Black women and
Their Hair - Back in the Day
This essay is a post from the Black Hair Yahoo Group
by Ta Ankh
like to express something to the members here, many of whom are obviously
of a younger generation, who have not seen what we older ones have.
I am 38
years old. That is young enough to not be a total stranger to this generation
but old enough to have caught a glimpse of the world before it changed
into what it is now.
paint you all a picture of that time.
people had been told for centuries that we were ugly, from the top of
our nappy hair to the bottom of our bad feet. Yes, we felt bad about
our natural hair, and there was not bullshitting about it either.
same time, there were white girls all over the t.v., magazines, music
scene...whatever. White girls with long, luxurious blonde hair that
was straight and bounced all over the place and that their t.v. mothers
brushed and combed like EVERY show. If you saw Whoopi Goldberg in the
beginning in her one woman show, she did a bit about putting a shirt
on her head and swinging her "long luxurious blonde hair". Well, anyone
you know my age or better laughed their butt off at that one, because
we all been there and done that.
you, there were not a lot of black girls on t.v. at the time. No music
videos, not on the soap operas, (oops I forgot about the maid), not
in the movies, (oops I forgot about the maid)...nowhere.
all we had back then was the straightening comb and wigs. So if you
saw a black girl anywhere with the bouncing straight hair you so desired,
trust me she either was born with "good hair" or it was a wig, because
I am sorry, no disrespect to the late great Madame C.J. Walker, but
the hot comb just simply did not deliver all like that. And since the
hot comb was all most of us had, (the conkaline of Malcolm X fame had
been done away with thank God), we were left to drool over the white
girls with no realistic way to get there except the wigs. And sometimes,
little girls in elementary school would put on a full cheap wig to get
the straight hair, and oh yes, it was just as pathetic as you are imagining
to the white girls who had been so obviously blessed by God, was us.
Now again, a few of us had "good hair", but the most of us didn't. With
nothing but the straightening comb to your repertoire, you couldn't
forget that your hair was nappy for too long. And you all just gonna
have to trust me when I say that you were trying to forget. They don't
have all those words and phrases with a negative connotations about
our hair, (our naps, our peasy hair, our kitchen area, etc.), for nothing.
Bad enough you were doing backflips not to let your hair "go back".
You always lost, and when you did, here come the insults.
all hated our hair. There was not bullshit back then because a spade
was a spade. It was understood as a common sense type thing that if
you were going to take a searing hot piece of metal to your head to
alter it then it wasn't because you thought your natural hair was fly.
And oh yes, white girl hair was the goal. No bullshit, no diggedy, no
how relaxer came to be all over the shelves of the ghetto. Accomodating
our need to be a little whiter.
is the problem. You younger ones show up at a later date, and the relaxer
and other straightening implements are just magically there. The girl
you are emulating on your block or in your class or in your family or
on the music video is black with a relaxer AND a weave, so you get to
wrestle with the illusion that white people and not accepting yourself
have nothing to do with your choice , when the notion of the techniques
of straightening as well as the skin lightening, nose jobs, blue contacts,
etc. would not have been thought about had it not been for the whole
slave process. But you have no connection to your past to know what
you were doing before they got to you, because you have been taught
to be "American" and not care about all that "African stuff". And you
don't want to "dwell in the past", so you have no notion of what they
did to you to keep you an obedient slave. So you can't see the connection.
You are angry, not at those who did this to you, or rather to US, but
to those who would try to set us free. And that is a natural shame.
So I am
saying that in the sixties and seventies, it was so easy for almost
the whole group of us younger ones, (and many older ones too), to go
natural. There was just no bullshit in the way. We KNEW we hated our
hair so when it was time to fight for our rights, and to say "Say it
Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud", you knew you wanted to be natural saying
it. Having nappy hair was part of being black for most of us, and we
were deeply ashamed of that and any other trait that was uniquely ours.
