Going Natural

This article appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Geez Magazine.

It started in front of the mirror. I was in the bathroom, trying to figure out how to squeeze the next appointment between classes, a dissertation, and a research assistant gig. I’d pulled off some impressive scheduling maneuvers before, but in the final stages of my Ph.D. program, it was increasingly difficult.

My weekly salon visits began in my junior year of college. During a visit, my mother looked at me and asked, “When was the last time you got your hair done?” I’d mostly done it myself since freshman year. “You need to get it done every week.” Was she kidding? It took a minor miracle to stretch my paycheck for groceries and textbooks. “I’ll pay for it.” But not tuition, groceries, or books? Just like that, my priorities were ordered.

In the bathroom six years later, I estimated that I spent at least fifteen hundred annually on my hair. My graduate stipend was eleven thousand dollars. That means thirteen percent of my income went toward my hair, toward salon visits and the cabinet full of products bought in my ongoing search for the bottled miracle that would keep my always-reverting hair straight. No wonder I couldn’t give to the church. I was tithing to my hair dresser!

Suddenly I heard a voice. No, not God’s. It was my hair: “Isn’t it obvious that I don’t want to be straight?” Ridiculous, I know. Of course, my hair wanted to be straight. Why else would I endure costly and corrosive chemicals every five weeks and pay to have someone shampoo and style my hair each week in-between relaxers? “That’s the point! You have to keep going back because I don’t want to be straight!”

In some lost book of the Bible, African American women must have been given a new Decalogue. The first commandment: “Thou shalt keep thy ‘do nap-free at all times and at all costs.” African American women are likely the only racial/ethnic group in the world where the majority do not wear their hair in its natural texture. In a society gripped by racism and sexism, we are strongly discouraged from doing so. Some corporations actually have policies forbidding “ethnic” hair. An article in the August 2007 edition of American Lawyer magazine reported that a Glamour magazine staffer did a presentation for a New York law firm on the “Do’s and Don’ts of Corporate Fashion,” in which she deemed black women’s natural hairstyles “shocking,” “inappropriate,” and too “political” for the workplace.

For Alberta, a UCC minister, potential professional consequences were key in her consideration of going natural as a corporate employee twelve years ago: “To be natural was a radical approach.” Comedian Paul Mooney puts it bluntly in Hair Show, the documentary directed by Chris Rock: “If your hair is relaxed, then white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, then they’re not happy.” And if the professional costs aren’t high enough, there are also personal consequences. Alberta reports, “My family was against natural hair because of the stereotypes that had plagued the black community. We had to look like the ideal model – the Barbie doll – and not embrace our culture.” Another minister, Dionne, who works for a Pittsburgh community development organization, first tried going natural as a college freshman; a noticeable decrease in romantic interest from guys sent her back to the salon after just seven


It is no wonder, then, that most African American girls are subjected early to harsh processes designed to break the bonds of naturally kinky hair and to transform it into straight, socially acceptable hair. According to the authors of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, sixty-five percent of African American women use chemical relaxers or hot combs to straighten their hair. In recent years, these processes have been supplemented by methods of integrating commercial hair, including extensions, weaves, and wigs. The popularity of extensions and weaves among African American women has risen so dramatically that one comedian joked that the current generation of

Black children will never see their mothers’ real hair.

When I was six years old, I got my first relaxer, beginning a twenty year odyssey of chemical processing (which doesn’t even include the hot combing of my early years). The results were often disastrous – burns on my scalp, neck, or ears, and damaged hair. At 27, I’d had enough. Since high school, I’d expected going natural when I was older. I imagined myself sportin’ a silver afro, not because of a dye job, but because I couldn’t fathom having the courage to do it before I was sixty.

