Press, Relaxers And Jheri Curls: T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh Talks Her Natural Hair Journey
Last week we published our exclusive interview with actress T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh where she talked about her acting career, diversity in the industry, why she retired for a while and her thoughts on Raven Symoné’s comments on “The View.” But when it got to the topic of her hair, Keymáh had a lot to say. So we decided to break up our conversation into two parts. Check out her hair journey below.
I know that you wrote a book about natural hair. And I don’t think I consciously recognized that as long as we’ve seen you on tv, you’ve been natural. How was it received back then and how is it received now?
I wrote a book about it for a reason. Laughs. Actually, for a few reasons. I decided to write the book early on. When I was still on “In Living Color.” And I didn’t actually write the book until some years later. I was on “Cosby” when I finished the book. There was a while when I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t really need to write this book anymore. People are starting to wear their hair natural.’ Because when I started there was no one. No Onnnnne. You might find a couple of people with locs, a couple of people with a short afro. But no one was styling natural hair so they did not know what to do.
I remember when I came on the set of “In Living Color,” and the hair person looked at me and she said ‘Look at all this hair. I love it!’ And then she reached for a hot iron. And I said, ‘No, no, no.’ And she said, ‘So…what…oh…um…” And I knew right then, I’m in trouble aren’t I? She didn’t know what to do with my hair and no one on the show did and no one that they knew did. And this was the show—In Living Color’s crew was phenomenal…everybody on that lot was at the top of their game and they didn’t know anybody. So I did it myself and they watched me.
They didn’t even try to do it after that.
The beauty of that show is that it allowed for that completely because we wore wigs on the show and so it didn’t matter what my real hair was doing because you didn’t see it until the end of the show. And I could do whatever I wanted at the end of the show. Had I begun working in television on a different kind of show, I don’t think that would have been acceptable because someone would have had to comb my hair all the time and no one knew how. I don’t know. Maybe it would have been ok…but maybe not.
So, at that time it was very frustrating that nobody knew how to comb my hair. And I thought, ‘I’m going to get them a book on how to comb my hair.’ And there was not one. There was not one book on natural hair in 1990. So I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I should come up with something so nobody else has to go through this.’
At the next job I had, which was “On Our Own,” they went and got somebody from the hood and brought her in to do my hair. They didn’t want me to have to do my own hair because it wasn’t just a minute at the end of the show. They looked and couldn’t find anybody in the industry and we ended up bringing somebody in, who eventually joined the union. And that happened time and again. And I’m very proud to say that I got people in who probably would have not. Because it’s not easy to join any union.
Over the years, more and more people started wearing their hair naturally and now, it’s a revolution and not at all a thing.
But early on, I was told straight out by casting directors, ‘Oh, you’re so pretty, if you would just do something with your hair, I could hire you for this role.’ My hair just was not considered attractive. It was not considered acceptable and people didn’t want to deal with me with my hair naturally.
You can look at movies, even now, at who’s wearing their hair naturally and who’s not. And the kind of roles you get with natural hair and the kind of roles you get with straight hair. I was offered things that negative characters have natural hair, positive characters have straight hair. Downtrodden characters have natural, curly, kinky, nappy, coily hair and you get cleaned up and have straight hair. And that’s the fairy tale lie we’ve been sold and I hope never to buy into that. That would do a disservice to every girl of color, every girl of kink in the world.
I call it my David and Golith…I’m there with my slingshot and Golith has got that big ole hot comb.
It’s changed a lot but you don’t have to look far to see the meaning, in film and television, of natural hair vs. straight hair. The battle is not over yet.
So did you never have a relaxer?
Oh yeah! I grew up by the stove with every Black girl of my generation, hiding burnt ears on picture day and at funerals. And learning that I was unacceptable as I was, learning that I was not attractive as I was, that I could not take a proper picture in my natural state. That something had to be done with me, to be pretty, acceptable. And so, I was in that group, absolutely.
