I didn’t need Chris Rock to tell me the sodium hydroxide used in relaxers could harm my scalp.
I got my first perm at 13, and every six weeks for about a dozen years after, I religiously went for touch-ups. Ouch! The stinging was so bad that my eyes watered, and days later my scalp would be dotted with scabs. But my hair — I say with my best Rock imitation — was silky straight. And that’s all that mattered, right?
Still, when Rock and a chemist demonstrated in the comedian’s much-talked-about documentary “Good Hair” how those same chemicals could disintegrate a Coke can, I was shaken to the core.
I have been wearing my hair in dreadlocks for nine years now. At least for me, the 95-minute movie was a reminder that I will never, ever use a chemical straightener again.
But an untold number of black women subject themselves to this process when they relax their tresses — including my mother, my sister, and many of my closest friends — for a host of psychological and professional reasons. In the corporate world, African Americans often get the message that natural hair is not OK.
Rock’s take on black women and their hair issues was amusing and in many places enlightening. He and producer/writer Nelson George traveled to Greensboro, N.C., to visit Dudley’s hair-care company and to Atlanta for the famed Bronner Brothers International Hair Show.
He even went to India, where the majority of “remi hair” (top-quality weave hair) is collected from Hindu temples during a religious ceremony — a situation with a hefty dose of irony, no? Here are Indian women giving their hair away as a form of sacrifice, and black women are sacrificing thousands of dollars for lace-front wigs and weaves fashioned from it.
(Speaking of remi hair, Terry Briggs, owner of Jaguar Luxury Beauty Showroom, West Philadelphia’s home of the affordable lace-front, made two appearances in the movie.)
Rock was very forward-thinking in his discussion of the “business” of hair, but where he dropped the hot-comb was in his lack of sensitivity. He didn’t address why modern-day black women are still choosing to change the natural texture of their hair, trying to pass off yards and yards of Indian hair as their own.
It’s not that I wanted Rock to dwell on the painful history that’s shaped our definition of beauty. We all know how slavery and discrimination within the black community, compounded with America’s love affair with all women blond (not to mention skinny), left generations of black women feeling that their natural kinky, curly, sometimes dry, most-of-the-time unmanageable hair was deemed completely unacceptable.
This is, after all, why the movie shows a 3-year-old getting her first perm. (That made me shudder, too.)
But I wanted — no, I needed — black men to take this issue seriously. Instead, Rock relied on brothers for his comic relief. He talked to them in barbershops, egging them on to complain about the burden of paying for their women’s weaves and whine how they can’t run their fingers through women’s hair without serious repercussions. They say they get yelled at, or worse, their fingers get snagged on the weave’s tracks.
The reality is, however, that most black women pay for their own hair and continue to straighten what’s theirs because they know it’s what men prefer. Clearly, Rock is aware of this. His wife is a beautiful woman, but Malaak Compton-Rock’s hair is long and straight (who knows how much of it is really hers?). Can he be held accountable? (It’s worth noting that Rock’s daughters — who were the impetus for the documentary — appeared in the movie, but his wife didn’t.)
It was the questionable reactions I knew I’d get from men that gave me the longest pause before ultimately going natural. But I also realized that although I appreciated the attention of men, I had to take responsibility. I couldn’t let something so personal — the natural state of my hair — be dictated by the expectations of men unknown.
When I announced I was going to cut off my relaxer so I could start locks, my loving father teased me, “Honey, you aren’t going to find a man with hair like that.”
Shortly afterward, a guy I was dating wanted to know if I was going through a phase. We stopped seeing each other.
Then when I committed to going natural, I built myself up. I convinced myself that my hair is beautiful as is, and that I didn’t need chemicals to feel adequate. As a result, I put myself on a black pedestal where the more socially conscious natural sisters stood.
Today I realize that stance was nuts, too. One thing that black women feel they need and don’t have — especially when it comes to hair — is the freedom to make choices based on their heart, not societal pressure.
Deciding to relax or not to relax should be viewed merely as a choice — like being blond or brunet, curly or straight, short or long. But until it is, there still will be little girls who feel they have no choice.
The good that came out of my “conversion” is that I learned to accept the hair that God gave me — and it turns out, I’ve discovered men who like it, too. I learned not to force it to do what it won’t. And that took the pressure off, leading me one step closer to happiness.
This awareness is what truly stopped my eyes from watering and healed the scabs.
(c) 2009, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.