But standing in the bathroom that morning, something came upon me. I’m not sure if it was courage; it may have been plain ol’ fatigue. The next day, I was sitting in my stylist’s chair as she trimmed away the chemically straightened ends, leaving me with the half-inch of new growth. Seeing my hair for the first time in my adult life was daunting. A persistent thorn in my flesh had been my hair’s refusal to show any sign of the racial miscegenation evident in my caramel complexion. The stuff on my head was thick, coarse, wiry, and tightly coiled. I put on a brave face, smiling in response to the stylist’s pleased expression. I walked to my car, donned a baseball cap, drove to the nearest beauty supply store, and bought a wig. It took five weeks for me to adjust to the sight of my own hair and to feel comfortable exposing it to the world.

When I did, it was like being emancipated. I was freed from a daily twenty-minute hair ritual and a weekly two-hour salon appointment. Freed to exercise anytime I wanted, not just when I could spare an hour afterward to get my hair back in shape. Freed from fear of rain (a relaxed head’s kryptonite) and the weight of the umbrellas and ponchos I carried everywhere. Freed from the bondage of constantly striving to make my hair conform to an ideal that I could never attain.

Alberta experienced a similar kind of freedom when she went natural at the age of thirty-three. “This was a spiritual journey. I embraced who I was. I began to love African American culture and history. I realized that on this journey I had a voice as an African American female. My hair was a symbol of power.”

For some African American women, going natural is just a temporary style preference. But for others, especially

those of us rooted in the traditionally conservative Black church, letting our hair exist in the way that it grows out of our head is revolutionary. It is a countercultural move, an intentional act of personal liberation from the sociopolitical powers and principalities that tell us that we are “less than.”

After her first transition to natural hair, Dionne returned to relaxers for over three years before making another attempt to go natural. “My reason for going natural the second time around was this deep desire I had to really appreciate the grain of hair that God gave me. I had been thinking a lot about what it meant for me to be made in the image of God.

One of the things I concluded was if God took the time to create me with my specific grain and texture of hair, why couldn’t I take the time to appreciate my hair in its natural state. In addition, I wanted my hair to serve as a source of inspiration for other young, black women who struggled to appreciate their hair. I wanted my hair to spark conversation that would allow me to empower women to wear their hair natural. I prayed that prayer before cutting my perm off and I can’t tell you how many opportunities I’ve had to minister to women about their hair since I’ve gone natural. I can honestly say that after three years of wearing my hair in locs, I absolutely love my hair and would never consider perming it again. I’m so proud of my God-given hair and I’m learning to appreciate it more and more!”

Although I had not anticipated it at the time, that last visit to the hairstylist marked the beginning of a journey of spiritual transformation. A few months later, I had different experience in the mirror. Arriving at work one morning, I pulled down the visor to look in the overhead mirror and discovered a pair of beautifully enormous brown eyes. For most of my life, I had spent so much time obsessing over my hair that I had never noticed my face. That morning, I drank it in, recognizing the reflections of my parents in my face, realizing how much I looked like the aunts whom I admired. In going natural, I saw myself for the first time. I realized that I was beautifully, wonderfully, and intentionally handknit by God. And I was good.

We Got Mad (Hair) Issues

Recently it occurred to me that I’ve been that I’ve been fairly silent on a topic about which I’m fairly passionate and that has considerable significance to Black love – Black hair. Or more specifically, our personal and cultural hang-ups about Black hair. Maybe my silence has to do with its potential explosiveness. Conversations about Black hair tend to devolve into a sort of war between two nations – those who wear their hair relaxed and those who wear it natural. It’s a touchy topic. But fully loving ourselves also means loving our hair in its natural form.

That’s an assertion that usually rubs relaxed heads the wrong way. Keep in mind that I don’t think it’s wrong to relax or straighten one’s hair. My issue (really our issue) is that the vast majority of Black women have been straightening their hair for so long that we don’t actually know what our real hair texture looks like. We are afraid of our natural hair texture. We don’t want to see it and we don’t want anyone else to see it. So collectively we spend billions of dollars each year on hair care products even though we are among the poorest group of people in the United States.

