And that's all I've been able to come up with so far. So begins a poem I've been trying to write for about 5 years or so now, as my response to a conversation I had with a very good friend of mine in regards to the situation of African women making the choice to discontinue the use of chemicals and other methods to straighten their hair. At the time he and I were on the phone discussing the random virtues of Black folk living, and he mentioned off-handedly something that ultimately implied that nothing about us at a community would be drastically changed, should every Black woman in the known world decided to stop chemically altering their hair the next morning.
     At the time I wanted to rebut -- and yet I found myself at a loss for words, simply because the limited eloquence I possessed at the time wouldn't allow me the opportunity to fashion a position that was even remotely as articulate as his. In that same instant however, I knew he had to be wrong somehow, and that there had to be more than what he was getting at -- and so I continued to think about it, long after we hung up. It's now 2006, and I finally believe my answer back is coming together:
It's not that we do
That's the issue
That if we couldn't
Most likely is
     I've been "natural" for almost 7 years now. I officially cut the last bit of straightening chemicals out of my head on July 28, 1999, and I haven't look back yet. It's funny, because before I did it, I couldn't even remember what the texture of my real hair ever looked or felt like. But I do remember having a basic assumption about it -- that it was horrid, hard to manage, in need of serious "taming." Not that I developed these ideas on my own, oh no -- if you ask the average Black woman who perms on a regular basis, you more often than not will get a response similar to, "I do it because it needs it," or "I can't do my hair when it's nappy." These are thoughts many of us have been taught since we were very small, and have just grown to accept them as reality. And I'm inclined to believe that it gets worse with every generation: on one occasion when I was with a middle school girl's group a couple years ago I had the girls construct a list of words and descriptions they would attribute to the phrases "permed hair" and "natural hair" (and yes, I used those EXACT quotes, with no prompting whatsoever). Words I received for "permed hair": straight, beautiful, healthy, long; for "natural hair" "nappy, ugly, dirty, hard to comb. You can only imagine what I wondered they might have thought about my hair.
     I can say a lot about how my hair was when I permed it regularly; however, one thing that I can unequivocally say is that healthy and long ain't exactly the words I'd use to describe it. In the seven years I had my hair permed regularly, I went through at least two major cuts, as beauticians did the complex work of making up for my hair's inability to survive under the harshness of Affirm, Hawaiian Silky, Motions, or whatever other chemical of the moment was. Both were sad and near traumatic, as one beautician blurted out after I was left with a slicked down fade of processed hair going down from as far up as the crown, to the back of my head, "You ain't got nothing left up there [as in, stop trying to feel for it, 'cause it ain't there no mo]!" I've gone through my share of headbands, comb-overs, scarves and whatever else I thought it might take to cover up the war scars of too hot curling irons, left-in-too-long chemicals, and too-late touch ups. More importantly from all these points though, I've seen too many 2 and 3 (and 14, and 15)-year-old little girls with patches missing from their heads from a misguided mama who didn't take the time to let their daughters grow into an understanding of their own natural beauty. All of these things together suggested to me a long time ago that perhaps we as a community (or I, at least) needed to rethink this whole idea of what it took to look good.
     It's not that a revolution would start if sistas stopped perming and pressing their heads tomorrow that's important (although I think we might seriously be on to something if indeed THAT were to happen -- LOL); what is important is what would happen if women were no longer able to, for whatever reason, press and perm their hair tomorrow morning that concerns me. I mean think about it: if every Black woman you know (including yourself, if you are so self-identifying) woke up the next morning without ONE STRAIGHTENING CHEMICAL in her/your head, and had no way of getting a hold of one, what do YOU think might happen? You can laugh, but you know I'm right -- one could only imagine the traffic jams women would cause all over this country at local beauty salons and supply shops, as we slapped down our good money (grocery money, cable-bill money, tithe money) for a way to cover up the "mess." I could see sistas sitting in their kitchens, trying to mix up eggs, hair oil, Drano, Crisco -- whatever we thought might work to fix the phenomenon of hair "turning back"! And can you see the fight over the last wig on the planet? LOL, I won't even BEGIN to go into that one -- No, it's not the action itself, but the mentality behind the action of hair straightening, that could stand to be changed, and that really would constitute a revolution in my eyes if changes were made (by choice and a renewing of the mind, that is).
     I am not saying that all sistas need to just up and go natural -- but if the thought of waking up one morning with more than three centimeters of "new growth" in your hair makes your heart palpitate faster than a hooker's in church, then that might be something you might want to pray about. If you can't remember what your hair might possibly look like in its natural state, or you have no pictures to prove your hair ever looked like anything other than the back of a horse's bottom, then you might want to pray about that. IF YOU ARE STILL ROCKING THE WATERFALL PONYTAIL WITH 14 HAIR BALLS WRAPPED AROUND IT, but LESS THAN ONE INCH OF HAIR COMING OUT OF IT, THEN YOU MIGHT WANT TO PRAY ABOUT THAT!!! Like I said it's been seven years since the last time I went there, and I swear to you this one thing -- I've never once had what I'd consider to be a "bad hair day," and I've never felt more beautiful and confident about being who I truly am. Perhaps -- just maybe -- that may speak to some of y'all out there. And perhaps -- just maybe -- our new revolutionary lives will serve as their own poetic responses.
Random Order/Tracie Gilbert
The revolution does not begin with your locks ...
June 14, 2006 Issue Archives