a lot of hair. It grew and grew and grew. It was hard to manage everyday. So one consequence of such an early routine was that I never learned how to take care of my natural hair.

The present fashion and trend has gone back to natural hair. Madame C.J. Walker invented the recipe that black women apply to their hair to make it straight. It's a chemical combination that must be handled with utmost care. In the old days, probably up until the 1980s it was a lye-based solution. And some women swear by that solution though now you can get a non-lye "permanent relaxer" which most everyone uses. It's a long complicated process. I can remember sitting in my stylist's chair for the first time. The chemical smell of the relaxer burned my eyes. The pulling and parting of my hair was often uncomfortable.

"Girl ain't nobody hurtin' you! Stop that squealing and squirming!" was the normal response to any passive-aggressive objections on my part. 

"Girl ain't nobody hurtin' you! Now be still!!" my mama would say as she parted and untangled and brushed and braided.

"Girl it ain't hurtin' you all that bad now! What are you burning?" I'd hear the stylists around me saying to their own adult clients. Within minutes the chemical burn of the relaxer is an intense feeling that can range from mild discomfort until it is rinsed off to actual pain. Chemical burns on the skin and scalp are not unusual. If the relaxer is applied poorly one risks losing the very hair that might have been straightened. These are the price and risks that black women willingly and eagerly accept in service the Cause.      

A black girl learns very early to keep her hair trauma drama to herself because whatever your problem is ain't nobody hurtin' you. Which isn't strictly the whole truth.

A woman's hair is her crown of glory and no matter how lovely your own crown was it always seems, to a young black girl that her crown will never be quite good enough. It's not just looking at Becky Sue's blond locks. Or seeing another black girl's long ponytail when yours is short. But that crown of glory carries with it a visual image of oneself, of the beauty that one desires to be though can't quite attain in reality.

A black woman's crown of glory, she learns early, is never quite good enough.

"Oooohhh!!" I'd hear women squeal when they encountered me and my mother, "Here you come with that Good Hair!" they'd say to her. "Her too!!" they'd say, speaking of me. "Looks just like you and got ALL THAT HAIR!!"

A black woman learns that Good Hair is the kind that you can comb and brush out with long strokes. You can curl it with irons and flip it and flaunt it. 

But what about if you don't have Good Hair? What have you got then? Well obviously if you don't have Good Hair then you must have Bad Hair.  "Look at how nappy my head is" you'll hear a woman say as she massages her scalp sitting in the stylist's chair.

Nappy hair. It's traditionally been almost a slur. Something to hate. Black hair is more tightly coiled at the scalp. It doesn't have the silky texture that white hair has, or Indian hair. And somehow the ultimate iconic attainment of beauty for Black American women became Good Hair. Hair like a white woman's. And that's where Madame C.J. Walker's invention of the permanent relaxer changed the beauty standard for black women, perhaps forevermore.

But the only thing you can count on in life is CHANGE. Wearing one's hair in its natural style came into vogue in the 1960s not just as a fashion but as a political protest. Natural hair was the act of claiming the Self, loving one's Black Self and seeing one's beauty in Black.  

Chris Rock's documentary "Good Hair" is his exploration into the billion dollar hair industry but also into the psyche of black men and women who go to such desperate lengths to transform their hair out of its natural state. It goes into the very heart of what it means to be black. What ideals are honored and sought after. What is loved in Blackness and what is not.

The greatest irony I have experienced is the latest return to natural hair. I've seen so many innovative hairstyles, long, short, thick, curly, up, down, dreaded, shaved. This new embrace of natural hair isn't a fad. It's an acceptance. Sure there are woman like me who won't give up their "creamy crack" straightened hair. 

But for the first time I have seen my sisters and understood the beauty of natural hair. My first experiment with my own natural hair came about simply out of necessity: I was too poor to afford going to the hair salon. Over six months I fought with my natural hair and sighed in the mirror. I felt depressed and shy without my straightened hair. Plus it was a great deal of work just the daily maintenance of brushing and combing. I felt like I needed to bench press a hundred pounds to strengthen my arms just to get through the process of washing and combing and brushing. It was a lot of effort. And of course I'd never been taught how to take care of my natural hair.

And I couldn't understand if I was being mocked when I kept receiving compliments. The security guard at my building, a white man, said to me one day "Oh you've got such good hair, really!" There's no way he could have known the wording that he'd used was something highly political and deeply meaningful. He was merely offering a compliment.

 And then one day I got it right. I finally learned how to style and care for my hair in its natural state. 

And I looked truly beautiful. I felt so proud.

The next day my stylist called me and said "Girl let me pick you up and do your hair tomorrow. I know you don't have no money. I didn't ask you for no money. Just come on and get your hair done. I'll see you at three," she said.

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. So I went back on the creamy crack, the "permanent" relaxer. And now when I see my sisters with their beautiful natural hair that I don't have the confidence -- and let's be truthful, the time and energy to devote to my natural hair -- now I'm the one who knows what it feels like to be the one without the truly Good Hair. 

No comments:

Post a Comment