Imagine if every Black girlchild, around the age of 8 or 9, went to a plastic surgeon and had her skin lightened because she lived in a country in which light skin was considered beautiful and brought considerable advantages in terms of education, income, and marriage (Oh wait, it does.). And then for the rest of her life she avoided the sun and went back for regular “touch-ups” every six weeks to ensure that her skin stayed light. I suppose we could argue that doing such a thing has nothing to do with race-based beauty ideals. But we’d be lying to ourselves. The good news, though, is that it will be easier to lie to ourselves after several generations of Black women and girls have been doing it. Then we can pretend that it’s just the way that things are done.

It’s hard for a person to admit that she doesn’t fully love and accept herself. It was hard for me. It still is. I’ve been natural for nearly 13 years now, after what seemed like a lifetime of conscious and unconscious hair self-hatred. Now, I’m working on getting over my body self-hatred (Seriously, do these two skinnies need to be sitting across from me eating cake while I sip on a skinny, sugar free, decaf misto?).

Whenever the conversation turns to natural hair, women with relaxed hair get defensive. Do me a favor and relax your defenses just long enough to ask yourself these questions (and don’t worry – I’ve got something to say to women with natural hair too):

  1. Do you know what your natural hair texture looks like? Most black women don’t. At the slightest sign of kinks, we rush to the salon for a new application of the creamy crack. How can you claim to love you if you don’t know what you looks like?
  2. Do you know how to take care of your natural hair? That is, do you know how to style it, moisturize it, keep it healthy? Only in the past 10 years have natural hair care products become widely available. That’s amazing in itself considering that beauty salons and beauty supply stores are among the businesses most likely to be found in Black neighborhoods. Of course, the irony is that most of these stores devote much of their floor space to selling hair – Malaysian, Indian, Asian, and European hair – to Black women. Apparently, relaxers are no longer strong enough to tame those natural kinks, coils, and curls. We’ve just resorted to wearing other people’s hair.
  3. Do you feel just as beautiful with natural hair as you do with relaxed hair? You should. After all, your natural hair is the hair with which you have been fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. And as the church folk say, God don’t make no junk.
  4. Can you honestly afford the time and money that it takes to maintain your relaxed hair? This really should be the clincher. If you’re putting your hair styles on credit or on layaway (or ignoring other obligations – including tithing – because of your hair), then you can’t afford it! Now that’s not to say that natural hair doesn’t take work; if you want to wear anything other than a closely cropped fro, it’s going to take some work. And the learning curve is steep in the first few months if you’re learning how to take care of your own hair for the first time in your adult life. But overall, I’ve found it to be much less time consuming and costly.
  5. Does your hair want to be relaxed? Not all Black hair is the same. Some people’s hair does well with relaxers. But many of us have hair that just doesn’t want to be fried, dyed, or laid to the side. For years I struggled to find the right relaxers and styling products that would make my hair stay straight for more than a few weeks (seriously, I once walked into a new stylist for a wash n’ set and she told me I needed a touch-up. My response: “I just had one last week.”). I finally realized that my hair was rebelling against the chemicals. It didn’t stay straight because it wasn’t meant to be straight.

I don’t expect women to go out in droves and do the big chop. I just want us to be honest with ourselves about the reasons that Black women are the only group of people in the world who talk about wearing our hair in its “natural” state as if it’s an abnormality. We have hair issues just like we have skin color issues.

By the way, for the naturalistas among us who have been reading this with a self-righteous smile on our faces, we have hair issues too. Many of us have made an idol out of natural hair. We act as though wearing our hair naturally automatically elevates us to a higher spiritual and emotional plane than our relaxed sisters. Please! Now, it’s true that for many of us – including myself – the decision to go natural is part of a spiritual journey (I’ll post another article about that shortly). But for a lot of folks, it’s just a hairstyle, plain and simple. It doesn’t denote self-love or the lack thereof; it’s not a symbol of spiritual growth or political sensibilities. They do it because its convenient or in style. Sometimes they do it because they’re flat broke and can’t afford anything else.

