Dissertation Archives – Vignette 3: Hair Story

No matter how else you dress or decorate yourself, you cannot escape the true meaning of dreads. As beautiful as locks may be, they still stand for something: ethnic pride. When you carry dreads you demand a second look. People are intrigued, they wonder, “What’s behind all that hair.” I’m happy to be nappy

~Adrian “Summit” Delaney

 

I fell in love with locks when I saw Whoopi Goldberg’s hair. I had seen African women on television, but never had I seen one with locks until Whoopi was cast as the main character in the movie Sister Act (1991). I had seen The Color Purple (1985), but her hair and her role in Sister Act appealed to me more because of the strength and confidence of the character. I wanted that strength; I wanted that hair. Unfortunately, my mother was not having any of that. “You don’t want your hair like that,” she said. But I did. I really did. Nevertheless, that was one battle I was not willing to wage because I knew that I would not win. So I let go of the dream of locking my hair until the summer of 2002. I had cut my hair from a shoulder length style to a short brush cut in March of 2002, and in late May my stylist started my locks. At the time I was a teacher, so the summer seemed like a good time to lock my hair since I had read that the hair goes through many transformations during those initial stages.

About a week before school started in the fall, I went to my classroom to begin getting it organized. I was there only a short while before my principal called me to the front office. He started the conversation by asking about my summer, but it was not long before he maneuvered his way to his real interests. He asked, “So why are you doing me like this?” Confused, I asked what he meant; and he proceeded to tell me that my hair was not what he expected. He considered it unacceptable. Why was I locking my hair? Noticing the sour look on my face, he tried to appease my by saying that the girls at the school looked up to me and he just wanted to make sure that I was communicating the right message. “I hope I’m communicating that you don’t have to have a certain type of hair – that you don’t have to have weave all down your back – to be beautiful,” I snapped. At that point, most people might have left the idea alone, but he continued with one final insult. “I mean, if you need some money to get your hair done, I’ll pay for it.” I was floored by his suggestion that I was only locking my hair because I could not afford to go to the salon. Further, I was more insulted because the principal was Black as were 97% of my students. So I thought that I was sending the right message: Black hair is beautiful hair – whether locked, natural, or relaxed; short or long. I was sincerely disappointed at his lack of acceptance of my hair and left his office more focused than ever to let my locks be one of my defining African characteristics[1].

I locked my hair in order to identify with my African culture. I’ve had my locks for almost five years. I discovered that you don’t have to have straight hair to be beautiful. Locks are about a deeper love, a self-respect.

~Cheryl Browne

While I considered my locks to be one of my defining African characteristics, I was forced to evaluate why I felt that having natural hair was so African. For most of my elementary school years, my hair was styled with a hot comb or straightening comb. I hated those days. It was always a battle between my mother and me as I sat in a chair in the kitchen watching that comb get hot over the open flame from the gas stove. I would watch my mother remove the comb and blow it as smoke filled the room. Eyes closed, the comb was brought closer to my hair; I squinted tighter as I felt the heat from the comb. My mother was usually very careful, but there were the occasional burns. The “kitchen” and around the ears were the worst. This process continued until I was in seventh grade and I started to do my own hair, to “perm” my hair with a chemical relaxer. Once every six weeks, I stood in the bathroom in front of the mirror to go through the process of straightening my hair with chemicals. Somewhere during the next 10 or so years, I started to equate that straightening process with confirmation that I too had succumbed to the perceptions of beauty ascribed by mainstream Americans. I am not sure what triggered this response. Maybe it was the hair conflict between the “wannabes” and the “jigaboos” in Spike Lee’s (1988) School Daze; or maybe it was Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm X (1992) when he shoved his head in the toilet to stop the relaxer from burning his scalp. For some reason, I thought that,

The notion that straightening one’s hair is a mark of aspiring towards whiteness and that we should thus abandon all straightening along with any other form of work on black hair denies the complexity of cultural practice. (Erasmus, 1997, pp. 14-15)

I believed locking my hair contested the notion that I identified with the “wannabes” – light skin, long, straight hair, striving to achieve the Eurocentric notion of beauty. For me, locks were my resistance. That day in my principal’s office, my baby locks were my political and cultural statement. I thought that my natural hair made more of a statement than my relaxed or straightened hair. According to Erasmus (1997), Mercer (1987) “challenges the idea that Afros and dreadlocks are ‘natural’” (p. 15). Instead, these styles are created in the same spaces as styles that many would suggest are non-Afrocentric. For example, it is often the expectation of people that wear natural hairstyles consider themselves African-centered. However, for some, their natural styles do not reflect their commitment to the African family. One of my friends, for instance, had dreadlocks and will state honestly that the only reason she locked her hair was because it was so course. Now, she wears a natural afro and does so simply because it is convenient and manageable. I still believe that my locks are a political and cultural statement; however, I now have arrived at a level of African identity where I understand that my former belief that any Black person that straightened his or her hair is trying to achieve some sort of whiteness identity aligns with essentialist notions of Blackness. I had to eliminate my essentialist view of being African where a hair style was a signifier of African identity (Erasmus, 1997).

[1] After my hair had grown out some, the principal did apologize for his initial reaction and told me that he liked the new look.


An excerpt from my dissertation: To be African or Not to Be: An Autoethnographic Content Analysis of the Works of Dr. Asa Grant Hilliard, III (Nana Baffour Amankwatia II), 2009, Georgia State University.

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