So saying we were proud meant dropping the straightener for many. It
was all common sense and quite simple. I don't even think anybody went
around to try to convince us to go natural. Someone showed up at some
rally with an afro or cornrows and a dashiki, and then the next thing
you know, every young person just automatically did it too, whether
they had a political thought in their head or not.
us to our going back to straighteners. We made a fatal mistake. We did
not call the straightener out for what it was. We went natural, and
let the straightener drop. But we did not analyze and expound on what
the straightener was, and what it had to do with our oppression and
our low self-esteem.
natural was easy. We didn't have to chop all our hair off the way we
do today behind the relaxer. We just had to take a shower and BAM!!!
natural again! We simply stopped straightening, and I don't remember
us saying much about it.
the gains of the sixties, we were beginning to have a place in corporate
America, and it was already all Massah could do to tolerate our black
behinds in the first place. He wasn't hardly having no dashikis and
afros and whatnot all over the Big House. So back out came the straighteners.
Since we never sat down and said what it meant to be natural, and that
it was important, nappy hair became the same as straight hair...a "hairstyling
option". And who the hell was going to let HAIR get in the way of making
some money for the first time in each of our families??? Shoot, one
of my doggoned uncles had a cabin with chickens in the yard and NO FLOOR.
Now, you cannot tell me that a slave cabin was any different than his
house. My other aunts and uncles were wealthy compared to him. THEY
had outhouses! He just had a bucket, lol.
is the thing. You would have thought that after those years of "Saying
it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" and Afro sheen and "Watu Wazuri, use
Afrosheen! Beautiful feeling, beautiful sheen!" (I know you feel me
Prema!!!), and afro blowout kits and afro pics with the fist on top
or the red and green folding handles and the beads for your cornrows
too, well you would think that we had fell in love with ourselves never
to lose that love again. Hell, if you didn't have a big bushy head of
nappy hair on you back in them days, I didn't care how fine a boy you
were, you couldn't even PAY for my attention.
just it. When I went natural ten years ago, it was hard, as if I hadn't
spent all that time primping and loving my naps back in the day. Hair
straightening makes a kind of poison in the spirit. Its like taking
dope or something. You really should love the way you feel when you
are clean and drug free but once you get the dope in your system, well
that's just it you are stuck. And I wasn't the only one. It was a big
defiant act of some kind for all of us to go natural pretty much when
the nineties came. We left the door open to being sucked back into our
own self-hate by not calling the straightening for what is was, and
we simply lost the ground that we gained.
do we explain that to this generation? As all young people do, they
think they are young and hip and that everything is all changed (just
like we did). They have been trained that freedom is about having as
many options as possible, ignoring the quality of those options. But
for us, this is more than a campus debate or a theory of some kind.
We know from experience that just like you can't turn poison into Kool-aid,
you can't turn straightening into a healthy enterprise for black people,
but there is not enough communication between us and them to tell them
what we have learned. They think WE are the enemy and are heated at
us, but of course, not at the folk who did this to all of us.
there is the matter of "choice". People say that women have "chosen"
in the day, there was something called the age of reckoning, or the
age of reason. Your mama made you go to church till about 12 or 13 or
so, and then you were on your own, meaning you could kinda start thinking
for yourself. I remember straightening starting WAY before that. I remember
being a little kid getting the hot comb and those big ol' bangs we all
used to wear and Shirley Temple curls on special occasions, which meant
the hot comb AND the hot curlers. Hot curlers heated on the stove took
PARTICULAR skill to operate.
remember a whole lot of intelligent conversation about relaxers.
of which brands would get your hair the straightest. -Discussion of
which brands your favorite salon used (Dudley was EXTREMELY popular
back when I was getting relaxer, and if my nose is on point, it still
is) -Health discussions always centered around a negative reaction of
your hair and/or scalp to a particular product which always meant switching
products and NEVER meant no more relaxer. -Discussion of which brands
would get your hair the straightest.
of conversation of the blue/green film under every black woman's scalp
from years of relaxer didn't happen.
of what all those chemicals in your bloodstream were doing to you didn't
of what it meant for us to be straightening our hair didn't happen.
of the history of hair straightening didn't happen.