As I got older and friends started getting perms, I didn’t understand it. I thought permanent meant you did this thing once and you couldn’t go back. And when I went away to college, right before I went away, the lady, Mrs. Lee, who lived on the corner of my block, gave me a perm. And I thought, ‘This will get me through college.’ And a month after I get to school, my new friends are telling me, ‘Girl, you need a touch up.’ ‘What’s a touch up?…Oh no, you mean someone other than grandmother or Mrs. Lee or my sister is going to have to do my hair?! Nhhmmm umm. Not going to happen. So I started cutting my hair and by the time I came home for Christmas, I had a short, curly fro because I was putting whatever in it, Pink or something. And I had cut out the perm by the time I came home for Christmas. Shocked everybody. But I liked that freedom. And that was my first foray into natural hair.
Then, when I pledged a sorority, the pressure of looking “acceptable.” I said, ‘I better get a perm so these girls will like me.’ So I got my second perm. My hair wasn’t having it. I had this permed natural, the whole time I was on line.
But I kept that going. After school I came back and I started modeling. And because of one of my teachers and mentors, I started investing in wigs. And I got a wig that looked like what my hair looked like when it was straightened and curled. I would go back and forth between the wig and the real hair and straightening it and wearing it naturally. And I missed that freedom that I had when it was natural and I never got another perm again. I got touch ups but once I cut that out, I never did that again.
So, I was modeling and I got called for something called “Relaxed Look.” And I’m naive still, I’m thinking it’s something that looks like your hair’s relaxed even though it’s not. And they started talking about money and I’m spending that money in my mind. And they had only called for models with natural hair. So I’m thinking it’s a natural hair product. So cut to they love me, they want me… When they said, ‘And if it takes…’ my mind didn’t hold on to that. So by the time I’m sitting in the chair, getting this chemical slapped in my hair, I realize ‘Oh, I’ve got a curl!’ It was actually a wonderful campaign… and the commercials aired on “Soul Train” which made me really cool. But I didn’t like having a curl. And I never got even one touch up. And if you think that your hair will break out after a perm if you don’t get a touch up, get a curl.
Not long after that, I guess maybe the next year, I auditioned for “In Living Color.” So my hair was broken off so bad, I had it braided tight to my scalp. And I didn’t ever wear it out. And it was like that when we shot the pilot. It was nothing that I could do with it. And when I got home from shooting the pilot, I went straight to a barber shop and I said cut off everything. And I have worn my hair naturally since then. And that was in the summer of 1989.
So you were way ahead of the movement.
And you know what tickles me–I remember the day that I was watching “Soul Train” and Cicely Tyson came on that show with those braids. And I thought this has to be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. And I’m sure that that was somewhere in my brain, the whole time after that. And thank God for her! To show me what was possible in me.
When I was questioned whether or not to write the book, I started doing my research and I saw, ‘Oh there are a lot of other books on the market. I don’t need to do this book anymore.’ Then I look at my fan mail and it’s still people saying, ‘How do you do your hair like this?’ And I thought, ‘Well, people still want to hear from me about my hair.’
And most of the books [about natural hair that existed before mine] were informational and not attractive. And no offense but I noticed that none of them were beautiful. None of them said this is how beautiful Black women are. This is how beautiful natural hair is. And I discovered later why. It’s because beautiful books are very, very expensive. So most of the books, if they had pictures, they were smack in the middle or they were in black and white. You didn’t pick it up and ‘Wow.’ So I said, I’m going to make it beautiful as I possibly can, which meant full color photos for every style. I want them to have the Cicely Tyson reaction that I had.
And what surprised me– I thought the women that are thinking about wearing their hair naturally, the women who’ve just converted and they don’t quite know what to do next will buy this book. And they did. The book was very successful. (I’m working on the second edition.) But what surprised me was the single dads or weekend dads that wrote to me saying, ‘Thank you so much because so-and-so was looking tore up because I just didn’t know what to do.’
And the White moms saying ‘Thank you so much, I have such a better relationship with my daughter now that I know how to comb her hair.’
And I thought, ‘Wow, I did not see that coming.’
And the other thing that trips me out is when I see an older women with the natural hair and I want to go up to her and say, ‘Hey girl, you’ve probably been doing it a long time before I.’ And they say, ‘Oh, you were my inspiration.’I get a kick out of this wave of people who, thank goodness, have a no memory of natural hair being odd.
You can purchase Natural Woman / Natural Hair: A Hair Journey, here.