Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The hair up there

My hair is remarkable.

This weekend, I went home to the Chicagoland area for a party. My hostess had welcomed old friends and family into her home to celebrate the life of her sister. Folks crowded into the basement and hugged and laughed and hollered and drank, while a soundtrack of classic R&B and jazz pumped from the stereo. Our host was Kentucky born and bred. Armed with his family’s secret barbecue sauce recipe, he laid out a soul food feast: rib tips, collard greens, baked spaghetti…Another “down home” cook brought to-die-for red velvet and coconut cakes. It was a great time. I hear a Cha-Cha Slide line broke out after I left.

But I find it curious that amidst all those black folk, on a night steeped in African American culture, my natural African American hair was a topic of discussion. My longtime friend, whose sister and brother-in-law hosted the party, kept introducing me to new people as “my bohemian, Earth Mother friend…see, she has natural hair.” Now, there is nothing wrong with being bohemian or an Earth Mother, but I am hardly Erykah Badu. And it is telling that, though we’ve known each other for more than 15 years, my friend never found me hippiefied until I began wearing my hair unstraightened. It is as if now my appearance bears an explanation--that my hair is the most salient thing about me.

Spurred by my friend’s introduction, people peered at my hair—a three-day-old twist out, turned chunky ‘fro by the humid, packed house. How do you get it to do that? It’s not doing anything, I tried to explain. Or rather, “it do what it do.” It’s just my hair. It’s just our hair. Even the two women at the party who also wore their hair natural were perplexed. Both kept their kinks hidden—one under weave, the other, on this night, under a hat. I’m going to wear my hair like yours when I am brave enough.

I am always saddened by evidence of how far removed my black brothers and sisters are from this part of our physicality. It is not that I begrudge people the ability to wear their hair however they wish. But long, natural hair, left coily and kinky and loose on a black woman should not be an anomaly—unrecognizable to even other black people.

Because we are so divorced from our natural hair, our children are, too. Last night, my nine-year-old niece asked me how I get my hair to "stay like that."

"Like what?" I asked.

"You know...like...down...most black people don't have hair like that...just...I don't know...like that."

I understood. One of my nephews had asked a similar question less than a week before. "You weren't born with your hair like that were you? What do you do to it?" The unstraightened black hair my niece and nephew see is worn by men, who keep their hair cut close. Most people in our predominately-white town have straight (or straightish) hair that reflects their European ancestry. Most adult black women they meet are permed or weaved or otherwise straightened. At nine, my niece has "grown out of" natural hair and now gets her hair "pressed" as many of us did as we grew into our pre-teen years. She experiences her own natural hair only as long as it takes to get from shampoo bowl to flat iron. My hair must seem odd.

I explained to them both that my hair is like theirs. I pointed out a picture of my niece as a toddler with a big, curly 'fro that looked a lot like my hair. I explained that most black people have some version of hair like mine--some curlier, some kinkier. They simply straighten it, but they don't have to. It's just one choice. Our hair can do cool things in its natural state.

It is one thing to explain this to children, but disappointing to have to give similar speeches to adults. How can we say we love our black selves if we don't know a basic part of our bodies? Not knowing what black natural hair does is sort of like not knowing you have five toes on one foot.

We love our hair



This weekend, my mom asked me to show Sesame Street's much-talked-about "I love my hair" segment to both of my nieces. We watched together. While my eldest niece was ambivalent, her four-year-old sister was captivated. Play it again! She gasped when one of the brown muppet's hairdos seemed to match her own twin afro puffs. Her hair is curly like ours! (My youngest niece notices that our hair is alike, because I tell her so. Your hair is in twists like mine...neat! Your hair is so pretty in those cornrows! I try to compliment her on her natural styles, because I know, too often, adults will only coo when it is straightened to its full length and flowing.)

My niece asked me to sing along with the new muppet character and then announced that "every time, when I come to your house, we're going to watch the video and learn the words to we can sing it." And we have. Last night, I called the video up on my iPhone and we sung together:

Don't need a trip to the beauty shop
'Cause I love what I've got on top
It's curly and it's brown and it's right up there...


My niece kept singing the song like a mantra for half the evening: I love my hair...I love my hair...I love my hair...

