The Problem With Rewarding Your Black Daughter With Straightened Hair
I remember my 5th grade picture day like it was yesterday. It would be, for me, the first time that my mother permitted me to wear my hair straight, and after consecutive semesters on the Honor Roll, I had earned this life-defining moment. The night before picture day, my mother would tussle with my waist-length kinks for over three hours, exhausted from the other heads she had tackled prior to mine. But I had told my friends that I would finally be wearing my hair straightened and any and every Black girl knew the significance of that moment. Almost three-and-a-half hours into the great hair battle Royale, my mother threw in the towel. In her effort to make things more manageable, she threw the remaining un-straightened hair into a Bantu knot, unfortunately, this was before Rihanna was rocking Bantu knots on the cover of Vogue Magazine which meant my picture day just got a lot harder. I arrived at school the next day with half of my hair just above my belt, the rest, tossed into a mid-head knot, and all I could hope was that my classmates wouldn’t notice.
“Why didn’t your mom finish the rest?” my classmates echoed in between their ooohs and aahhhs. One of my classmates zeroed in on the name Pebbles and it was all downhill from there. I couldn’t focus on anything but my epic fail of a silk press. I tucked my ears into my shoulders and waited for the debacle of a day to be over. And from that day on, I vowed to never fall victim to my natural hair again. Little did I know, my natural hair wasn’t who the real battle was with.
Our fetish for long hair started way before James Brown memes personified our press and curl goals gone wrong. “Long hair, don’t care” has always been a myth, we care and we care a lot. For most of us, the obsession with hair length started at a very young age and in a very familiar place, home. Sure, we had Barbie commercials on every channel, highlighting how fun it really was to be a blonde and dolls with floor-length hair just a few arm cranks away. But far more influential was the dialogue taking place in our homes pertaining to hair length and style. As a child, there was no distinction between natural hair and children’s hair, it was both said and unsaid that hairstyles on unstretched, unpressed, and/or unprocessed hair were for children. There was an ere of maturity attached to straightening your hair. And as we came of age, associating our hair in its natural state with juvenility and social punishment, we began to loathe our hair in its rawest form. It just wasn’t all that “professional,” and a successful Black woman was a professional one. Don’t be caught dead in a professional setting with hair that wasn’t also “professional” because there was nothing professional about chunky two-strand twists. As young Black girls sporting chunky two-strand twists, witnessing this dynamic in real time, we internalized that aversion to our natural hair being too ungroomed, too disheveled, too free to be formal. Straightened hair was leveraged as a reward for good behavior, a milestone for academic achievement, a marker for maturity.
Before there was a Madam CJ Walker, there was another Black woman named Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone, born August 9, 1869 in Metropolis, IL to former slaves. Although Ms. Malone was two years younger than Madame Walker, she started her hair care business four years earlier. Not only did this business earn Ms. Malone the title of the first Black female millionaire but it would go on to become so successful that Madame Walker herself would spend a year studying at the Poro headquarters. Now for Ms. Malone and Madame Walker’s generation, the aversion to natural hair was a little less politically correct. It was a commonly discussed dilemma, how to straighten one’s hair and disassociate oneself with the shame attached to slavery, particularly field slavery. Although Annie was more interested in the preservation of the hair itself and arguably one of the more conscious Black business owners at the time, hence the West African name she chose for her business, her motivation was still fundamentally rooted in the pursuit of an aesthetic predicated on a distorted image of self, as was her former students’, Madame Walker. We may no longer be vocally trying to distance ourselves from field slavery, over time we’ve discovered much prettier ways to say this, but we’d be lying if we pretended that wasn’t still at the crux of our beauty making decisions, especially as it pertains to our hair.
The association of “untamed” or wild hair with field slavery is not lost here. The idea that the house slave was the more polished negro, one with a mastery of the English language, manners and the appropriate social mannerisms, and the ability to interface with white people without offending them, is embedded within this desire for physical assimilation. I wanted straightened hair because I didn’t want to look how my mother didn’t want to look. There was something defeating about watching my mother hide her two-strand twists or avoid neighbors while rocking her freshly detangled puff, then having to walk outside with the same hairstyles only adorned with beads and barrettes. I can vividly remember loving my hair, all freshly parted and platted, until I learned that it wasn’t much to be proud of. Hearing the older Black women in my life comment as I cried in the kitchen from one too many hot combs to the ear, “beadabead” this and nappy that, it’s no wonder Black women grow up never feeling their natural hair is appropriate, let alone appreciated. Tons of us struggle to pair our natural hair with formal attire, some of us wouldn’t dare walk down the aisle with an Afro adoring our wedding gown. The delusion is that our unrestricted up-do docks the elegance of the gown, and what a burden we must carry to believe that the very demeanor of our hair is a downgrade.
My mother didn’t straighten my hair again until middle school, my 7th-grade year. That didn’t go any better. At this point I was attending an esteemed all-girl, all-white college preparatory school and the identity crisis was in full force. I jumped headfirst into the pool the first chance I got, all my mother’s hard work down the literal drain in a matter of minutes. I don’t know what I was thinking and my mother didn’t bother to ask while she was whooping me. But at the time, it made all the sense I needed. I was surrounded by my white classmates, all of them trying to convince me that their frizzy hair woes were comparable to my natural hair ones. No matter how I tried to explain what would happen if I jumped in the pool, they swore their house was full of similar hair products and that their mothers would have me pressed and back to blown out in no time. I knew they were wrong, and somewhere in my concession to jump in was the desire to see their faces when I rose from that pool channeling Maxwell circa 1996. They were stunned, instantly they knew their frizz control serum was no match for my mane. They were uncomfortable and for once, I took pride in that. I didn’t mind that I got in trouble or that my mother vowed to never straighten my hair again, the dilemma challenged me even as a child to assess what it was about this “manageable” hairstyle that so attracted me, even though it made life everything but manageable.
There was nothing manageable about running a hot metal comb through my hair straight out of the oven flames or running from the rain or stressing over shrinkage because God forbid your hair be both short and natural. Rewarding young Black girls successes and achievements with hairstyles they have to alter the natural state of their hair to achieve assesses a decreased social value to an integral part of their physical appearance. All this does is equip us with the tools of self-hate before we acquire the knowledge of self-love, and it flows from our hair on down. That’s not to say that Black girls and women are restricted to a single uniform hairstyle before that’s what this discussion turns into, but placing the emphasis on academic and professional achievement, reserving it for special occasions, and associating it with a self-escaping coming of age are what debilitates us in the aftermath. We are more than our hair, now we just have to believe that.