When India Arie released I Am Not My Hair in 2005, natural sisters rejoiced. FINALLY, we had an anthem just for us. It was a song of validation, vindication for the mockery that comes after making the oh-so difficult choice to eschew perms, weaves and the quest for straight “good hair”. Soon after the song’s release, I had tea with a Lebanese friend of mine who also happened to be an India fan. Somehow, the subject of the song came up.
“That song is crap,” she said. “ ‘I am not my hair??’ The songs on her first album were much better. What does your hair have to do with anything?”
She sucked her teeth.
I resisted the impulse to reach across the room and throttle her, and bit my tongue. A conversation with this milk skinned, curly haired girl on the subject of black hair would be futile. If I devoted a whole semester to the topic she could never understand the trials that are part and parcel of having “nappy hair”. She cannot possibly fathom that a black woman’s hair is the harbinger for the type of treatment society metes out to her. It says whether she will get a promotion, if she’s good enough for the job, how the sales clerk at Portrait Innovations will treat her, how other Black men and women look at her. There is a lot of pressure surrounding a Black woman’s hair.
I have natural hair (now) for the same reason that I have a unique African name: My dad. I asked him once why he never gave us “Christian names”, like Susan or John. Every Ghanaian has their “house name” (Kwasi, Abena, etc) and a Christian name.
“When White folks are going to look for names for their children, they don’t come to Africa to find names,” he said. “Why then should I go and look for Whites name for my children?”
When I was younger, I didn’t understand, and I was bruised by his decision. A name like Rebecca or Catherine would make life so much easier. My American teachers wouldn’t have to pause to phonetically sound out my name. Maybe the other black kids wouldn’t call me “African booty scratcher” if I had a normal name. A normal name would help me blend in…and that’s the same philosophy behind getting a perm. It helps you blend in, become more mainstream; become acceptable. Fast-forward to my late 20’s. I stopped wearing a perm about 6 years ago, because when White people go to get their hair done, they do not look for African hair to sew into a weave. They don’t search for products to make their hair coil tightly or snap back after they go swimming. White hair is good enough, and so is mine.
I rarely give my hair any thought until I am confronted with high pressure situations like a wedding, or a job interview. I was reminded of what an affront my natural hair is to White and Black people when I was working at one of my most recent jobs. I was engaged in a conversation with one of my co-workers, or Overseer, whom I amicably called “Ol’ Brutus” when I mulled “I’ve been thinking about getting dreadlocks.”
He quickly bristled.
“Look here, Kizzy (he always called me Kizzy, outside of White people’s earshot, of course), don’t come in here with no nappy dreadlocks. This is a professional environment, and I won’t have dreadlocks on my team,”
“Don’t know what you’re laughin’ at Kizzy,” he continued. “I swear if you come in here with locks, I’ll take a scissor to them immediately.”
I was still amused until one of the other managers, a half Egyptian and half White guy, rounded the corner and caught the tail end of the conversation.
“You’re getting dreads, Malaka?”
“Thinking about it.”
“No, no! You can’t get dreads. I’m thinking about presenting you to IBM, and I can’t take you in there with dreads.”
“Well why not?”
“Because dreads are so…unprofessional.”
Ol’ Brutus piped up.
“Yeah Kizzy, and you just barely skatin’ by with your short fro and six earrings.”
We all laughed and dropped the subject. Like a good little pickaninny, I didn’t raise a fuss or contact the EEOC or the ACLU. Massa say I cain’t git no locks, so dats what I wunnit gonna do. Massa say he like straight hair. Massa AND his coon side-kick, Ol’ Brutus, dey think I should have straight hair.
I saw Chris Rock’s “Good Hair” 2 weeks ago and was more amused by the audience’s reaction than the movie itself. A good portion of the audience was White…in Alpharetta. Chris talks about the active and potentially deadly ingredient in a perm/straightening kit: Sodium hypochlorite. I Googled the substance and found out that Sodium hypochlorite is a corrosive substance, meaning that it will eat away at materials it contacts. Accidental sodium hypochlorite poisoning can be deadly. Severe injuries can occur to the mouth, throat, esophagus and stomach. Severe injuries include bleeding, holes in body tissues, and permanent scars and narrowing of the esophagus. Breathing chlorine gas from sodium hypochlorite solutions causes nasal irritation, sore throat and coughing. Skin contact with low levels of this chemical irritates the skin, but strong sodium hypochlorite solutions cause burning pain, redness, swelling and blisters. Eye contact with mild bleach solutions may cause short-term mild irritation, but solutions that are more powerful cause severe eye injuries.
Sounds like a perm to me!
And women (happily and willingly) put this stuff in 3 year old babies’ hair?? The Anglo-Saxons in the theater were as shocked by this revelation as I was. Chris then visited a salon where a woman was getting a weave. As the hair dresser sewed in the hair on screen, I heard a White guy gasp “Oh my GOD!!” as only a middle aged White guy from Alpharetta could. I wanted to run over to him and let him know it was ok! They were sewing the hair track onto a cornrow, not the actual scalp, you see? I brushed the notion away. If Black women (and some men) were dumb enough to but sodium hypochlorite directly onto our scalps, why would he believe we weren’t dumb enough to sew some hair sewn into our scalps?
My freakishly smart sister told me she once read a study once that said that there was a certain type of cancer that is rampant in the Black community. In the study, these women had nothing in common, save one thing. They came from different economic backgrounds, had varying diets, all kinds of fitness levels. The only thing they had in common was that they ALL had perms. Bet you’ve never heard of that study, and I bet you never will. The Black hair care industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, captured by old White men, Asians and a couple of Black hair dressers on the bottom. You think they are going to change the ‘Krabby Patty formula’ just because a few Black women end up with cancer?
In the meantime, me and my coarse hair will be working from home and shying away from places where we’re not welcome…Like any office in corporate America, certain retail stores and places where there is a high concentration of law enforcement. I AM this hair, and I’m proud of it.