I don't know how my little niece will wear her hair when she comes of age. She is free to make any choice: straightened, kinky, short, long, bald...whatever. I hope, though, that growing up with an aunt who is proudly natural will have some effect (I cut all my permed hair off shortly after she was born.). Whatever style choices she makes, I hope she will make them with full knowledge of what her natural black hair looks like and can do. I wish for her that she will continue to truly love her hair.

16 comments:

Kelly Hogaboom said...

This is a wonderful, personal, relatable post. Thank you for penning it. I've noticed that video is making the rounds. It's wonderful.

windy city girl said...

Well said! It is dispiriting to think how many years I spent cut off from the knowledge of my own hair and its possibilities.

It is good that you can be a role model for the young people in your life on this subject.

kristine said...

Beautiful! Thank-you for writing this.

LilySea said...

Excellent Aunt Intervention. My older daughter just got locs (she's five) and one big fun game for her is to point out every person she sees with locs. She can't wait for them to grow long.
I really didn't want my daughters to be alienated from their own hair. If they choose to perm when they are grown, it won't be because they didn't know what to do with natural hair. It will be a real choice.

The New Black Woman said...

Wow, some friend! Even with my relaxed hair, I would have been perplexed at the comment she made about your hair.

It still amazes me how some folk think natural hair is this mysterious type of hair that needs some sort of special magic to "tame."

SereneBabe said...

So glad my friend shared this on Twitter. Thanks for writing it, it's said beautifully.

D. said...

One year (or when I turned twenty, depending) I bought an Afro wig. Having bought the wig, I then wore it like a hat until my hair had grown out sufficiently from its last perm/press. Then I cut it myself.

At some time around then I saw a woman in a salt and pepper natural, and I'd like to thank her now that I have a SALT and pepper natural.

Occasionally my mom tries to talk me into straightening my hair, but the last time, her hairdresser more or less sided with me. Heh.

But, y'know, anyone outside of family who even thought of suggesting processing my hair to be more "socially acceptable" would be figuratively turned to stone. 'Cause that's how I roll.

CaitieCat said...

Gorgeous writing as ever, thank you!

Nia said...

Beautiful post!

rayuela said...

this post is amazing. my (african-australian) partner lets his hair form into natural 'dreadlocks', just tugging it apart every once in a while after a shower. he often has to explain to black and nonblack people alike that this happens naturally, that he didn't 'get it done' anywhere!

Samantha said...

I have been natural for over 10 years now and its sad but true that you have to tell people (your own) that their hair, underneath it all aka perms or whatever…is nappy. As a race we have been so misplaced. When we reveal what weve been given naturally, we are viewed as a foreign entity or treated like an “alien species” as if our hair is seperate being. Its really sad that we dont like what we have, or we think it is too much trouble. Even though many of us have been freed from the creamy crack, we still fight to free our minds of the negativity that comes from the years of hair slavery. I hope that in the future we can learn to educate others about the joy that comes with being able to be who you are, roots and all. And maybe…just maybe..our hair will become our norm.

Piamonster said...

Hi Tami. How Are you!!! I've lost your email in my computer swap so I'm writing here. Adios Barbie will be reposting this piece. It is fantastic. xo pia (can you send me your email again)

how to curl your hair said...

My older daughter just got locs and one big fun game for her is to point out every person she sees with locs. She can't wait for them to grow long.

Naga said...

Thanks for writing this. I just found your blog. I really admire your ability to write thoughtfully and clearly on issues that would be too painful for me to examine personally.

The hair issue doesn't apply to me personally, but I do have to deal with other racial issues that I find challenging to confront and would rather just forget about. Though you can't forget for long without someone coming along and reminding you of your race in the most negative, hurtful way possible. Oh, well. That's the way life goes.

Anonymous said...

Good post. When the Sesame Street video came out, I thought it might be too obvious -- kids are smart, and they realize quickly enough that people with "mainstream" hair don't need songs. Subtlety sometimes can be more effective.

The young, adopted daughter of the (white) fellow who wrote the song claimed that the song didn't influence her feelings about her hair; rather, it was her parents' general attitudes about her appearance.

Still, I'm glad that it created a bond between you and your younger niece.

I have shoulder length,naturally curly-kinky hair that I'm often complimented on. It's taken some time to find the right products, cut, and treatment. I'm glad that so many women have explored other styles.

curly said...

Great!!! Loved it!!!
Thank a lot.

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