for 22 out of of 24 years i have worn my hair naturally. to those of you that aren't black this might seem a given, to wear your hair the way it grows out of your head, but not with black people in the united states. for reasons that i would never stop expounding upon if i started, black hair is an issue open to much debate. it can decide if someone is date worthy, whether or not they get the job they want, how accepted they are by others in their community, with the biggest divide existing between those that love the natural and those that flaunt the perm. there is a stigma in the black community of this country around having natural hair, it is often seen as uncouth, unpolished and unsophisticated. this is by no means a blanket statement, but for better or worse, people react to black hair. it interests them at a level the hair of other peoples just doesn't seem to.
by the time i cared about what the mass of tightly wound curls that springs from my scalp looked like i was in jr. high school, one of a handful of black students at a predominantly white small, private school. until this point, approximately three people had any interest in what my hair looked like: 1)my mother, 2)the woman who'd been braiding my hair since i had enough to braid, 3) and least of all, me. in this environment my hair was suddenly the center of seemingly unending inquiry. at the time i wore extension braids (an effort to grow my hair back after my mother had finally entrusted me to care for it myself and i had mismanaged it to a dry, broken-off ruin) and to the white students unfamiliar with such stylings they were the source of the most infuriating, ignorant and invasive questions: is that your real hair? how do you get your hair to do that? how do you wash it? how long does it take? without asking, people would grab my hair as if i were some walking multicultural display sent for their own edification. even at the time i appreciated that their insensitivity to my personal space was not truly through fault of their own, they had been taught no better and the structure of our society and culture gave them no concept of their rudeness (though i hope later generations of white children (and adults for that matter) will learn (and that later generations of pigmentally unchallenged children will grow up without ever having to combat this socially accepted intrusiveness: people of other ethnic origins are not here to satisfy your curiosities about them); to them it was true that i had some responsibility to answer their questions, to explain my way of being in a way they were never asked to explain their own. it only served to make me more upset because i felt trapped, i couldn't win: to answer their questions with patience and understanding meant validating their preconceived notion that they deserved anything other than a punch in the face from me for having put their hands on me in an unsolicited manner, to tell them to fuck off was to reinforce the stereotype that blacks are an angry, unfriendly people and discourage them from asking more meaningful questions and letting go of larger prejudices and bridging the gaps between worlds; either way i had to compromise myself, something that i believed in; at the age of 12 my hair had already become something that despite its aesthetic and textural qualities, held resentment, anger, frustration, sadness and confusion for me.
i did what i could, answering questions after making it very clear that if another one of their fingers landed on me without my permission, they would be getting many a ringed knuckle to the dome. i don't know that i succeeded in my compromise on either front, while eventually my hair was left in peace, for the next six years (i attended the same school for high school) i was still pestered with questions, particularly if i changed anything about my hair. the length of my braids, if they were curly or straight, when i took them out, the brief stint i straightened my hair, when i twisted my hair, all of this was discussed, documented and dissected with whats, hows and whys. the most frustrating thing of all was that i knew it didn't matter. i could answer the same or different questions a million times over and they would never understand, the hours spent in front of tv screens with my neck twisted uncomfortably so that those awkward sections of hair could be caught up and braided into design; the hours, sometimes days, spent in front of tv screens or scrunched over books taking out those same braids and dismantling design, often calling on a friend to help; the satisfaction of having soft, tight curls transformed into silky, straight strands. i recall a specific incident in pe class one day in eigth grade. i had just gotten my hair straightened, not permed but hot combed, and because of this i refused to participate in the swimming that day. my pe teacher, a stocky white woman, looked at me incredulously as i explained to her why i would be sitting out. when i finished she asked what was supposed to be a rhetorical question meant to illustrate how silly i was being, you're going to miss a day of class and have your grade lowered because you don't want to get your hair wet? she raised an eyebrow and waited for me to see the triviality of my position. instead i raised my own eyebrow and said, yes, you obviously don't know black hair and have no idea how much time and effort this took. now not only incredulous, but embarrassed and angry she sent me to sit on a bench. just a cultural fyi but, aside from what i believe to be a fear left over from the middle passage, hair is one of the major reasons black people in this country don't know how to swim: most black women in this country, and many men, have had their hair chemically or heat treated to make it straight and water is like kryptonite to freshly straightened hair. it is these little nuances of the black experience that rarely make it out of the community, and if they do they are underestimated and unheeded by the outside world. the relationship black people have with their hair is one of incredible depth, complexity and beauty that no amount of scientific inquiry or observation could accurately surmise or breakdown into politically correct flavored nuggets of multiculturalism.
it may seem like this post comes out of nowhere, but trust, it doesn't. it comes from kansas city, where this woman made me rethink my position in the battle between natural and processed hair. uncontainable mirth, a small shiver of embarrassment, the desire to hang your head and sigh, regardless of what, this video will make you feel something.
the end of part 1 (i told you, i could talk about this for a looong time...)