Updated: Jan 7
How for African American women, hair still plays a central role in the social politics of beauty, power and acceptance, and how COVID 19 is giving some of our tresses a welcomed rest.
A few months ago or shall I say, pre-COVID19, I was sitting alone in the restaurant of my hotel eating breakfast when an elderly white woman makes a bee-line straight to me. I look up from my eggs to find her staring at me rather intently, so I smile and she then takes a deep breath and says, “I have spent half my life happy I am not a black woman because of all that you all go through with your hair”.
Okay, before I continue this story I gotta add my inner dialogue which at this point of her statement is, ”Really Lord?….Really! (FYI...that’s how me and God get down in my inner dialogue). I just wanna eat my scrambled eggs and turkey sausage in peace Jesus. It’s early, I am so not in the mood for schooling elderly white women on the finer points of racial insensitivity today”.
You know what, maybe if I blink this will all be a dream. (blink)…Nope, she’s still here. Damn.
BACK TO THE STORY
She then points to my hair (on that day I was rocking Passion Twists) and says, “I have spent the other half of my life wishing I was a black woman so I could wear my hair in all of the styles that you get to wear your hair in. If I were to try to wear my hair like yours I would just look silly. But you guys can do so many different things with your hair”.
Here’s the thing, I was at the hotel for job training, and I had made it my business to grab some breakfast in the hotel restaurant before the day’s training session began. So all I really wanted to do was eat my breakfast in peace without having to dialogue about the politics of Black hair in America with a stranger.
But she was STILL talking…so I continued to look at her as my food undoubtedly grew cold.
She then goes on to tell me how EASY it was for her to comb her children’s hair and how she cannot fathom the amount of work, skill and time that goes into maintaining black hair and how awesome Black women look with all of the varied styles that we have and how she is constantly amazed at how we are able to do it all.
Just an FYI...I started eating in like the middle of her last stanza. I figured I may need my energy for my response.
And as I chew, I know I have 3 options.
I could be annoyed.
But really, who does that help?
This woman is not trying to offend me, she’s simply curious and in her way wants to share her experience while appreciating what she thinks I go through. Of course she has NO IDEA. Nor could she ever UNDERSTAND the black hair journey in America is the navigation of societal landmines, big and small. Our hair journey is as much about self-love as it is about cultural pride and it begins in the crib and ends in the grave. It has to, because every piece of information outside of ourselves (and sometimes in our own community) tells us our natural God given tresses are wrong or bad or should be closer to looking like hers.
More than likely she has not noticed until recently my hair products were generally unavailable at most retail or convenience stores, or hidden in an aisle NOT marked “Beauty”, while hers were on vivid display and available ad nauseam. She probably does not realize that the early American invention of the comb and brush was created with her hair texture in mind, not mine. And because of those combs and brushes, a culture of capitulating Black hair by means of intense heat or harsh chemicals like lye to make it more “manageable” was born. She has no idea how many of us have lost our hair to perms, stressed edges and heat in the attempt to make our tresses more palatable to American culture. She doesn’t know why weaves or wigs sometimes feel easier than having to deal with a society where what is beautifully unique about us is considered a handicap. She likes the “cool” styles but doesn’t carry the burden of possibly being fired, not hired, suspended from school or not allowed to graduate because of her hair. I wonder if she knows even Oprah, a woman I suspect she admires was told she would not succeed with her natural hair and the fact that Oprah chose not to succumb was a radical act of self-love and that there are many black women with that same testimony.
I could see it as a teaching moment.
I could share my journey with her of learning to love myself and my hair just as God made me. I could share the milestones of our peculiar case, because although every African American woman’s hair journey is not the same, there are many similarities.
I could tell her for many Gen X black women growing up, there were tried and true rituals to getting our hair done. I remember leaning over my grandmother’s kitchen sink as she washed my hair along with the rest of my cousins. Grandma was the resident hairdresser of the family. I remember sitting at her kitchen table as she took the hot comb from the stove and pressed my hair, careful to get what she called “the kitchen”, which was the hair around the nape of the neck that for whatever reason always proved to have more tangle than the rest of the hair on my head.
I remember sitting in between my mother’s legs on Saturday morning’s as she watched Soul Train and greased my scalp with a blue-green jar of Ultra-Sheen. This is how I grew up. This is how all of my cousins and friends grew up. All of us experiencing the same time honored rituals carried out in love and care. Never once considering that any of it was foreign or different, until of course elementary school.
I remember my white girlfriend in 4th grade wanting to touch my hair because she was so mystified by the texture. I remember her look of confusion and shock at learning I didn’t wash my hair every single day like she did, when I stayed for a sleepover and I pulled out my shower cap.
I remember in 5th grade wishing my hair could smell like strawberry and perfume shampoo, just like the other white girls in my class, but after my mother washed my hair and greased my scalp, that was an impossibility.
I remember being huddled in front of a small mirror in my high school girls locker room with a bevy of other black girls. We shared products and looks of acknowledgement as we all tried to whip our hair into obedience, after our mandatory swim class, with only ten minutes to spare before the tardy bell rang. Most of us ended up late to class.
But that was where it began. The camaraderie, the secret tips…the “Ooh girl yo hair look a hot mess, let me help you with that”. It was the great equalizer. The thing we all knew we had in common. Our enemies: the weather, the rain and anything that caused our hair to revert to its natural state…which was usually the weather, the rain or bad product.
