In the 1960s George E. Johnson invented a chemical relaxer, an at home product that women could use to straighten their hair. This new product joined the ranks of the hotcomb as a way for black women to straighten their curly kinky hair. Synthetic and human hair extensions emerged in the 80’s and gave black women the ability to transform their hair into anything they wanted. Straight, long, smooth and tame weaves transformed the black hair industry into a billion dollar industry.
“Good hair” is a phrase I commonly heard as a child. People would remark that a black girl with smooth straight hair had “good hair.” I did not know then that the desire for black women to straighten and tame their hair came from a long history of subjugation and segregation. During slavery, black hair was cited as proof African slaves were of a different species because their hair was like wool. On plantations, field slaves were relegated to long hours in the hot sun with no time to care for their hair, while house slaves were encouraged to comb and tame their hair or wear wigs to resemble their white owners. Miscegenation produced lighter skinned women with straight “good” hair who gained privileges in the big house as a result of their light skin and Caucasian like hair. The notion of “good hair” has weaved its way into the history and culture of the black woman. In the 1960’s women attempting to gain rights and find jobs in predominantly white places had to go to great lengths to transform their hair from looking anything like it actually was.
Today, the majority of black celebrities, film and TV actresses and prominent figures all weave, straighten or relax their hair in order to have “good hair”, because it is good hair that allows you to navigate spaces as a minority. Good hair gets you in front of a camera, that promotion you want, the respect of your white peers. This struggle to fit in and be accepted is a reality of many black women around the world and is a damaging complex that became my reality.
Hair has always been a deeply personal thing for me. I remember as a young child, my mom spending hours twisting yarn around my hair forming straight rods that extended from my scalp to every direction, which is a common practice used by African mothers to style their child’s hair. As I grew older, different styles were used to shape my hair into different forms. As I grew older I was able to voice my opinions on what kind of hair that could be bought for me. I quickly threw the braids aside and began to purchase weaves. Long ,flowing, beautiful weaves sewn into tight cornrows in my head. In preparation for weaves, my mom would buy a chemical relaxer from the store and apply it to my hair. After carefully rinsing it out, I would emerge from the bathroom with straight black hair, my scalp burning in some areas from the strong chemicals. Sometimes the weaves were straight, sometimes wavy, in later years it was curly, but it was always a long smooth silk like material. There are various histories that make up the black female hair story but mine was singularly defined by that of chemical relaxers and weaving.
For some, the ability to transform their hair is empowering, a part of their creative expression that defines and brings purpose. For others like myself, it became so intertwined in my identity that I believed that hair, specifically straight weaves, were a direct correlation to my beauty. I spent the greater part of the past 23 years covering up my hair in search of an unattainable, false and ridiculous notion of what beauty was.
In recent years, there has been a large natural hair movement in the black community. Black women across the world are embracing their natural tresses and denying the Eurocentric view that their hair is not good enough. Over the past year, I have read hundreds of blog posts on natural hair and had many conversations with my sister who I would be remiss if I did not give credit to. She cut off all her hair 5 years ago, the first person I ever knew to “go natural” and to show me the beauty of being just who you are. Three weeks ago I took out my braids washed my hair and decided no more. I decided not to relax my hair. I decided not to weave or to braid. I cut off the bone straight chemically relaxed ends of my hair and left my house just as I am, for the first time in over a decade.
It is a bizarre experience learning how to do my hair at the age of 23. I would be lying if I did not say it was scary going to work or that I didn’t spend a lot of time looking at myself in the mirror, reminding myself that this hair and who I am in it is beautiful. It is hard and tricky but also incredibly freeing. I will most likely weave or braid my hair in the future, in times of convenience when I cannot spend the time, maybe when I have a child or am just too elderly. But I hope to weave or braid not to conform to some false perception of beauty. I love my hair. That is a truth that I only recently believed. I want it to be a testament of my intention to live as truthfully and with as much esteem as I can muster. I want to wear my hair just as it grows out of my head and declare on a daily basis that black hair, is good hair.
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