Letter #3: Hair

Part I

To Black People Visiting Earth:

It took many jars of relaxing cream and scabs on my scalp before I stopped strangling Africa.  The day I stopped putting chemicals in my hair was the day I began loving it for being natural. Despite my Filipino mother’s attempt to get me to love my hair (as she gently ran my fingers through my scalp to feel the beauty of my own waves and curls), I was subject to the world’s disgust with Black hair—a world that has plenty of Korean-owned Black hair supply stores where you’re sure to find Creme of Nature and aisles of Indian Remy hair but will never find Sheba Locks and Miss Jessie’s. In 2011, I wrote an essay called “Locks” that describes the journey that led me to decide to lock my hair in 2005. Below is an excerpt that explains what messages Black women receive about our natural hair: “There are systems in place that communicate to the world that long, straight, flowing hair that blows in the wind is the standard against which all other hair types ought to be measured and evaluated. Though it may be true that those with straight and/or limp hair receive the message that having more body or wave to one’s hair is more desirable, one must take a close look at how prevalent such messages are in comparison to the implicit and explicit messages (from within and outside our race) that bombard Black women and girls, telling us that straight hair is not only preferable and normative, but anything other than straight is deviant, dirty, messy, and akin to pubic hair.   These judgments don’t stop at your physical appearance, but they also imply that your inner way of being is just as dirty and deviant.   Secondly, there is a big difference between telling women that hair with more body and wave is beautiful and telling women that coarse, kinky, or nappy hair is beautiful.   Ads, for example, that implicitly or explicitly promote hair with more body and wave (or maybe even ringlets, too) communicate the message that it’s okay to have some waves, but if its too curly and too frizzy, at the same time, you are on the brink of creeping into ugly territory! Such messages are communicated through casual conversation, jokes, silent stares of contempt, magazines, music videos, television, Korean-owned and Black-owned hair supply stores, billboards, cinema, dolls, greeting cards, the Internet, and much more. Never had I researched how to straighten and damage my hair through the use of a chemical relaxer, hairdryer, hot comb, or curling iron. Nonetheless, this came quite naturally to me considering what was readily available; I was provided with plenty of assistance.   Over the years, however, becoming aware of how I internalized these destructive external messages put me in a better position to actively choose to reject such messages and begin to understand my hair. How strange it is to realize that in my thirties I must learn from books how to take care of my natural hair.”[1] I wrote this when Baby Girl was about 3-4 years old (so I had sense of what my daughter would encounter).     By this time, her hair texture changed several times from straight to big curls to coarse, tight curls.  The older she became, the more I noticed  that whenever my daughter’s hair was in braids or twists (appearing straight) people didn’t say too much about her hair—good or bad. But when she wore it down, people had all kinds of things to say and here’s just a taste:

Baby Girl at 5 years old.
Baby Girl at 6 years old.
  • White adults (who believed they were complimenting her): “Wow, you’re hair’s so cool. It’s so wild!” or “I wish I could be that free,” or “It looks like a cloud.”
  • Older Black women (usually with disdain): “Why don’t you do something with that hair?” or “You need to moisturize that hair.”
  • White adults (often enthusiastic women): “Nice hair” or “I like your hair.”
  • Young Black women (usually with their own hair worn natural): “Go ‘head lil’ mama! You’re hair so beautiful!” or “Let your crown go!”

Hearing these things, particularly the countless negative, ignorant comments outweigh the number of affirmations, came as no surprise. Baby Girl was small with a sweet mind filled with popsicles, playgrounds, and confetti; I could barely imagine how she was making sense of the world’s preoccupation with her hair. I would need to explain this to her; my husband would need to explain this to her. But for the time being, we reveled in moments when young sistas told her how beautiful her hair was. Baby Girl could count on this love at places and events like Juneteenth celebrations or the Ashby Flea Market in Berkeley or the Malcolm X Jazz Festival in Oakland. Such environments were sparse but served as just enough medicine for the sickness that suggested her hair was abnormal and in need of being tamed. She continued hearing a strange mix of insults and awkward comments about her hair throughout her preschool years. But when she started kindergarten, it was a whole different game …


[1] Janet Stickmon, Midnight Peaches, Two O’clock Patience–A Collection of Essays, Poems and Short Stories on Womanhood and the Spirit (Oakland: Broken Shackle Publishing, 2011), pp. 78-79.

Copyright © 2015 Janet Stickmon


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