About two years ago, I started thinking about “going natural,” which is a process many of my friends and family had done, some more than once. After hair is “relaxed”—that is, chemically altered from kinky or curly hair to straight by way of chemicals strong enough to burn the scalp—it cannot be made natural again. To “go natural” required either growing out my relaxed hair and cutting the still relaxed ends off, or doing what’s known as the Big Chop and starting over completely. The Big Chop was terrifying to me. I know my face. It’s long. I have huge eyes and a large forehead. I could only imagine how having no hair to frame my features would make me look like I was perpetually scared. I decided to do the slower, more gradual process. I started by putting my hair in braid extensions—known as a “protective” style in which synthetic hair was attached by a kind of knot to my own hair. And for a year, my hair was in braids and mostly not a concern. But soon, every time I took the braids out to get them done again, I could see my hair was starting to fray under the half-life it was living. Almost five inches of hair were still straight at the end, but from the root to about three more inches had grown in naturally. It was time to make a decision.
In 2006 R&B singer India Arie dropped her single “I am not my hair” —an anthem for people of color to embrace their natural hair and even more importantly to remind everyone that hair is not a defining personality characteristic or political statement (i.e militant or threatening). Twenty year-old Monet sang the song, but continued to relax her hair. It wasn’t that I didn’t agree wholeheartedly with the message or that I thought there was a sliding scale between my straightened hair and natural black hair, I just knew my own limitations. In my mother’s house there is a wooden chest filled with photo albums. When I visit, I like to pull these albums out, spread pictures hither and thither and laugh at the hilarity that was my childhood. From the age of about four or five, I had long, thick hair. There’s Monet in jean shorts and white stockings, a scar on her forehead from where she fell off a tricycle at school with hair in a high ponytail, long black hair. And I mean long by any cultures standards, well down my little kid back. And to make it worse I was tender-headed—meaning to comb through the tangles of my hair was to endure my theatrical shakes, mutters, and moans as each knot encountered the comb. So, my family decided I needed a relaxer. It was not a political decision. It was a practical decision. I understand it. But something happened to my hair, and me when I got that first relaxer.
In 2010, when my mother got on a plane and flew back to North Carolina, leaving me completely alone in Spokane, Washington to attend graduate school, I had one big concern: Who was going to do my hair? Never mind that I was going to a graduate program for writing when my undergraduate degree was in business. Never mind that I had come to Spokane to run away from a broken heart. Never mind that my closest family was 2,000 miles away. Because the truth is when you’re a black woman with relaxed hair, you can’t just walk into any hair salon and have your hair done. I learned this repeatedly over the next two years in Spokane. I’d see a place that looked promising and I’d call first and the conversation was almost always the same.
Me: Hello. I’d like to get my hair done there. Do you have any openings Tuesday or Wednesday?
Woman on the phone: We do. What are looking to get done?
Me: I need a touch-up on my relaxer and then I just get my hair blow dried straight, no style.
*a moment of silence*
Woman: Um. Okay. I think Julie (or some other person) can do that. Let me see if she’s available.
*silence while the phone is either put down or on hold and I imagine the woman I spoke with is asking the woman she assumes can do a relaxer is actually comfortable with her doing one.*
Woman: Yes. Julie can do that. May I have your information?
The first time I got a relaxer in Spokane, I had to walk the stylist through the whole process. This was not reassuring when the process involves time-sensitive, scalp-burning chemicals. She kept asking, “Is this right? Am I doing this right?” Later I’d find a patch of my hair where the relaxer had been left in too long that now grows slower than the rest of my hair. And still I persisted. Until two years ago, I got a relaxer every six to seven weeks of my life. That’s about six to seven salon visits a year at an average of $65 a visit, not including tip. And if you think about the fact that I’ve gotten relaxers since I was five (or for almost 24 years) that amounts to about $11,000 minimum that I’ve spent on my hair. And that’s not including the particular shampoos and conditioners I had to use or the creams and oils.
But something else related to hair happened to me in Spokane, one of those moments in time that sit with you for a while until you understand what it means. There was another black woman in my program named Ericka. She was older than me and so much cooler. She had the kind of confidence born from her total and complete comfort in her own skin. She could speak sensibly about just about any topic and over time I noticed that I’d never heard a bad word spoken against her. Ericka had her hair in locs. Not dread locks, but locs — one is a culture and the other is hair style. And as was my first concern for myself, when I first met her, I wondered who would do her hair. At least in most “legitimate” beauty schools in America, students are taught the basics of the relaxer, though many I’m sure will never have to do one. But the style of locking hair is deeper in the study of black hair, not harder in technique, just lesser known.