In my late teens and into my thirties, the Beauty Salon became a place of refuge. The meeting place of our shared hair and cultural experience. With the rise of hip-hop and black pride, the term “bad hair” was finding its demise. And our hair “reverting” to its natural state instead became a welcome transition into our own beauty and power. We donned dooky-braids with Janet after Poetic Justice. We double-strand twisted, we loc’d, we rocked a curly twist-out and afro-puffs. We embraced our natural hair with fervor and pride. All of us didn't go natural, but even if we chose to rock a weave, there was a different mindset about it. It was for convenience and ease, a way to give our hair a rest, or showcase a different look and not because of shame.
But that is what was happening in the community, outside of it, I can remember in the 90s sitting in the hair and makeup trailer after booking a guest star role on a popular network show as a white stylist looked at my hair mortified, wondering exactly what she was going to do with it. This would become a familiar experience on every set, white hair stylists confounded and frightened by the black hair dilemma sitting in front of them. After one bad incident after another, I, like many other African American actresses opted for a weave whenever we booked a show, to save our own hair from the trauma of inexperienced stylists and to accommodate the limited skillset we were sure to encounter.
And STILL, in the 21st Century, on sets all across America, male and female African American actors continue to experience an on set stylist who has no idea how to do black hair. Often African American male actors have to get their hair cut in private barbershops off set because barbers of color are rarely hired. While African American actresses continue to wear weaves and wigs and admonish our union without results, to make hiring African American hair stylists a priority.
But all of that would probably be too much to share before 9am. After all, I’m sure this elderly white woman came to my table to share her story, her insight, on what she deemed as my predicament, she does not want to know the complex minutia of my journey. Not really.
I could tell my personal story.
As an African American woman my hair styles have run the gamut; from being blow-dried and flat-ironed, to rocking a weave, to having braids (individual and corn-rolls), to all natural curly, to my latest, goddess loc’s and passion twists, the majority of my adult life lived with (flat-ironed) straight hair. So I wasn’t quite prepared for the effect that my latest more afro-trendy styles (goddess-loc’s and passion twists) would have on my life.
Now, I was stared at or stopped in Trader Joe’s, public parking lots, elevators, restaurants, grocery stores and malls. Basically any public space. The stares were curiosity. The questions were “Can I touch it?” or “How often do you wash it?”.
I understood the “Can I touch it?” question. When human beings see something uncommon to their experience their first reaction is usually to reach out to touch it as a means of identification. But…NO, you don’t get to justify my hair via touch to make yourself more comfortable with my God given difference.
It was actually the “How often do you wash it?”question that offended me and always felt like micro-aggressions of colonialism, a need to siphon my cultural norms through the lens of whiteness.
But I digress….
This generation of Millennials and Gen Z have taken the community Sista-Girl Hair Circle and made it virtual. One can literally fall down a rabbit hole of hair videos posted by the aforementioned generations giving tips on hair health, hair maintenance, hair growth and how to apply the latest styles. I do think this current obsession with lace front wigs is a bit much, but in that I am probably telling my age. Although Gen-Xers did not have the accessibility of a video archive of tutorials growing up, we had our mothers, girlfriends, cousins, aunties and em’. Either way, black women get it in. We learn, we share and we thrive. Loving ourselves in spite of a world that scrutinizes and demeans what God chose to give to only us. No other group, culture, race or creed has our hair texture. We are the diamond in the rough…the rare gem amongst stones, wearing our crown with glory.
And speaking of that crown, with COVID 19 many of us have been forced to take a hair sabbath we didn’t even know we needed. Recently actress Gabrielle Union did an Instagram Post with a picture of her natural hair and the sentiment below it read, “When your natural locks appreciate the lock-down”. Within less than 24 hours the post received over 2.3 million likes and over 5k comments from Black woman echoing an appreciative “Yasss!” and “Amen!”.
Pre lock-down, the goddess locs and passion twists that generated laudatory reviews from family, friends and strangers had also taken a toll on my hair. As a woman of a certain age, my hair didn’t do well with the added weight needed for each twist and loc. It was time for my tresses to rest and recover. And with closed Beauty Shops, I was forced to do just that. And you know what happened? With weekly applications of Jamaican black castor oil on my scalp, my tresses began to heal and rebound. This pause was proving to be a divine time of restoration. When I spoke with friends I would hear similar testimonies across the board. No one was happy that their hair style had basically gone to the crapper but everyone reported that their hair health had benefitted without the daily application of heat and the general wear and tear of beauty maintenance.
Likewise, in the wake of social distancing there are reports of less smog, regeneration of vegetation and animals once unseen coming out of hiding. Turns out, much like the earth, when you allow things to just be what God created it to be without interference, it’s natural beauty flourishes.
I’m still getting my passion twists when this social distancing order is lifted, (Momma gotta look good!), but the wisdom I have received from this season is duly noted. I will give my hair a longer rest in-between styles and allow time for my tresses to recover and flourish in a protective covering. Can I get a shout out for the…Come thru hair health!
Oh! Lest I forget!
Regarding the elderly white woman who wanted to share her feelings about black hair with me. In the end, I chose option 4, the road most traveled: Apathetic Politeness.
That’s when you share some wisdom but not the whole story because in that moment you don't have the time or emotional bandwidth to be queen sister mother earth teacher. Being Black in America can at times involve a seemingly never ending act of making folk feel more comfortable with our presence, as well as being equipped with a pocket master class on blackness, ready to be gently administered at a moments notice. And frankly, some days you are just not in the mood. But I write this for that woman who came up to me with a heart to understand something she didn't know couldn't possibly be articulated in a five minute conversation over breakfast. I write this for the reckoning we are now going through as a nation, the effort to truly SEE each other, to learn and to understand without judgement or shaming. This is my story, this is many womens story. And now that you know it, I hope that you will in whatever way you can, make space for the truth of our journey, with the understanding that some of us have a very different American experience.