As a matter
of fact, up until today when I discuss these things with my girlfriends,
there is never any deep discussion. We all lined up just like little
sheep to get our hair straightened. We were black girls. Of course we
must alter ourselves. It was even like a rites of passage, the day you
started getting relaxer, and according to the little girls that have
been telling me how much they want their hair straightened, it still
am trying to say is that I made the mistake any person who is older
in years and/or experience tends to make. I tell myself that I lived
through 38 years of life, ten years of being natural, 2 periods of "endarkenment"
in New York City which I guess is the afrocentric capital of the world
where all things black are analyzed over and over, I have lived through
down south back in the day which is as close a picture of slavery and
post-slavery as you are going to get, and through African spirituality
besides. I tell myself that the things I have learned I can pass on
to the next generation so they don't have to wander around and learn
the same old lessons I did, and re-invent the wheel. That if I clap
my hands hard enough everyone will awaken and everything will be fine.
thought that for the things that we went through, the old days were
harder than now. After all, everyone has DVD players and money and education
and what-not. But that is wrong. Today is MUCH harder.
was down south and some old white lady wouldn't sell me a soda. She
said straight up that they didn't served "coloreds" at their restaurant.
Like I said before, everything was straight up, and no bullshit.
if a white man doesn't want you working in his firm because you are
black, he will not tell you so directly. Even the most seasoned veteran
of racism will be left to wonder at best if he has been a victim of
discrimination. If you are young and unseasoned, you will probably not
even be aware of what just happened. Then you will go around proclaiming
that racism is dead.
older ones know better. They know good and well that racism didn't just
die the minute white people found out they could get in trouble for
it. Human nature just don't change that much, that fast. They know it
went underground, and sometimes they can even smell it. And if you are
younger, you feel sorry for the older ones and what they went through,
but it is they that should feel sorry for you. They were free to pick
up and work at liberating themselves because everything was overt and
easy to pinpoint. You all have to fight your way through all the bullshit
first. You all have to go through hell and highwater just to realize
that liberation is in order. I see many fine young people making sense
of this day and age, but I don't envy any of you one bit.
cannot make you see, and I cannot stop you from having to take a 28
year trip to learn what I could tell you in 15 minutes. But I can tell
you what to look out for so that you can make an informed decision:
damned good use of your elders. They know what happened before you got
you think straightening is just a hairstyling option, why is it more
popular than natural even though it is expensive, time consuming, a
health hazard etc.?
you think straightening is just a hairstyling option, why does it not
pass away like other styles did? Remember the jherri curl. I know that
it took a frighteningly long time for it to disappear from the rest
of the country, but o.k., eventually, it DID die. Why does straight
hair never go out of style whereas the curl and even natural hair does?
you think straightening is just a hairstyling option, think about the
reaction that you got if you changed from fingerwaves, to the wrap,
to the scrunch for example. Now some of those styles your friends and
family cared for on you more than others. Think of their reactions.
Now think of the reactions of those same people when you went natural.
you think straightening is harmless to the black psyche, why did a whole
generation of us go natural, and then start hating our hair again once
we started relaxing?
times have really changed, then why is the Black Hair!!! archive full
of horror stories from all over the country from mostly young women
of what they had to endure once they went natural?
this. What if the FDA came out tomorrow and announced that it was a
proven fact that all relaxers caused cancer? What do you think the reaction
of black women would be?
this. What if we did a Thurgood Marshall-like experiment? What if we
lined up a bunch of black dolls and gave a bunch of black people from
children to the elderly and both men and women one natural hair doll
and one straight haired dolls, who do you think the people would pick
as the most attractive? (Be honest).
you think it is a cool thing if most picked the doll that did NOT look
like them? What would it say about their self-esteem? A long time ago,
this experiment was done with southern black children getting a choice
between white dolls and black dolls. The children didn't pick the dolls
that looked like them then, either. The whole experience of black folks
had warped our entire sense of beauty. What we thought was "our taste"
had been turned away from ourselves, which is unnatural. And it was
considered a sign of damage that we were in this condition. That was
how the school system became desegregated.
what turns you on most, a sweet lie, or a truthful statement that packs
a wallop? If I was there to see the root of some of how things came
to be this way with our hair, would you like me to tell you sweet lies
so we could all feel good about the state we are in? A very on point
Bible scripture is that "The truth shall make you free". It didn't say
nothing about lyes.
learned a valuable lesson that I can't be making decisions for others,
they have to do that for themselves, so I will be more careful about
that. No one will use me as an excuse and a distraction from the real
business at hand.
ain't about to lye either, because that helps no one.
lyes are never permanent for black folk.
last 4 to 6 weeks.
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