In fourth grade, my teacher informed the class we would be putting on a ‘Wax Museum’. The students were to dress as greatly admired historical figures and visually present their biography to parents and students alike. Nine-year-old me saw this as the perfect opportunity to show the class the creativity, determination, and problem-solving abilities some members of the African-American community possessed. Finally, I was able to dress as someone who was actually of my race, unlike the yearly torture of having to pretend to be a culturally-appropriated pilgrim or leprechaun, or that horrible year in second grade where I was forced to participate in the Ellis Island Immigration project (the Middle Passage was apparently unheard of at my school). After days of searching, I settled upon Madam C.J. Walker, the first American female self-made millionaire, who happened to make her fortune by beginning a hair care empire to promote the health of African-American hair. For four weeks, Madam C.J. Walker became my idol and waking obsession. I read book after book about her, one of which I still have not returned to the public library after six years. Like myself, Madam C.J. Walker was a driven African-American woman. I was fiercely proud of this woman, this black woman, who embraced her culture and its commonly unseen beauty. For once, I was proud to be a young black girl and to have ‘black’ hair. This feeling of elation was not long lasting. The night before I was due to present, my mother put my hair in thick cornrows, and all my feelings of pride and beauty vanished into thin air. I had planned to wear my hair in beautiful curls, not in a hairstyle so stereotypically ‘black’ looking. Suddenly, I was back at square one again. I hated being black. I hated my hair.
As young black girls, many of us remember having to sit in front of our mothers for hours on end as our hair was braided and twisted, eventually weighted down at the ends with colorful beads and barrettes. The feeling of getting popped in the skull with a comb for sneaking a glance at the television is still fresh in my mind. It was worth it. Fresh, tight braids with colorful swishing beads were easily one of the pleasures of my early childhood, and I would admire myself in the mirror for minutes on end. Although I loved my hair when I was younger, as I moved up to higher grade-levels in elementary school, questions about my hair bombarded me over and over: Why didn’t I have silky hair? Why didn’t the white girls wear braids? The Hispanic girls? The Asian girls? Why did their hair have weight to it and not mine? Why did my hair go up instead of down and not swish as I walked? The black girls on TV all had long, beautiful hair, how come none of the girls at my school did? At school, my questions went mostly unasked and answered. On one occasion, I remember being given strange looks and screwed up noses for mentioning to two white girls I hadn’t washed my hair for two weeks. Now, I understand what is normal for me may not be so for someone else. What I would have paid to have that wisdom years ago.
Middle school finally released me from the hair braids I eventually came to see as shackles. I was introduced to relaxers, and waking up early every morning so my mother could touch up my hair with a flat iron. At a school where African-Americans were the minority by a longshot, having straight hair had never been so important. My hair wasn’t long nor did it flow or swish, but it was straight, which to me was progress. Once again, I blindly mentioned to a friend my mother’s use of grease to tame my thick hair. You can imagine the reply- Ew, grease? Like from food? I learned quickly to keep my mouth shut about my hair when I wasn’t around other black girls. This feeling that I could not be open about something as petty as my hair gave me an anxiety of sorts. I stopped going to sleepovers. The embarrassment of brining a head scarf to a white person’s house caused me to skip many slumber parties. I always checked the mirror to make sure my hair was perfect. I missed instruction time to hurry to the bathroom. What if it rained? What if I woke up late and my mother couldn’t straighten my hair? If my hair didn’t look ‘good’, then I was simply ugly that day. I was quiet. I didn’t deserve to speak or stand out. I couldn’t even control my hair, how was I competent enough to do anything else? Only now do I understand my hair was never untamed, rather it was in a state perceived to be ‘unpresentable’ due to the pressure I put on myself to fit in. Straight, perfect hair was appreciated. Anything else was frowned upon. The ignorance of my schoolmates and teachers led to the deterioration of my self-confidence. Although I’d never been issued a ‘pencil’ or ‘comb’ test, I quickly learned that others defined me by hair, whether or not they said anything directly to me. Although racial acceptance was slowly but surely progressing, ‘hair oppression’ was still very real and prevalent. It still is.
