by guest contributor Tami Winfrey Harris
“Maybe Aunt Tami can be the clown at my birthday party.”
So my five-year-old niece told my sister. It’s not that I can juggle or do magic. I don’t own a pair of big, floppy shoes or a red, rubber nose. It’s the hair.
My hair is nappy. It is coarse and thick. It grows in pencil-sized spirals and tiny crinkles. My hair grows out, not down. It springs from my head like a corona. My hair is like wool. You can’t run your fingers through it, nor a comb. It is impenetrable. My hair is rebellious. It resists being smoothed into a neat bun or pony tail. It puffs. Strands escape; they won’t be tamed. My hair is nappy. And I love it.
To my niece, my hair is a novelty. I am the only black woman in her life that wears her hair in its natural state. I could dismiss my niece’s comments as a kid innocently calling attention to a perceived difference, but I realize there is some judgement in her words. She has already learned, like little girls of color almost always do, that typically European physical features, like straight hair, are the prettiest.
When my niece first spotted the short afro that replaced my straight bob, she crinkled her nose and emphatically said, “I like your hair the other way better.” When I gifted her with two Barbie dolls–a caramel colored one with silky hair and a deep brown one with bushy afro puffs–she favored the one with the combable ‘do. I also notice how she preens and tosses her tresses when they are freshly straightened by the hot comb. She feels pretty, like I used to when I was a little girl.
Growing up, I learned to covet silky, straight hair; flaxen, “bouncing and behaving” hair; Cheryl Tiegs and Christie Brinkley hair. It was a Eurocentric beauty standard that many women no doubt struggled with, but as a young black girl, my appearance could not have been further from the American ideal.
Making my hair bounce and behave meant hours wriggling between my grandmother’s knees as she raked an iron comb, heated in the flames of the stove, through my hair. I remember the sizzle of the hot comb as it rested cooling on a damp towel, the smell of burnt hair and Posner’s blue grease heavy in the air. The process stretched my tight curls into hair I could swing, toss and run my fingers through, something closer to the “white girl hair” that black girls admired and tried to imitate, sometimes even wrapping our heads in towels to a simulate a long, flowing mane.
My straightened hair was beautiful. But that beauty came at a price. It meant ears burned by slipped hot combs and a scalp scarred by harsh chemicals. It meant moderating outside play so as not to work up a sweat and staying clear of the swimming pool; dreaded moisture would make my hair “go back.” It meant having lye from a perm relaxer eat away at the back of my long, thick hair until barely an inch was left. It meant subtly learning that my natural physical attributes were unacceptable, something to be hidden or molded into submission.
I was not alone in my pathology. Pressing combs, relaxers, weaves and the quest to hide the naps are part of the fabric of black beauty culture. It is estimated that more than 75 percent of black women straighten their hair. In the book “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America,” Ayanna Byrd and Lori Tharps write: “Before a black child is even born, relatives speculate over the texture of hair that will cover the baby’s head, and the loaded adjectives “good” and “bad” are already in the air.” In the same book, a New York City dancer named Joicelyn explains: “Good hair is that silky black shit that them Indian girls be havin’…Good hair is anything that’s not crazy-ass woolly, lookin’ like some pickaninny out the bush.”
Cultural and professional pressures kept me relaxing my curls for 20 years. In the late 90s, the neo-soul movement caught fire in R&B. Young, bohemian singers like Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and India Arie were rocking stylish natural looks, and I began seeing more natural heads strutting down Michigan Ave. in Chicago, where I lived. Two of my close friends took the plunge, shearing their permed hair to start anew. Suddenly natural black hair was fashionable—at least for a small group of people.
Seeing more women, however few, freed from the tyranny of constant straightening, inspired me.I began poring over books about the care and politics of black hair. I became a member of a popular Web site devoted to championing natural hair. I learned about the toxic ingredients in chemical relaxers and the lasting damage they do. I discovered the origins of negative myths about black hair. I learned how to properly care for natural locks and discovered the myriad styles that can be achieved. I met women of all ages who embraced “nappy” as a positive description. And I slowly came to realize the inherent foolishness of believing black women’s hair, apart from that of all other races, needs to be fixed—pressed, weaved and manipulated into something it isn’t.
In August 2006, after years spent admiring the growing number of nappy heads around me; fretting whether my husband would still find me attractive; worrying whether my unruly ‘fro would frighten my co-workers; I chopped my near shoulder-length hair off, leaving barely an inch of kinky curls. I was free!
I know that brains and character are more important than beauty, but I still want to save my niece from the burden of feeling not pretty enough in a Western culture where all women are judged by their appearance, and women of color often come up lacking in the eyes of the mainstream. My niece is one of few black children in her neighborhood and school. Her playmates are young enough now that affection is not dampened by differences in skin color. But I know what often happens to girls of color in majority white schools; they become ciphers–sidekicks on the social scene. As my stepson said of the handful of black girls in his high school, “They are friends with everybody, but I don’t hear about them dating that much.”
I want my niece to feel beautiful–inside and out–because she is beautiful, the spitting image of her mom when she was a girl with, my mother says, her Aunt Tami’s precocious personality. I want her to value that as much as I do. So, I tell her that she is smart and talented and pretty. I look for dolls and playthings that help affirm black beauty. I buy books like bell hooks’ Happy to be Nappy. And I try to be an example of a black woman who is comfortable in her skin and her hair.
Someday, when she is older, my niece may decide to chemically straighten her hair, as most black women do. That is her right. But if she makes that choice I want it to be based on a style preference–like choosing passionate pink lipstick instead of ravishing red–not because she is ashamed of the way her hair naturally kinks and curls.
So, today when my niece stares at my hair and exclaims “Your hair is so big!” or “Your hair is like a bush!,” I smile and say, “Yes it is. And I like it, don’t you?”
Tamara Winfrey Harris is a communications and marketing professional living in central Indiana. An aspiring writer, Tamara blogs at whattamisaid.blogspot.com. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.