Monday, July 25, 2011

Hair Journey: Crystal B. A.

Hola chicas!!!!!  Join us on this Hair Journey featuring Crystal, a poet and teacher from Brooklyn, NY. Crystal is a beautiful, afro-centric, politically conscious, intelligent naturslista. Go with us and take a trip down memory lane as Crystal recounts her very own Hair Journey.... 

As a black woman, since I was a very young girl I learned one thing very early on: There was something wrong with my hair. I remember being 11 years old and for the first time I got my hair pressed. For those of you who are not familiar with pressed hair, it is when a hot iron comb is placed on fire and passed through the hair to make it straight and silky. The hot comb was invented my Madam C.J. Walker in 1905. A hot comb was supposedly necessary for black women to make their hair straighter and more appealing to the eye. I remember that day when I got my hair pressed. For some reason, I felt more beautiful when I saw my hair swing, when I saw the way it moved. There was something magical about my hair in this free-flowing way, or so it seemed.Time passed and I graduated from the hot comb to permanent relaxers when I turned 13. A permanent relaxer is a strong chemical containing lye which is used to permanently alter a curly or wavy hair pattern. According to the US Food and Drug Administration's Office (FDA) of Cosmetics and Colors, chemical hair straighteners are a serious problem among consumers. Many customers complain of hair breakage, and scalp burns which often require Emergency Room treatment. With that background information, why then did I at such a young age get a permanent relaxer, just to have straight hair? Why do so many black women all over the world, continue to chemically straighten their hair every 6 weeks in order to avoid the lovely texture of our natural tresses? This is a question that could take centuries to answer. However, there is one reason that is at the root: self-hate. 

As a black woman I can say this is in fact true. We are taught early on that our hair is "nappy" "ugly" and "unruly." Family members pass these negative adjectives regarding our hair down to us and we internalize these words to mean one thing: Who we are naturally is not beautiful; therefore we must permanently change ourselves, beginning with our crown of glory-our hair. All of the women in my family always had relaxed hair and all of them still do. They served as my guide as to what a beautiful woman looked like, so of course I wanted to mirror their representation of beauty. Also, everywhere I looked, whether it was on television or in a magazine, every woman had straight tresses. Thus what was I to do but straighten my hair? 

It was my uncle Gerald who told me what I dreaded hearing one day, two years after my straightening ordeal: "So I see you want to be white!" I looked at him and I yelled back: "What are you talking about? I don't want to be white!" He looked right into my eyes and stated: "Yes you do, you just don't know it yet." Up to this day, I always remember those words, because they haunted me. I can honestly say that I never thought of straightening my hair as wanting to be white, but I do understand now that by straightening my hair I was adopting a more European ideal of beauty. I hated when my roots (new growth as it is mostly called in the black community) were visible, and I wanted to straighten my hair as soon as I saw my roots. Many black women complain saying things like: "My roots are coming in! I need to get my hair done soon." These statements are accompanied by head nods and understanding by black women alike who understand the pressure to upkeep their silky smooth hair. This is in fact a form of self-hate. 

Finally, after finishing high school, keeping my relaxed hair in tact, I went on to college in Vermont. While there, I realized that it was impossible for me to get my hair styled by someone who had a clue about black hair. This led me to doing my own hair every weekend. My roommate, who happened to be a middle class woman from Connecticut, was often amazed by the amount of time and energy I put into my hair. My routine consisted of 2 hours! The first hour consisted of washing and styling my hair. The second hour consisted of sitting under a hooded hair dryer (in my broom closet sized room) for another hour so that my hair could dry. After the 2 hours, I would then wrap my hair around my head and tie a scarf over my hair so that it would look extra silky smooth the next day. Whew. What a routine! It took so much out of me every weekend, but I never stopped, because I felt like I had to look this way. I put so much pressure on myself to have the "right hair." I also had fans. Many black women on campus would often admire how well-kept my hair always was in a place like Vermont. They often asked me for hair tips and suggestions. For some reason, this added fuel to the fire and encouraged me to keep up my 2 hour routine, despite the fact that I had loads of studying and extracurricular activities. 

During my junior year, after coming back from spending time abroad in France, I decided that I would, like so many other black women on campus, get my hair braided (with the aid of hair extensions.) Braids made my life so much easier because I didn't have to worry about doing my hair at all and I could have the braids in for months! I was finally at peace while at school. One day while sitting in the school library, a friend of mine, who always wore her hair natural approached me and asked: "Are you going natural? I noticed you have been keeping it braided. Is that because you are growing out your hair?" This idea had never even occurred to me. Why on earth would I stop chemically relaxing my hair? There wasn't any other option for me. "No" I replied quickly while shaking my head in a mocking way. My friend just acted as if it wasn't a big deal and we changed the subject, however, she didn't know that in the back of my mind, I was considering the true meaning of her question. 

Fast forward to senior year of college; it was the month of April, and I was about to graduate in a few weeks. I looked in the mirror to see my chemically straightened hair. It had been 9 years since I first made the switch to silky smooth. I was 22 and ready to do the big chop. All of my dead, chemically straightened hair had to go. It was like an epiphany. I woke up in the morning, looked in the mirror, and I knew that I was finally ready to accept the real me, not the me I was trained to be. I made my way to a barbershop in Burlington, Vermont with 3 of my closest friends, two of them were black women, so they knew just how big of a deal this was. We got there and I told the barber: "Shave it all off, now!" He looked at me like I was mad and asked me if I was sure. I said I was and that was the best day of my life. Upon seeing my shaved head, I felt beautiful, and truly free, more free than I had ever felt with silky smooth hair. 

I had forgotten what my natural hair looked like at all. Seeing my extremely hair made me smile. My hair was beautiful and there was absolutely nothing wrong with my "naps" as far as I was concerned. When my family saw me for graduation, they actually loved my new look and they were very supportive. From that day on, I grew out my natural hair and finally started locking my hair in May of 2006. Now I wear medium length locks and I love my hair! Every day I learn to love myself more and appreciate who I really am without chemically altering my natural hair pattern. 

Because I personally choose to wear my hair natural does not mean that I no longer feel pressured by all of the European ideals I see around me on a daily basis. However, because I have a much stronger sense of self, it is much harder for me to be swayed by popular demand. It still bothers me that everywhere I turn I see black women with straight hair or long weaves which is now the trend. It is as if we believe we are cursed and have to hide who we really are in order to fit into mainstream society. A lot of women I talk to say things like: "It's just hair; it's not a big deal." Some black women even go as far as saying: "I don't look good with natural hair." My question is: How can you not look good with your natural hair that you were born with? Does that even make sense? I wish more black women would love their natural hair because it is beautiful and unique. Now I must say living in a society where European ideals are often celebrated: Straight hair, straight noses, thin lips, etc. it is much harder as a black woman to love who you are, without feeling like you need to change. However, we need more role models in our communities who embrace natural beauty and most importantly, we need positive role models in our families! Perhaps if I grew up in a family where I saw women with natural hair, I would have never chemically relaxed my hair. Or maybe I needed to go through my straightening madness in order to really appreciate my hair when I discovered it again. Who knows? But one thing remains true, black women we are beautiful as our natural selves. Keep that in mind! 

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