This was post was written about eight months ago. I recently discovered ZinaSaro-Wiwa’s brilliant op-ed documentary, Transition, which deals intelligently and with the issue of choosing to go back to natural hair. This led me to revisit this and submit it to Feminists SA.
When I was 12 (going rapidly on 40), my parents sent me boarding school. Not because they didn’t want to live with me, but because taking your kids out of the city and sending them to semi- rural (always) Christian (the crazy kind) homes away from home was what you did to ensure they were the best they could be. (The jury’s out on whether that worked for me.) As part of my very sombre preparations for going to school, I had to get a haircut. As in my chemically-straightened, painstakingly, well-managed (almost almost) shoulder-length mop had to go, as per crazy Christian regulations. I can’t tell you how hard this sucked. For years, from even before I could remember, I’d been growing straightening and primping my hair. And as I sat in the salon, getting my (first ever) haircut, watching years of work fall to the floor, I cried bitterly.
After my time in the land of crazy, I found myself with a head full of hair, and the power (mom’s wallet withstanding) to dictate how I would wear it. Problem was, it was still pretty short hair. Yes, this was a problem for me. My solution? Tack on some fake hair, and wait for miracles. And thus I entered the world of braiding! For all my white, non-braiding readers, it works like this: the hairstylist basically braids on strands of synthetic fibre onto your head. This takes anything from 4 hours to 2 days- she has to braid the hair into your hair, so that means painstakingly picking up a few strands of it a time, and braiding into it. The end result is you have braided strands of hair, flowing from your head, as if it were your own magically straight crown! I had breaks in-between braiding sessions at first (this is recommended – braiding involves hours of hair tugging, followed by the awful task, months later of having to unknot the hair that’s been growing into your braids – a world of ouch all round), but soon grew impatient with having to live with my substandard, short hair in-between periods when my hair would be long, and my life perfect. So, about 4 years ago, I stopped taking breaks. My hair life became an endless cycle of braiding, unbraiding and then immediately rebraiding. It’s been going on long enough that there are people in my life (including my fiancé) who haven’t actually seen my natural hair.
And now here I am. I was up till midnight last night, unbraiding my hair. I was up at 6am this morning (this morning being a Sunday morning) unknotting my unbraided hair, and although it is a thought process I have entertained the last few times I’ve done this ritual, somewhere in-between the fifth episode of Buffy and the particularly stubborn knots at the back of my head, I thought, I cannot physically sit in the salon for 6 hours ever again. Can’t do it. In addition to being sick of the tedium involved with braiding, I have also been finding it increasingly difficult to quiet down the part of me that knows the racial implications of braiding my hair. As much as I’ve told myself that braids are different from weaves (not that I’m judging weaves – to each her own), and are an expression of African ingenuity and beauty, I can’t get away from the idea that I began my braiding as a way to grasp at the long flowing artificially straight non-nappiness that my relaxed hair had put me on a path to. The long flowing straightness has always equalled beautiful in my head. I could compare my head to the heads I saw on TV, in magazines, and approximate the standards of attractiveness and normalcy set by those heads. And everytime I braided my head, I was kind of announcing that to the world. It got so that I started telling myself and everyone, including stronger, black(er?) women, brave enough to wear their natural hair) that I only braided my hair because it was so much more manageable that way (even though my hair has never given me a day’s unruliness), or because I needed to hide the stress-induced alopecia I developed after 5 months of the job from hell. But there was no hiding from the statement that the newly shiny, curly, synthetic strands hanging from head shouted.
So I decided to make a different statement, to tell a different story, one that matches the black woman I am trying to be, and that I hope my daughter and her daughters will grow up to be. I went to the salon today, and much to the confusion of the women there, I asked that they treat and style my hair as it was. No straighteners, no synthetic hair. Now, for 4 years, the women in this place have guarded the secret of my ‘real’ hair, and never judged me as I braided and rebraided obsessively. Today, I asked for very little, and it caused something of a problem: the stylist didn’t understand my request, and we had to re-wet my hair after she prematurely blow-dried it in preparation for my usual braiding ritual; when it came to styling, she pretty much resorted to blow-drying it as straight as she possibly could (without chemicals), and then confusedly combed it upward (I teased it into an Afro myself before leaving – I’m not ready for the Marge Simpson look just yet). It struck me as somehow sad that this talented black woman stylist, who has braided my weak, abused hair into a presentable state at a moment’s notice, and who no doubt has hair very much like my own under her braids, could not cope at all with my natural hair.
Ah, black hair. What a tangled web we black women (excuse the pun) weave. I can’t say if the fro is forever, or that I’ll never feel up to braiding again. But I am calling a truce with my poor, abused natural mop. It’s stood by me through dangerous chemicals, crazy Christian-regulation haircuts, tugging and knotting and all. My hair is beautiful, and it is strong, and it is black. It’s high time I let it communicate all those things for itself.