Black women take our hair seriously. I mean, we’ll visit the most picturesque beaches in the world and not get within the length of a football field of them for fear a wave might saturate our ‘dos. We’ll give ministers the side eye for anointing our heads with holy oil if it means wrecking a perfectly good hairstyle, even in the name of Jesus. We’ll sacrifice the light bill payment, abstain from sex, prop ourselves with a stack of pillows to sleep upright and — according to the surgeon general — shy away from exercise all to keep our tresses on point.
The stuff that grows out of our heads should not, however, spark divisiveness. I find that a lot of women with natural hair look down on me because I have a perm. But our hair shouldn’t boil down to a “them” versus “us” thing, and it certainly doesn’t warrant a special sorority for sisters who rock natural hair. Going relaxer-less is an experience and to some women, a shedding of the baggage that social convention has loaded on them since babyhood. Surely that requires support from other women who’ve walked that path. But a whole organization just seems separatist and counterproductive. Next up: a gang made of up chicks with crop cuts and a social order of weave-wearers.
I’m excited to see so many beautiful sisters shed their wraps and rollers sets and get creative with the crowns of gorgeous hair they were born with. I locked my 12-year-old daughter’s hair when she was still in elementary school, and within the last several years, just about all the ladies around me from my mom to my sister to all but one of my best friends have gone back to the way their hair was before six-to-eight-week touch-ups and purposely not scratching their scalps to avoid feeling the burn.
But outside the familiarity of that circle, I’ve had more than a few run-ins with women who seem to think my Black pride is diluted by my decision to relax my roots. I don’t feel compelled to cut out my perm in order to prove authenticity of my Blackness. Truth be told, I’ve seen just as many folks with locs and Afros struggling with their them-ness as I’ve seen girls with blonde, Lil’ Kim-like weaves. Mental conditioning comes in all forms and it doesn’t always reflect in what you’re doing with your hair.
I remember clearly all the brouhaha about getting my first perm when I was 16. When I was younger, my grandmother would have me and my cousins lined up with a hard brush and a jar of Blue Magic to get spit-shined and spiffy for some special occasion. Sometimes that process involved a hot comb. Sometimes (thank the Lord) it didn’t. But we all came out with basically the same hairdo: half up in a ponytail, half down in the back with a big ol’ tight funnel of a bang smack dab in the middle of our foreheads like a brown Fruit Roll-up. We could hopscotch, double dutch, hide ‘n’ seek. That bang never moved, dropped or shifted in the wind.
To us, getting a perm wasn’t about achieving the illustrious look of white girl hair. It was about being almost grown enough to sit up in that hairdresser’s chair, shed those plaits and maze of barrettes and that God-forsaken bang, and rock an actual, honest-to-goodness hairstyle.
Maybe it’s those memories that keep me from being completely repulsed by straightened hair. I get that both our men and women have been conditioned with the self-deprecating mindset that in order for our locks to be “good,” they have to be stick straight. And I could scream every time I hear someone — in 2011, now — imply or flat-out say that “pretty hair” is only the kind that grows down your back and moves fluidly when you shake your head around.
That being said, it’s just as disheartening to have somebody turn their nose up and write me off as a lost one just because I love my Dominican shop doobie. For the time being, anyway. If I do grow my perm out — and I suspect at some point I probably will, to do something different and give my hair a break from chemical processing — it won’t be because I’m grappling with my identity. It’s about what’s in my head, not on it, that makes me a conscious sister. It is, after all, just hair. I’m thankful for it, but it sure don’t define who I am.