By the period between eight grade and my freshmen year of high school, I had finally developed a strict code of conduct regarding myself and my hair: My hair was never discussed around any of my non-black friends unless I had a fresh relaxer. Un-styled hair meant no drawing attention to myself, no raising my hand. No need to increase the humiliation. My hair became my obsession, the longer I could make it grow, the healthier I could make it, the closer I became to being accepted by the majority. I felt white, and that felt right. Once I learned to care for my hair properly and whipped it into good shape, I transformed into a monster. Suddenly, the other black girls who couldn’t afford the slew of hair products I used, the professional flat iron, or the hair stylist, became almost subhuman. My mindset grew akin to the thoughts I was sure were directed at me only the previous year: Why is her hair so nappy? Why did her mother let her out of the house with her hair like that? She sure is talking a lot for someone who needs a retouch. Black girls with longer hair than me became competition. I resented them. They sure think they’re cute, swishing their hair like they’re somebody. Girls who had weaves and wigs and braids were automatically ‘ghetto’ and didn’t know how to care for their hair. For some unexplainable reason, I felt my hair made me better than other black girls because it was healthy and straight
As the natural hair movement began to take form, I viewed women who rocked their natural curls as messy- why didn’t they tame their hair? I spent a sizeable amount of time each morning taming my hair, making sure it was straight and glossy- who did they think they were, rolling out of bed and going about their days? My desire to be accepted by my white friends- and to remain accepted- drove me away from my original stance. Why was hair so important, anyway, I had once thought. Now, hair was everything. My hair was everything. I had straight, ‘good’ hair. If the other black girls wanted to be accepted, then they would simply have to assimilate just as I had.
In retrospect, the hypocrisy of my views was almost too apparent for me to miss. Long before the beautifully talented Lupita Nyong’o came onto the scene and proved the beauty of the TWA, my mother had rocked the style herself. Never had I held her choices in contempt, I’d even defended her- she could do with her hair whatever she wanted. It was her hair and no one else’s’. What made my mother different than any other black woman who wanted to go natural, relax, or braid her hair? The simple bias that she was my mother put blinders on me. I realized quickly the only way my ignorance and prejudice would turn into acceptance was through education, through learning that a hairstyle didn’t define a person. There was no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ hair anymore. Hair again became what it once was to me: just hair.
My sophomore year of high school, which I am yet to complete, has been freer of any hair-related stress than any other year I can remember. I no longer hold myself to the self-imposed standard that my hair has to be straight for it to be beautiful. The expensive flat iron I begged my mother to purchase three years ago now goes months between each use. Braid-outs have become my specialty, and I am the proud owner of a set of flexi-rods. The decrease in heat on my hair (and the increase of self-confidence) have actually allowed my hair to grow thicker and longer. The feeling of liberation works wonders on the health and hair. Not only do I receive compliments on my hair, but I make a conscious effort to give them as well, to praise all hair types, styles, and textures, to praise black girls for knowing their hair is also their voice, that whatever they choose to express should be accepted simply because they chose it.
I will no longer be the favored slave who whips the others. Instead, I will set my focus further, to eliminate the ignorance in questions such as: Is that your real hair? Is it true all black girls wear weave? Why don’t you wear your hair in an afro? Why is your hair long and hers short? It often seems that others are more apt to recognize the diversity in their own race than they are others. The African-American race contains a spectrum of skin tones, eye colors, and hair textures. The combinations and possibilities are endless. In my own family, I have a father whose slight waves have probably never curled a day in his life, a brother with an afro full of tight curls, and a fiercely confident, strong mother who knows her bone structure is divine enough to keep her hair closely cropped to her head. We are all unique, and however we choose to wear our hair should be celebrated. Perhaps, I’ll rediscover my own curl pattern one day. Who knows what the future may hold?