Friday, January 9, 2009

Dispatches from Nappyville: "Magic" hair

In my many disserations on natural black hair, I like to quote Thembi from What Would Thembi Do?. In a post last year, she pointed out that black women, apart from women of other racial groups, can live their entire lives not knowing what their natural hair looks like. That's deep. And no African-American woman who wears her hair natural doubts that it is true.

I dropped by CVS yesterday to pick up some toothpaste and bottled water (I hate CVS with it's dim, narrow aisles and strangely-tiny shopping carts. So glad to see more Walgreen's coming to town.) I brought my merchandise to a register run by a young, black woman sporting a dramatic synthetic-hair wig--long and stick-straight, Tyra-brown with highlights and chunky bangs. She stared openly at my head.

"I like your hair," she said. "What do you call that? How do they do that?

I stammered a bit, taken aback. I didn't know what to say. I don't call my hair anything. And they didn't do anything to it. I had worn my hair in twists for the first part of the week and yesterday I took them down in the morning, using one hand whilst Web surfing with the other. My 'do yesterday was a plain old twist out, done at home.

I explained, "I just had my hair in twists and took it down."

"Oh," the cashier said skeptically.

This interaction is typical. I've been having them since I "went natural" nearly two years ago. Some black women have no use for my hair, finding natural tresses ugly and unkempt. But the many black women who dig my kinky curls tend to think they are result of some special process, some new salon miracle. When I reveal that my mane is natural, some conclude that I must have "that good hair." "Girl, there is no way I could wear my hair natural. It is too [insert negative attribute here]. See, I have to perm my hair." It makes me sad, this universally accepted belief that black, natural hair that is soft, healthy and attractive must be magic hair--tamed by special potions or naturally imbued with positive attributes bestowed by some other-than-African blood into the bloodline.
I'm not sure, but I don't think women of other ethnicities are perplexed by seeing their sisters wearing hair in a way that works with its natural characteristics. For instance, I have yet to see a white woman approach another white woman and ask how she got her long, straight, brown hair into a ponytail. What do you call that? How did they do that?
If that cashier really knew her own hair, she would know that, treated well, it would likely look something like mine (No, all black hair is not the same.).
It's a pity.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a general question to me and I would accept it as such!
But, being a white guy with limited hair-what do I know!!!

Tami said...


It likely seems like a general question to someone who doesn't know the history of black women and our hair. Trust me when I say there is more to that "general question" than you might realize.

Rhonda said...

Most AA women who've relaxed and pressed their hair into submission for years have forgotten what their true texture is like! I know it was the case for me before I finally let go of the lye over 3 years ago. And to learn how to care for chemically free hair doesn't happen overnight. I'm still learning that moisture is my friend, not the enemy. I'm still learning that using less hair products works better than more. I'm happy that my hair is the healthiest it's been in years.

rjweems said...

I've never had a perm and it's been decades (high school) since my hair has seen heat. So I guess you can say that I've been natural all my life.

But I have noticed that since I stopped wearing a teeny afro and started letting my unchemically treated hair grow out, down to my shoulders, friends (who themselves had afros in the 70s and 80s) stare in disbelief. They can't believe I've remained natural all these years, and they definitely can't believe I've taken to wearing my nappy hair out and untamed at an age when women my age tend to be conservative and invested in respectability.
I laugh.

Lady C said...

Tami, you are so right on about sisters who do not wear their hair natural.

I never did like getting my hair pressed when I was in grade school. I hated getting burned and my hair was too soft to withstand the amount of heat the beauticians allowed the hot combs to accumulate. Most beauticians didn't know their own hair. They treated one "head" just like the other "heads."

When perms came out, my sister and I were probably the first in our neighborhood to get perms. Yep. Our hair fell out in clumps. We went back to the "straightening comb." My sister's hair grew back rapidly, while mine creeped along.

I was so glad when James Brown came out with "I'm Black and I'm Proud." That song gave a lot of black folk, men and women, the courage to wear their own hair natural.

A lot of us wore afro wigs at night and wore our hair straight during the day in order to keep our jobs. That day has come and gone, and I find no reason why more black women don't wear their hair natural.

Natural hair is easier to maintain than they know. All they have to do is, to "do it" and find out.

MilesPerHour said...

Note from a non-black, non-female (I do have hair though. Ok, some hair)

I remember my frind getting her curly hair straightened while I was getting my straight hair permed. I guess we don't have anything better to do.

blackgirlinmaine said...

As a dreadlocked black woman reading that exchange made me sad. Yet I know it happens, and happen often. So many of us are indoctrinated into perms at a early age, I remember that I had to wait until I was 14 and that felt like an eternity to get my first relaxer. Sigh....


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