Just a thought…about hair

I loved Liza’s post last Wednesday about her daughter’s hair.

Some of you who know me from other blogs and spaces know that hair–that is the celebration of curly, untameable, big hair–is part of my personal anti-racist crusade. I want girls and women whose ancestry gives them curly hair, coarse hair, kinky hair and nappy hair to love their tresses (not just learn to put up with them). I know–HAIR–it seems trivial. But to many little black girls it is so not. It is the thing about ourselves that we learn to hate early. (And I know that it’s not just black girls who absorb hair hate, but I think it is particularly ingrained with us.)

I know black girls like me spent hours between our mothers’ knees, agonizing while our hair was pulled, twisted and manipulated into submission. Our black mothers and grandmothers–they learned that the way to care for black hair, which tends to be coarse and kinky, is to try to subdue it with perms, hot combs and the like. They learned that having black hair cared for naturally hurts. And they learned that the tools used to care for straighter, finer hair should also be used on hair with West African roots. They learned to trust companies whose minimal knowlege of us doesn’t stop them from wanting  to make a buck with beautifying (and damaging) miracle lotions and potions. They learned and they passed that “knowledge” on to us–their daughters. And we continue the cycle of pain and struggle against our hair.

Few of us ever consider that hair that refuses to lay down is as worthy as hair that will. Few of us ever consider that combing kinky hair is painful because kinky hair shouldn’t be combed–at least not dry. Few of us realize that caring for our hair doesn’t need to hurt. Few of us question an unhealthy dependence on chemical straighteners. We simply wrap ourselves in the standards and practices of the dominant culture–never seeing what it does to us. Frankly, it is no wonder that adoptive mothers of other races and mothers of biracial children can be confused about caring for black or biracial hair.  Many owners of black or biracial hair are just as confused.

A blog sister once pointed out that black women in the West are the only women who, as a whole, spend their lives never knowing the real texture of their hair. A lot of black women have a story like this: First the hot comb to straighten hair…then someone suggests a “kiddie” chemical relaxer…then comes the stronger relaxer…then we run to get that relaxer every six weeks until we die. Or, maybe we decide to wear a weave using the imported hair of a woman from another race who has “better” hair.

In between trips to the salon, we avoid swimming and we avoid the rain like it will melt us. Some of us avoid physical exertion that might create moisture and make our hair “go back” to its roots. The wonderful book “Tenderheaded” sadly includes several stories of black women obsessing over their hair even in the most intimate moments. A woman named Arlene, who religiously wears a hair weave, shares:

What I notice more than anything about my lovemaking is that, no matter what kind of style I have, I always keep my eyes open to make sure that my partner isn’t coming for my head! I never let my head get in the way of the action!

I ask Arlene what it feels like to be a sentry-on-duty while she’s making love. It seems impossible to enjoy yourself while maintaining that kind of vigilance over your partner’s moves.

“It’s not a problem, really,” Arlene explains. “You learn to protect your hair by moving your neck back and forth, and swinging your head from side to side to avoid contact. You stay on top, and learn to master the superior position, that’s all.”

That’s all. An experience that is supposed to be spontaneous and joyful is choreographed like a 1940s MGM dance musical.

What does it say about black women’s self esteem that we struggle so hard against our natural selves and then teach our daughters to do the same? I think living a life thinking that some part of yourself is difficult and deficient–a handicap to be managed and hidden–is soul destroying. That is why I think the hair thing is not as trivial as it appears, and why I appreciate moms like Liza who try to help curly daughers embrace their natural texture.

For those looking for good resources for the care of natural curly or kinky hair, try these:

Curly Girl (Great for curly girls of all races. If I’m not mistaken, author Lorraine Massey pioneered the “conditioner wash” or “no-poo” method of cleansing that many women with kinky or curly hair favor.)
Good Hair: For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Weaves When the Chemicals Became Too ‘Ruff
No Lye: An African American Woman’s Guide to Natural Hair Care

Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America

Web sites
Nappturality (Truly the mother of all natural black hair care Web sites. Includes articles, photos and an extremely active forum. Look for the section on caring for children’s hair.)

You Tube
Katelynylyn Channel
Najahface Channel
Style Inspiration

Image courtesy of Pheno09on Flickr.com.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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