So let’s talk about hair. But let’s drop the defensiveness, self-righteousness, and all the other stuff that impedes healthy, community-building dialogue. We’ve got enough issues without it.

The Fascination with the American Negro (Episode 1)

I have spent much of my life being the first, the only, or the youngest. It comes with the territory as a black person in the academy and as a woman in ministry. When I began my current position at a historically black seminary three years ago, it was the first time since elementary school that I had been in an academic setting (either as a student or professor) that wasn’t dominated by whites (although my high school was predominantly black, the AP classes in which I was enrolled were decidedly not, but that’s another story).
My husband’s experience is similar, albeit in reverse. The day that he graduated from college was his last time that he spent his days in a majority black setting. Over the past 15 years as an engineer, he has always been one of a small handful of people of color at the firms at which he’s worked.

So it’s not surprising that by virtue of our socioeconomic status (as well as our commitment to racial reconciliation), we spend a lot of time in places populated mainly by whites. In our home city of Durham, we’re part of the granola crowd. We shop at Whole Foods, are members of the NC Museum of Life and Science, and take our son to classes at the Little Gym.

Herein lies the challenge. Because we are usually the only African Americans (or among a small minority) in the contexts that we inhabit, so is our 18-month-old son. As a result, he’s become something of a celebrity. Being the “only” makes you highly noticeable and recognizable. When you play the go-around-the-circle-and-introduce-your-child game, everybody remembers the name and face of the solitary black child. It’s not uncommon for my husband to have unfamiliar white women greet our son by name at the grocery store or museum. We’ve gotten used to it.

But it makes for some very strange moments at times. Take this week’s gym class, for instance. There was one little girl who had apparently never seen a black person. Or at least black hair. Or at least a 1″ Type 4B Afro that had been packed under a winter cap (I admit it, the boy looked like who shot john). For the bulk of the 50-minute class session, this little girl followed my child around the room, pointing to and patting his head. He seemed oblivious to it and kept playing. But his mother, who has some major hang-ups around race and hair, was not.

“Oh here we go,” I thought, “It’s time for another ‘fascination with the American Negro’ moment.” Since the majority of African American women do not wear their hair in its natural texture, when we do, it is often a source of heightened attention and discussion by folks of all races. But with whites, there is an added element (especially if you have locs, which I did until two years ago) – morbid curiosity:

“How did you get your hair like that?”

“I didn’t. This is what God gave me.”

“I’ve never seen hair like that.”

“That’s because it’s usually hidden under relaxers and weaves.”

“Ooh, can I touch it?”

Hell no.

Sorry, that was a flashback. Post-traumatic hair syndrome, I guess. But having absolute strangers or casual acquaintances try to turn you into a hands-on museum exhibit is beyond maddening.

I once spent a week at a retreat for black women. Toward the end, after days of spending every waking moment together, one of the women said to me, “Your locs are so beautiful. Can I gather them?” I could tell her motives were pure, so I said yes. My spine tingled as she stroked my locks from crown to nape, pulling the wandering strands – in the most gentle way possible – into a single stream flowing down my back. In that space, surrounded by women trying to love ourselves and one another, that was an act of love.

Of course, none of that – the dehumanizing-museum exhibit moments or the intimate acts of sister-love – means anything to a blond 18-month-old who thinks the fact that her new friend’s hair looks and feels like a cotton swab is cool. Her mother was clearly embarrassed, trying unsuccessfully to make her stop. “Don’t worry about it,” I told her, “he doesn’t even seem to notice.”

Meanwhile, I thought to myself, “Okay, this is really the last straw. He won’t sit still long enough for us to pick it out, it gets messed up anyway, we have to get soy nut butter and applesauce out of it twice a day, and now he’s getting harassed by little white girls.”

He was in the barber’s chair three days later.