Thursday, October 8, 2009

Roots

Chris Rock's documentary "Good Hair" opens in theaters in major markets on Friday, Oct. 9th and nationwide on Oct. 23rd. The film explores black folks preoccupation with "good hair" or straight hair and the billion dollar black hair care industry which is primarily controlled by whites and Asians.

Seeing Rock on Oprah and other media outlets, made me laugh and shake my head at the same time. It also reminded me of an essay entitled "Roots" that I wrote almost exactly eight years ago for a creative writing class. The essay explores my own journey with the question of "good hair."

October 4, 2001

I am addicted to perm. That is permanent relaxer, the chemical mixture Black women have been using for years to make our naturally curly hair super straight. I can’t tell you exactly when I had my first hit. It was some time before puberty, around the age of eight or nine. It was some time when my mother got tired of wrestling with me and hearing my moans and groans as she tried to straighten my hair with the hot comb on the kitchen stove.

This whole pressing process usually took place on a Saturday. I remember the freedom of a Saturday afternoon in the basement pretending to be a “Soul Train” dancer, whipping around my luxurious locks, a mane of un-straightened hair. And then it was time for the comb. My unruly super-Afro would be tamed into silky shiny strands of ponytails. The shampoo part was fun for the most part, although bending your head over the sink could get a little uncomfortable after a while. But it was the smell of the burning hair and grease, the pressing part that was always a pain. More than once my ear felt the wrath of my wiggling and was seared by the hot comb.

Finally, my mother tired of the struggle and she turned to the perm. What else was a mother to do? Your hair can’t be nappy. Everyone else’s hair is straight. Straight is pretty. Nappy is bad.

So my first trip was made into the dark, dank basement where a bright beauty shop awaited behind a door. It was Annie and Mariah’s shop. They were members of my father’s Baptist church. One time, when my mother had to leave town suddenly to attend to her ailing father, Mariah came to my house to do my hair for school. My father had made a feeble attempt, but had plaited my hair like he probably used to braid the mule’s tail when he was growing up on the farm in the South. I took one look at my hair in the mirror and started to cry. I couldn’t go to school like that. The kids would call me Kizzy, Kunta Kinte’s daughter, with all those little braids sticking out of my head like Medusa, or maybe I would be christened Buckwheat for the rest of my life. Mariah came to the rescue and did my hair in a presentable style of barrettes and ponytails.

At eight or nine, it was time to leave the press and curl behind and go to the next level, the perm. The white cream was applied to the roots of my hair and when the process was over my hair was silky smooth and straight. I still had to endure the curling process, but my hair would be straight, at least for six weeks when the “touch-up” was required. At times, if you had scratched your head before the “touch-up,” your scalp would burn as if it were on fire and you would be almost running to the shampoo bowl to rinse the perm out. But such was the sacrifice for straight hair.

This addiction to straight hair has other inconveniences. Swimming is a hassle. If you don’t wash the chlorine our right away, your hair will break out. And who wants to go through all the hassle of shampooing, blow drying and curling your hair? The first agenda when you enter a new city is to find a good Black hairdresser, which is sometimes easier said than done. It’s not easy finding a person who knows what to do with Black hair in England or Spain.

At times I have considered opting for a more natural style. I love Lauryn Hill’s locks and Venus and Serena’s braids. Then the fear of change comes. I would have to start from scratch to grow locks. How would I look with an almost bald head? What would I do while it is growing out? Is my head shaped funny? How will I look? How will people react? Will I have the styling versatility that my “unnatural” hair provides?

Then there are the questions that go beyond the physical. Am I trying to live up to some European standard of beauty? Can you be an enlightened Black woman and down for the cause without dreadlocks or an Afro? Isn’t my blackness contained in more than just the way I wear my hair? In New York City last summer I saw sisters with straight hair, nappy hair, bald heads, dreadlocks and braids. They were all beautiful and their styles were as beautiful and varied as their skin tones.

When I add up the costs of this addiction, it really makes me want to cut my hair off and declare myself perm free. It costs almost $40 to visit the hair dresser every two weeks and almost $60 for a touch up. My mother’s oldest sister recently gave up the perm and cut her hair in a flattering, short Afro. Everyone was surprised. I think to myself if she can do it in her 60s, surely I can do it in my 30s. But as my hair starts to revert around the edges and the comb becomes harder to pull through, the perm calls. I give in to the familiar and call for an appointment for a touch up. “Maybe next time,” I think to myself.

My daughter is five. I tried to press her hair once a few years ago. My mother gave me the hot comb as if to say, “It’s time.” I took a tiny strand in the front of her soft, fluffy brown hair and applied the comb. The smell of burnt hair wafted in the air. The comb was too hot. I put the comb in the drawer and have never used it again. My daughter wears her hair with braids and beads, barrettes and ponytails. It is not super straight, but has a slight natural curly wave. Someday I may succumb to the comb and press her hair so that she can wear cute little Shirley Temple curls or maybe I will blow dry it. But I will know in a few days or weeks it will return to its natural state and I will not be responsible for giving her an addiction to perm.

She is free to be natural and the choice will be hers one day if she chooses to chemically alter her hair. I’ll let her know she’s beautiful no matter how she chooses to wear her hair and that her beauty does not come from the mane on her head, but from her heart.

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