This is my hairstory.
I have never told this story in its entirety because its exhausting and painful. It wasn’t always a journey I was grateful for. This week as I testified at the Maryland State house in support of Senate bill 531, I reflected on what has been a long, arduous, expensive, and often painful experience.
As a little girl in England, rockin’ ruff and stuff with my afro puffs, I was teased. I was likened to Mickey Mouse. Children can be so cruel. It stayed with me. During my primary school years in Nigeria, my hair was plaitted/braided most of the time but my oyibo hair was softer than my peers so it never lasted that long and I was again teased for how the white in me showed itself. My hair was curly not kinky. In 1984 I arrived in South Bend IN, (a loooong way from Nsukka, Nigeria) in the hey-day of Madonna and Dynasty. I was in 7th grade and my new best friend, one of the only other Black girls in my private catholic school, had a jerry curl. I wasn’t going there but hey, it was the thing back then. I pulled my fuzzy ball of hair back in a ponytail for the first year in the states. Then I got to West Lafayette IN for 8th grade and the ‘Farrah fawcett’ bangs were on the loose. This little mixed African immigrant girl was a lost mess. I wanted to be like the other girls so I tried everything. Haircuts that made no sense on black hair. Spraying aqua net on bangs and frying them to the smell of smoke until they were scorched straight. a self-made blow out with drug store hair dryer and curling iron (disaster). I was a cheerleader. There was blond straight hair all around me. It was torture.
A few years into the US and I was struggling. Self-esteem on the downslide. A complete contradiction to the bravado and confidence I had been trained to know as a Nigerian. An Igbo girl at that. I blamed my mum for the hair I now hated so much. She tried everything. My freshman year of high school she sent me to Gary IN with one of the few other Black families we knew, so I could get my hair done. The stylist washed and crimped my hair. It lasted a day. I went back to my struggle. Then my mum took me on a trip to the Magnificent Mile in Chicago. 3 hours on the greyhound, an expensive hotel, and hours in a salon – $200 dollar blow out at Vidal Sassoon. That was a HUGE expense for a family of 6 on a BLACK professor’s salary in 1987/88 (?) (yep read into those capital letters please). I was confused. They didn’t even curl it but I got so much love (they asked me to model in a hair show in London – my dad said no) I felt cute. For a sec. went home. Washed my hair. Back to my struggle. school pictures were THE WORST. I agonized. I straightened. I curled. I cut. I cried.
Just before my senior year my mum found Debra. She was amazing. She introduced me to a relaxer and I fell in love. My hair fell like my mum’s – “European Silky”. I was feeling myself. My father saw my relaxed, straightened hair for the first time and didn’t believe it was mine. He asked actually. LOL. I was on the homecoming court in the winter, and I had my hair done. Ooh weee. victory. For the rest of high school and college, Debra did my hair. Every 2-3 months I went to the salon. She didn’t leave it on long but that white cream burned until my toes curled and scabs formed the next day. Nope didn’t care. Smooth edges and flowing locks was all I cared about. I learned to wrap my hair. I hated sleeping in scarves. Still do. My hair was bone straight and it would slide off every time. But still I curled it every day. The burning smell meant the straighter it would be. A good thing. No rain or sweat allowed please. For the next 20 years I would wash and curl my hair once a week. Accepting the burns on my ears and back of my neck for vanity and assimilation.
After I got married in 1997, I chopped everything off. I gave a stylist in Chicago a picture of Halle Berry and said go for it. I loved it. But my dad wouldn’t speak to me from the shock of it all. My tresses were gone and he grieved my crowning glory. Lucky for him the Chicago rain and snow was not friendly to my short hair and exercise was hardly convenient. Walking from the L to the office and getting there to realize something very different than I had left home with. Ugh the anxiety and mental anguish! I arrived at graduate school in 1998 and perming my own hair every 4-6 weeks became way too much as a student. I started to grow it back out. AWFUL process. Again permed and straightened. In 2001, a year after finishing graduate school, I took a trip to visit my brother in the Bay Area and decided I needed a change. I was nervous. I wore my hair curly for the first time since my days in Nigeria. I felt free. It was transformational. But then I returned to the east coast and right back to the straight hair. Over time I got comfortable with showing up for work with curly hair (especially when I went to work for a Black media company) but I wouldn’t fathom showing up for a big meeting or special occasion with curly hair. I didn’t feel pretty that way and didn’t think anyone would think so either. God forbid I show up on a red carpet without my hair laid! Blasphemous.
I took a headshot with curly hair 10 years ago. It was an intentional step to challenge my ideal of beauty and test if I could accept seeing a formal, professional image of myself without my “professional hair”. I felt just ok about it. My headshots in recent years have all been with straight hair. Two years ago JOY Collective started the hair discrimination advocacy journey. Today it’s rare you see me with anything but a head full of big curly bushy hair. It’s part of my character. My identity. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good blow out OR braids, but it’s by choice not by conditioning. The only chemicals in my hair now are to hide the grey. I see natural Black hair in all forms around me and it makes me smile. It makes me proud. It makes me radiate. Because I know that Black hair tells a story and for so many of us, there is pain and triumph alike in that story. So when you hear me post or speak of #theCROWNAct and defend my right and the right of every beautiful Black girl and woman and man and boy on this planet to rock their natural without judgement, you’ll understand that its personal. Deeply personal. Thx mum.