Hair. The Mash-Up Americans are no strangers to the challenges of “ethnic” hair and conflicting cultural beauty standards. When you’re a Black woman, though, hair takes on a whole other dimension — political, painful, and often, polarizing. Our Black-American Mash-Up Joy Newton shares with us why “nappy” is a dirty word and how she no longer needs her hair to be tamed. Here is her journey from relaxers to long locs.
I was almost 20 years old before I saw my mom’s natural hair. Or anyone’s really. Even though everyone in my family had Afros in the 70s, by the time I was born in 1981, relaxing your hair was just a given. It’s what you did. It’s what everyone did. My mom started relaxing my hair when I was in elementary school. Relaxing your hair is a rite of passage for Black women.
I have long thick hair that is admittedly not too easy to groom. Which is the most common reason people give for relaxing Black hair. Relaxing “tames” your hair. It also destroys it.
After relaxing it, my hair rarely grew past my neck. The damaged hair had to be trimmed constantly in order for it to look healthy. Still, throughout my childhood, we never thought to do anything different. When I was 18, and had been relaxing my hairs for years, I read in a hair magazine that Vanessa Williams touched up the hair around her forehead and “kitchen” (the hair at the base of your neck) every three weeks.
“Great!” I thought. “Let me try that.”
I would do anything to avoid the slightest inkling of a nap.
I would do anything to avoid the slightest inkling of a nap. The term “nappy” is just about the worst insult to a Black woman. How many times did I touch the roots of my hair weeks after a relaxer and say, “Damn I need a touch-up” with a look of disgust on my face? Countless. Snide remarks from the time you’re a child that teach you that kinky hair is an unfortunate curse of being Black. Silky curls or straight flowing hair are things to be admired, envied and…purchased.
So I started going to a Dominican salon, ’cause you know they get your hair as straight as possible, like the Spanish girls. Within a few months of that, my hair was breaking off and falling out in clumps. I had little patches of hair that were maybe a centimeter long all over the place. Ugh.
I was told that African ladies could braid anything, even those little patches of mine. So I thought, okay. I’ll braid and wear extensions for awhile, and give my hair a break from relaxing. My mom had also recently started braiding her hair and wearing extensions because her hair was equally damaged.
Neither of us started braiding our hair with the intention of “going natural.” The term “going natural,” is an increasingly popular phrase in the Black community these days, referring to the choice to not chemically straighten our natural hair. It’s very indicative of the psyche in the Black community. “Going” implies that we all must be coming from somewhere else. From being unnatural.
Not me and my mom. Back then, going natural wasn’t common and it certainly wasn’t a trend. We had every plan to relax our hair again once the damaged hair grew in.
I’ve always been good at styling hair, so I remember about a year after my mom started wearing extensions she asked me to style her hair… without the extensions. It was 2000, and her natural hair was getting so long that wearing extensions was driving her nuts. But we had no idea what to do with it. I was thinking: Soooo, what are we going to do with this nappy mess? I mean, she can’t wear an afro anymore. It’s the 21st century. And you can’t walk around with a head full of naps.
We came up with a solution: put texturizer in it. So off we go to Walgreens, buy some texturizer and apply it to my mom’s hair so that it would be “presentable.” This basically straightened it. Not exactly what we were going for. But Lord knows it was better than a head full of naps.
After the texturizing experiment, I two-strand twisted my mom’s hair for a while, as my own natural hair grew within my extensions. During that year, something started to shift in me. I started to really appreciate the texture of my mom’s hair as it grew out. We both did, and we slowing started cutting off the straight “texturized” ends. When I would wash my own hair before getting it braided again, I noticed something. If I grabbed a little piece while it was wet and played with it a little, it would turn into a little Shirley Temple curl.
How cute is that? I didn’t know my hair did that!
When I stopped relaxing my hair, I woke up.
I was 20 years old at this point, and it was the first time that as a grown woman I had actually seen the texture of my own hair. For the first time that I could remember, I looked in the mirror at my natural hair and smiled. I brushed it while it was wet and watched the wave pattern appear then shrink up into tight curls. This was awesome! I continued to braid it cause I didn’t feel like short hair was for me, but I was now looking forward to seeing my natural hair get longer each time I took the braids out. I braided my hair for about a year.
My mom and I started reminiscing about how we couldn’t scratch our heads the days leading up to a relaxer. We talked about how we’d get burns on our ears and scalp from the chemicals in the relaxer. And how sometimes the burns would ooze and our hair would be stuck to our scalps at the root when you wake up the morning after a treatment. And we talked about how freaking CRAZY that was!
Why were we putting ourselves through that when we had all this pretty hair under there, just waiting for a chance?
So after a year of wearing extensions for me, and two for my mom, we returned to natural. Even though it wasn’t part of our original plan, we consciously decided that relaxing our hair didn’t make sense and was no longer for us. My last relaxer was in February of 2000. (I had gotten it nice and straight for Valentine’s Day.)
I didn’t stop relaxing my hair because I had some huge awakening. But when I stopped relaxing my hair… I woke up. Something cosmetic made me evaluate myself and my thoughts, and the thoughts of my family and my people.
People ask all the time, “Why is hair such a big deal for Black women?” I have many responses to that question but here’s one simple answer. It took 20 years for me to look in the mirror and see that what God gave me was beautiful, not a bad hand that I was dealt. For others, it’s much longer. Or it never happens. That’s a big deal. A child growing up thinking that they are not attractive unless they alter themselves is a big deal. And it spirals into so much more, especially for a kid. If my hair is bad, whose hair is good? Should I try to be like “them” in other ways? If my hair is like “them over there” am I better than “you over here”?
My hair teaches me something new about others and myself on a regular basis. It sparks conversations that allow me to teach others. My journey continues.