Black Hair: The Debate Untangled

To straighten or not to straighten is still a heated debate within the black community, as the New York Times article, “Black Hair, Still Tangled in Politics” points out. The topic came up recently when 11-year-old Malia Obama was criticized for wearing her hair in twists while visiting Rome this summer. She was deemed by some to be unfit to represent America because her hair wasn’t straightened. Also, Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair” sheds further light on a culture in which “good” straight hair is preferred to “bad” nappy hair, especially when Chris asks a hair store owner: “So my nappy hair isn’t worth anything?”

I’ve had my own trials and tribulations with the “creamy crack,” as chemical straightener is sometimes referred to in the black community, so choosing to leave my hair natural was a decision that came, well, naturally to me. However, the Great Black Hair Debate still weighs heavy on my mind at times because naturally nappy black hair still isn’t widely accepted.I was 17 when I decided to stop chemically straightening my hair. At the time, I was in a leadership program aimed at educating black youths about their culture. I was reading books like Before the Mayflower, Things Fall Apart, and The Bluest Eye. I felt I had a higher understanding of what could be beautiful even if it wasn’t accepted by the society in general. I no longer wanted to conform to the idea that straight hair was prettier than nappy hair.

My new thinking might have surprised some people who knew me at the time. I was always begging my mom to relax my hair when I was nine or 10. I was the last, at age 12, in my predominantly black class to have chemically straightened hair. And before my thirteenth birthday I had to wear braided extensions to grow my damaged hair back. But it took me a long time to learn my lesson. Two years later I was back in a stylist’s chair burning my hair and scalp into straight submission. I would travel miles to get my hair done at a Dominican salon, where stylists of Dominican descent not only relax hair, but also straighten it again with a diffuser blow-dryer attachment and a round brush. I wanted my hair to have that special bounce, so it was obvious it was real. After a few years of this assault on my natural coils, my mid-back-length hair was so damaged it needed to be cut to a shoulder-length bob.

The summer before I went to college I decided to grow my hair out with Senegalese Twist extensions. And six months after my last relaxer, I was sitting in a natural stylist’s chair waiting to have the straight hair cut off and the new growth twisted. The stylist, who had (dread)locks down to her waist, repeatedly asked me if I was sure I wanted to lop off about 10 inches because most black women want to add length to their hair. I assured her I did.

I felt so free with my natural hair because it could be styled in several ways that straight hair can’t be. My favorite was my huge Afro, but in 2000 I decided it was time to lock it up. People with locks surrounded me. My mom had been growing hers for four years, four other relatives were also locked, and two close friends were Rastafarians. It helps to have a strong support group when making a change like this because locks aren’t “pretty” in the early stages and people have no problem with telling you so. In fact, my hair had a mind of its own, but that was the energy it possessed.

Anyway, over the nine years I’ve been growing my hair, my attitude toward straight versus nappy has changed. Initially, I thought natural was the only way for black women. My motto was: “Free yourself from the chemicals, my sister!” I looked down on women who relaxed their hair because I thought they had their priorities warped. Shouldn’t they have celebrated black beauty instead of buying into society’s beauty ideals?

Now, however, I’ve changed my thinking. I think hair is what you make it. There are plenty of black women with locks who just want the length and they’ll over-groom their hair until it’s breaking off at the scalp. They need to find another way just like women whose straight hair is so damaged their hairline has receded and the split ends have taken over.

Although my attitude towards straight hair has changed, I still connect my identity to my hair. I think the very nature of my non-conformist hair shows that I think for myself in every aspect of my life. I had a dream a couple of weeks ago in which I woke up with a jet black, razor-cut bob. After I awoke, I considered whether I could go back to straight hair. I’d be able to get the latest styles, but I think I would lose a part of myself and people’s perception of me would change. Would people automatically associate me with Pecola Breedlove in The Bluest Eye trying to achieve an unattainable beauty ideal?

I won’t be able to answer that question until I cut my waist-length locks, and that’s not going to happen anytime soon. But I can say that it’s a constant struggle to be true to what I think is right for me when I constantly see almost every black celebrity not only straightening their hair, but also wearing weaves and wigs to look more acceptable. Some of them even get hair care endorsement deals, too. So what does that say to me and every other black woman? Fake is better than real.