As Chris Rock’s Good Hair poorly demonstrated, black women have a rather tumultuous relationship with our hair. Most of us have been lifelong companions with either a jar of relaxer (“creamy crack”) or a hot comb (and currently, flat iron). And, well, to put a not-so-fine point on it, some white people are pretty ignorant of what black women’s hair actually looks like. Of course, many relaxed or weaved up black women would like them to continue to be ignorant, but with the emergence of a strong pro-nappy hair movement among black women, it’s becoming harder and harder to posit “weavelaxed” hair as the norm for black women. Nappy Hair Phobia (NHP) runs deep in the black community and owes its origins to, of course, the systematic devaluing by whites of any African trait as being ugly, undesirable, and unwanted. We were made to feel that our hair must be beaten into submission in order to look “acceptable” to society. This is an intense, deeply emotional issue with so many branches and roots that I really am not going to be able to do it justice in this essay. I’m just trying to give a background to my own hairstory.

Since I entered elementary school I have had my hair relaxed by my own choice due to intense bigotry toward the natural texture of my hair perpetuated by my schoolmates, 99% of whom were non-black. Relaxed hair is no substitute for naturally straight hair, however, and I still got tormented over how “puffy” my hair was or why it didn’t do this or that, why it frizzed up in the rain or humidity. You get the point. Well, I decided that getting teased about that was better than the full-scale ostracization I had experienced when I wore my nappy hair, so I quickly became a creamy crack junkie like so many other black girls/women. I relaxed my hair continuously until about 1997, when I read Lonnice Brittenum Bonner’s Good Hair: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Weaves When the Chemicals Became Too Ruff. She inspired me to shave off all my hair and wear a short Afro. Of course, I was in a particularly rebellious point in my life (smash the patriarchy, etc). I went with the short natural for a while, kept it trimmed, dyed it blonde, finally clean shaved it all off, but I eventually went back to the creamy crack. Why? Because I wanted to look “pretty”. A short ‘fro could only be worn if you were some militant anti-racist crusader, right?

I cut it all off, went natural and then re-relaxed two more times before I just stuck with the relaxer for a few years. I was deep in the zine scene and it, in my scope, was filled with cute skinny or chubby white girls with pretty straight hair. Me being a fat black girl already set me outside those margins so I figured I’d better come correct and get me some straight hair fast so I wasn’t totally the focus of all their oppressed person pity. I wore straight Bettie Page wigs while my hair grew out and then when I felt it was long enough, I wore my either weaved or relaxed hair.

Fast forward to 2007, a little while after I decide I’m through with “educating”, explaining how to be an “ally”, trying to be nice when explaining what white privilege is and why you have it, etc. I discovered a movement of black women wearing their hair naturally and loving it. I had my last dose of creamy crack in April of 2007, and in October of 2007 I cut off all my relaxed hair to about 3″ of beautiful nappiness. I haven’t looked back since. Well, not all the way back anyway.

Almost 3 years later and with much more hair (about 16″), my hair and I have been through a lot. As nappy hair gets longer it gets more difficult to detangle. I’m talking spending 2 hours a week sitting there and slowly finger detangling before combing because nappy hair, though it looks tough, is actually really fragile and needs gentle care or it can break. It’s way better off than relaxed hair, but it still is weak at every turn of the coil. Seriously though, it does beat spending every morning doing the curling iron hustle, burning the crap out of my hair and hearing it sizzle, then spending every Sunday night washing, blowdrying, and flat ironing it so I can just “touch it up” in the A.M., which takes another 30 minutes. Even for all its difficulties, I wouldn’t put another dose of creamy crack on my head if you paid me. My hair makes me me. When my hair is at its biggest I feel most confident. My big hair can rock a room and lets people know I’m not afraid to be noticed or to be different. I’m big, loud, and fabulous, and my hair is too.

My hair is a part of me that I was taught to hate, that for hundreds of years has been a source of shame for an entire race. When I walk outside with my natural hair, it’s revolutionary. I feel empowered. Because it’s hard to be out there when so many people, in the black community even, are telling you your hair is ugly and you need to either a) get a weave in it or b) slather a cousin of Drano all over your head to tame it. I no longer mind if people think I’m militant because, well, I am. It’s good that my hair warns you not to pull some bigoted crap on or around me. It’s beneficial to me if I scare some people off that can’t handle the existence of natural hair. My hair is at once a shield, a warning beacon, a source of beauty, and a declaration of independence. It’s one demonized racial trait that I refuse to hide anymore.

11 thoughts on “The pursuit of nappiness: why it’s not “just hair”

  1. As a fat white girl with extremely straight hair, I fully acknowledge my white hair privilege. While I don’t particularly like my hair, at least I can mostly ignore it. I find it hilarious/sad that I spent much of the 80s with a white girl curly perm–torturing my hair every month to achieve a hairstyle that still makes me cringe when I see the old pictures.

    For years after that I dyed my hair red and it was somewhat exhausting trying to keep the color looking even somewhat decent. When I decided (coinciding with the birth of my daughter 4 years ago) to go natural, I just let it grow out grey hairs and all. Now I look like a hippy (sigh) just like my mother in the 70s. It’s easy. I’m lazy. I’ve got better things to do with my time

    It’s not a racial trait nor is it revolutionary, so I don’t want to imply that my “natural” has the same history as your “natural”. But damn if people don’t feel free to comment on my grey hair and suggest that I try highlights or whatever current treatment is out there to cover my aging hair. Because god forbid I should look 43 years old even though that is what in fact I am.

    I’ve got 2 personal rules: don’t ever comment negatively on someone else’s hair and don’t ask a fat lady when the baby is due.

    • Those are good rules to follow. I actually dye my hair (my natural color) because of gray hairs. I just think they look unkempt on me. But I love when someone has all gray hair, I think it's awesome.

  2. Love, love, love this. I went natural this past fall and I still feel a tinge of insecurity about it sometimes. Thanks, effed up society.

    From now on, whenever I feel that way, I'll think of this bad-ass article.

    • Awesome, keep rocking that natural! I love seeing other black women with natural hair. I always make sure to smile at them and compliment their hair.

  3. Wonderful post! I can definitely relate to your journey. I went natural almost 7 years ago, after going to a salon to get ready for a close relative's funeral and waiting almost 8 hours for my relaxer and blowdry. I got fed up, and I've never gotten a relaxer since.

    I've gone to salons since then (definitely not the same one!), and I've gotten stylists whispering in my ear that it would be a bit easier if I got a mild relaxer. I'd be able to work out and detangle my hair easily. Little do they know that it's the ticket to stop giving them business and go elsewhere when I do visit a salon. I mostly take care of my hair myself, and I love it because it allows me to know my hair much better. My routine has aided in my hair growth and health, and for me to take the time to really care for my hair.

    I still get comments and looks from people from time to time about my hair. I've learned to shrug them off and instead connect with the natural hair community for support and solidarity.

  4. Love your hairstory. You write well – you're funny and personable. I can definitely relate since I have been natural for almost two years now. I am so glad that people are starting to wear their kinky hair again and that I had the info to go natural myself. I wouldn't have made it without youtube most likely (at least not without doing going back and forth from weavelaxed to natural). Now I can safely say that I won't be relaxed ever again.

Comments are closed.