And so one day, a few months into knowing Ericka, I suggested that I do her hair. I knew I could find how-to videos on Youtube and it didn’t look too difficult. In exchange, she’d buy me a double bottle of wine. And this became our thing: about every other month, I went to Ericka’s house and did her hair. It would take a few hours and so we’d watch some show, usually Luther or Trailer Park Boys. After the first time, when I realized I really could do her hair, I started to look forward to those days. I dubbed it Black Girls’ Corner, because with Ericka, the only other black person I knew in Spokane, we could be just that: a couple of black girls. I didn’t have to think about what came out of my mouth before I said it, wondering if it had some kind of connotation. We could talk about our families, our hopes and misgivings about our writing without there being anything political or social behind it. With Ericka, I wasn’t one of the two black women in the writing program. I was just me.
Back to the decision moment—I’d moved to Portland, a city with even fewer black people than Spokane. Those who were here could all be found in Northeast Portland. I made an appointment at a black hair salon, which felt like a luxury. When I sat down in the chair, I told the stylist that before she put in braids, I wanted her to cut off the relaxed parts and that I didn’t want to see her do it. I could hear the scissors and I could see little tufts of hair, but it wasn’t like when white women chop off their ponytails for Locks of Love. Really, I didn’t notice. I left with braids and it was like nothing had changed.
Then last week, I took those braids out. And my hair was short, the shortest its ever been since I was a little girl. Aside from the stray relaxed end here or there, it’s almost completely natural. And man, I flipped the hell out.
My hair does a thing I didn’t know it could do: it’s curly until the end then it fluffs out into this little curly ball. It barely fits back into a ponytail. With very minimal effort I can make it into an Afro.
And when I looked in the mirror for the first time, I didn’t recognize myself.
I also didn’t know what to do with it, still don’t if we’re honest. The first day, I threw a headband on and took the dog for a walk. I felt like people were staring, because my hair was standing on end and pointing a million directions.
The next day when I went to work for the first time, my coworkers completely lost their cool. I’d gone from extensions down my back to a short puff of hair poking through the back of my hat.
“Did you cut your hair?”
“You look so different!”
“I didn’t recognize you.”
Thankfully no one tried to touch it, but I’m sure that had more to do with my back-the-fuck-off attitude and not with their curiosity.
I know that I can be a shallow person. For a whole year, I measured my thighs and recorded the measurements. But I didn’t realize how my hair affected how I saw myself. But this hair decision was on the heels of Guiliana Rancic saying that Zendaya Coleman’s locked hair looked it smelled like “patchouli oil and weed” —a statement so perfectly encapturing how black hair can be perceived even on a red carpet.
I asked TJ, my white boyfriend, how he liked it. I admit to being a little aggressive about it. I said, “Do you like my hair? I hope so, because this is how it looks now. So if you don’t like it, keep it to your fucking self.” He’s a smart man, because he said he liked it. Later I caught him looking at me from the side of his eyes and I freaked out. “What’s wrong,” I asked him, not really wanting the answer. “Nothing,” he said, “you just look different.”
I considered getting a relaxer. It would be easy. But then I stepped back from that ledge. I had to admit to myself that at almost 30 years old I don’t know how to manage the hair that grows naturally from my head. I had to admit that I looked different to myself, maybe even a little less attractive, a little wild and that those thoughts were messages I’ve been hearing my whole life about ethnic hair. I had to admit that I didn’t know if my boyfriend of four years would still be attracted to me and that if he wasn’t, I’d have to consider which was more important to me: being who I am down to the color of skin and the texture of hair or being with a man who couldn’t accept that.
And then I remembered Black Girls’ Corner. And being with Ericka in the shelter of her living room. I remembered how good it felt to be completely myself, unfiltered. And in a way, my natural hair forces me to be that person again. There’s no chemically straightened hair to make anyone more comfortable. I don’t blend into the background anymore. I’ve got to learn to be the person with springing spirals of hair that does whatever the hell it wants. I disagree with you, Ms. Arie, I am very much my hair.