Thursday, January 1, 2009

My Hair Journey

In 2005 I was interviewed by Heather Barnes, who was working on a documentary project on women and their relationship to their hair from a personal and political perspective. Her blog for the project, Hair Stories, is up and running.
The stories might relate to shaving, first haircuts, having long or short hair, losing their hair, hair and ethnicity, stigma about body hair (either too much or too little), and the cultural and social significance of hair in all its manifestations.
Here's my interview. She's intercut it with photos from my hair journey web page. When you watch it you'll see a tortured hair history in the school photos -- while I'm the product of two black parents, neither had kinky hair; it took a while for my mom to figure out how to take care of mine, particularly dealing with the humidity in NC.

In the past, people sometimes emailed me to say that they didn't understand how or why hair is political. After Don Imus and the whole "nappy-headed hos" mess, they got a taste of why it is very political. What the former radio talk show host did was touch upon the third rail of race in a way opened up discussions of matters not usually heard in public conversations. Most black women know what it's like to have an arsenal of hair care products, particularly if you choose to wear your hair straightened with chemical relaxers.

 [Ironically, most of the Rutgers women's basketball team members had chemically straightened hair, which goes to show you that Imus reduced them to his assumption that black women=nappy hair=unattractive.] I had a cabinet full of "hair product" when I wore processed styles. And oh, the dreaded hot comb. I am old enough to have experienced the "pleasure" of the thermal hot comb -- you rested it over the gas flame of the stove to heat it up. Then the pressing oil was carefully applied to your hair and that comb sizzled through the kinks till it was bone straight, hissing as you prayed the comb didn't touch your scalp. This is what black women did to emulate straight hair.

I say emulate because all it took was water or merely a humid day to revert the hair back to its natural state. But that was the only acceptable style for the working black woman working in the dominant culture. Full freedom for me finally came when I decided in the 90s to toss out the relaxer and cut the dry damaged hair off. I wore a short natural for several years.

I began the process of growing locs in November 2000, a style I wear today. Free from the burning hot comb sizzling my scalp, curling irons, flat irons or other instruments of hair torture. The status quo is still straightened hair, even though we see more natural styles in vogue now.  Black women are unfortunately still chastised by family and significant others not to 1) cut their hair or 2) let it be kinky. It's one of those "dirty laundry" matters that people don't want to discuss openly, but when you have such poisonous, enabled self-loathing, it needs sunlight upon it. Look at this ad. It implies that the woman got the job because her hair was chemically straightened. The self-loathing is so culturally ingrained, so pathological -- there is nothing wrong with our hair, but nearly every signal received by the dominant culture is that it needs to be "corrected."

Here we go, the downward spiral. 1970s. The horrid phase. See me morph... Yes. this is me again, in elementary school. I think first grade.
Oh, no. It's bad... Third freakin' grade. Second grade was too horrific to show you.
Fourth. No improvement. As you can see, I was tiring of this in fifth..
Stop the madness. The hair is uncontrollable. More horror. My 7th grade shot. Removed for your safety.
On to the fried, lyed period.
Not sure when this one was taken. This was about as long as I ever let my hair grow out, and boy was it punished with the relaxers, curlers and curling irons. It started to feel like straw, even if it looked good.
Taken around 1983, on MacDonough St in Brooklyn. In appreciation of the "urban art." Later in 1983.
Brooklyn, 1990. My hair is in two strand twists. It was about half relaxed and half natural. I grew it out about another couple of inches before cutting it again. I didn't let it loc.

[This is the style I have again today (below). ]
I'm holding a cousin's baby. In Brooklyn, August 1999. I had this style, a close natural, for about 6 years.
As of November, 2000 I let it grow to about 2 inches and started back with two strand twists with the intention of loc'ing it. Both February 2001. Sorry for the poor resolution. These were taken by my PalmPix cam.
Both April 2001. Not a lot of change. I am washing it every day to combat the pollen. You can't really tell here, but it is quite a bit longer now than last time and the "kitchen area" ones don't need retwisting much, they are maturing nicely.

Update (October 2001): It's my one-year anniversary! My hair is totally locked. This will be my first winter with them locked. See sidebar for more details.
July 2001. At the beach. I have it pulled back in a headband.
January 2002. Freedom from the lye continues. As you can see, I'm happy with my hair. At last. I took some more detailed pix this time around (below, still Jan '02) so you can see the progress more closely below.
Dr. Bronner's still rules! I still use no grooming products. Occasionally I will dilute the conditioner that comes with the hair dye (10 parts water) and pour that over my hair during the rinse process. I make sure it is all rinsed clear, since I don't want any buildup in my hair.

Since it is winter, I wash it about 3x a week. I still do the towel thing to dry partially, then blow dry as I did before for about 10 minutes, concentrating on getting the roots dry. If I have time, I usually walk around and let them air dry for a half hour or so, then go back and blow dry them more if they feel damp and I want to go to bed, for instance.

The following four shots are from May 2002.
I went to Hawaii in June 2002 (right). Here is a pic of my hair - the intense sun bleached the Feria #84 even more.
April 2003. It's getting long enough to easily ponytail. July 2004