The Hair Up There


By Tami Winfrey-Harris, Co-editor of Love Isn’t Enough

My hair is remarkable.

This weekend, I went home to the Chicagoland area for a party. My hostess had welcomed old friends and family into her home to celebrate the life of her sister. Folks crowded into the basement and hugged and laughed and hollered and drank, while a soundtrack of classic R&B and jazz pumped from the stereo. Our host was Kentucky born and bred. Armed with his family’s secret barbecue sauce recipe, he laid out a soul food feast: rib tips, collard greens, baked spaghetti…Another “down home” cook brought to-die-for red velvet and coconut cakes. It was a great time. I hear a Cha-Cha Slide line broke out after I left.

But I find it curious that amidst all those black folk, on a night steeped in African American culture, my natural African American hair was a topic of discussion. My longtime friend, whose sister and brother-in-law hosted the party, kept introducing me to new people as “my bohemian, Earth Mother friend…see, she has natural hair.” Now, there is nothing wrong with being bohemian or an Earth Mother, but I am hardly Erykah Badu. And it is telling that, though we’ve known each other for more than 15 years, my friend never found me hippiefied until I began wearing my hair unstraightened. It is as if now my appearance bears an explanation–that my hair is the most salient thing about me.

Spurred by my friend’s introduction, people peered at my hair—a three-day-old twist out, turned chunky ‘fro by the humid, packed house. How do you get it to do that? It’s not doing anything, I tried to explain. Or rather, “it do what it do.” It’s just my hair. It’s just our hair. Even the two women at the party who also wore their hair natural were perplexed. Both kept their kinks hidden—one under weave, the other, on this night, under a hat. I’m going to wear my hair like yours when I am brave enough.

I am always saddened by evidence of how far removed my black brothers and sisters are from this part of our physicality. It is not that I begrudge people the ability to wear their hair however they wish. But long, natural hair, left coily and kinky and loose on a black woman should not be an anomaly—unrecognizable to even other black people.

Because we are so divorced from our natural hair, our children are, too. Last night, my nine-year-old niece asked me how I get my hair to “stay like that.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“You know…like…down…most black people don’t have hair like that…just…I don’t know…like that.”

I understood. One of my nephews had asked a similar question less than a week before. “You weren’t born with your hair like that were you? What do you do to it?” The unstraightened black hair my niece and nephew see is worn by men, who keep their hair cut close. Most people in our predominately-white town have straight (or straightish) hair that reflects their European ancestry. Most adult black women they meet are permed or weaved or otherwise straightened. At nine, my niece has “grown out of” natural hair and now gets her hair “pressed” as many of us did as we grew into our pre-teen years. She experiences her own natural hair only as long as it takes to get from shampoo bowl to flat iron. My hair must seem odd.

I explained to them both that my hair is like theirs. I pointed out a picture of my niece as a toddler with a big, curly ‘fro that looked a lot like my hair. I explained that most black people have some version of hair like mine–some curlier, some kinkier. They simply straighten it, but they don’t have to. It’s just one choice. Our hair can do cool things in its natural state.

It is one thing to explain this to children, but disappointing to have to give similar speeches to adults. How can we say we love our black selves if we don’t know a basic part of our bodies? Not knowing what black natural hair does is sort of like not knowing you have five toes on one foot.

This weekend, my mom asked me to show Sesame Street’s much-talked-about “I love my hair” segment to both of my nieces. We watched together. While my eldest niece was ambivalent, her four-year-old sister was captivated. Play it again! She gasped when one of the brown muppet’s hairdos seemed to match her own twin afro puffs. Her hair is curly like ours! (My youngest niece notices that our hair is alike, because I tell her so. Your hair is in twists like mine…neat! Your hair is so pretty in those cornrows! I try to compliment her on her natural styles, because I know, too often, adults will only coo when it is straightened to its full length and flowing.)

My niece asked me to sing along with the new muppet character and then announced that “every time, when I come to your house, we’re going to watch the video and learn the words to we can sing it.” And we have. Last night, I called the video up on my iPhone and we sung together:

Don’t need a trip to the beauty shop
‘Cause I love what I’ve got on top
It’s curly and it’s brown and it’s right up there…

My niece kept singing the song like a mantra for half the evening: I love my hair…I love my hair…I love my hair…

I don’t know how my little niece will wear her hair when she comes of age. She is free to make any choice: straightened, kinky, short, long, bald…whatever. I hope, though, that growing up with an aunt who is proudly natural will have some effect (I cut all my permed hair off shortly after she was born.). Whatever style choices she makes, I hope she will make them with full knowledge of what her natural black hair looks like and can do. I wish for her that she will continue to truly love her hair.

Originally posted at What Tami Said on October 27, 2010. Cross-posted with permission.

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Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America (Hardcover)

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