When a girl turns 12 or 13, some families throw homegrown parties or big, elaborate, Super Sweet Sixteen-esque shindigs. In the Harris clan, the rites of passage for budding young women is permission to walk to the corner store with your girlfriends, carrying a pocketbook to church— and going to the salon to get your first perm.
It wasn’t just about getting your hair straightened, though. As far back as I could remember, some senior female relative had me and my cousins lined up in those hard-backed kitchen chairs, with a jar of Blue Magic on standby, for a one-on-one showdown with the hot comb in order to get spit-shined and spiffy for [insert name of holiday or special occasion]. We all came out with basically the same hairdo: half up in a ponytail, half down in the back with a big ol’ tight funnel of a bang smack dab in the middle of our foreheads. You knew a Harris girl a half a block away just from that super stiff church bang all balled up in the center of her dome like a brown Fruit Roll-up. We could hopscotch, double dutch, hide ‘n’ seek—that sturdy bang never once moved, dropped or shifted in the wind. Straight hair was nothing new. So getting a perm, to us anyway, wasn’t about achieving the illustrious look of white girl hair. It was about being almost grown enough to sit up in that hairdresser’s chair, shed those plaits and maze of barrettes, and rock an actual, honest-to-goodness hairstyle.
To me, hot combs and relaxers are part of Black culture. Like chitlins and hog maws and other residuals of our disenfranchisement, they can be looked down on as leftovers from years of oppression and marginalization. I get that.
Maybe it’s those kinds of fond memories that keep me from being completely repulsed by the idea of (and process for) having straightened hair. To me, hot combs and relaxers are part of Black culture. Like chitlins and hog maws and other residuals of our disenfranchisement, they can be looked down on as leftovers from years of oppression and marginalization. I get that. I get that our people were drilled with the deprecating idea that our hair isn’t beautiful, that “nappy” and “kinky” and “coarse” were all derogatory words thrown at our heads to drive home the ugliness we were supposed to feel, that in order for our locks to be considered “good” they had to lay flat and slick and smooth and tame (which, by the way, my hair was not and has never been, with or without a doggone perm). And I know some people unfortunately still feel like that. I could scream every time I hear someone—in 2009, now—imply that “pretty hair” is only the kind that moves fluidly when you shake your head around.
I’m so excited to see so many sisters shed their same ol’, same ol’ wraps and rollers sets and get creative with the crown of gorgeous hair that they were born with.
So I’m so excited to see so many sisters shed their same ol’, same ol’ wraps and rollers sets and get creative with the crown of gorgeous hair that they were born with. In fact, within the last five or so years, most of the ladies around me, from my mom to my sister to three of my best friends, have all gone natural, back to the way their hair was before six-to-eight-week touch-ups and purposely not scratching in fear of the sizzling burn that happens when chemicals seep into those itched spots. (Child, I’m cringing just at the thought of it.)
I don’t feel compelled to cut out my perm in order to prove my authenticity to or dedication for my Blackness.
At the same time, I don’t feel compelled to cut out my perm in order to prove my authenticity to or dedication for my Blackness. If I do grow it out—and I suspect I probably will, at some point—it won’t be for that reason because it’s about what’s in my head, not on it, that makes me a conscious sister. Once upon a time, I was in a graduate program in one of the most respected African American Studies departments in the country. Needless to say, all of the students were, on the outside anyway, super militant, all dishekis and “brother this” and “sista that”—and of course, capped off with all kinds of beautiful locs, afros and twists. I was the only person in the department with chemically processed hair (save the secretary, who made it quite clear that she was there to work, not start a revolution). I became an outcast of sorts because I was—at least in their minds—playing into the mental conditioning they were supposedly fighting so hard to reverse. We won’t talk about how Baby Afrika Bambaatta turned out to be shacking up with a white girl named Amy or how the power-to-the-people soul sistas talked about me, a fellow Black queen, every time I breathed oxygen. That was irrelevant. With my hair permed, I couldn’t really be down for the cause and to them, that made me a sellout.
After that experience, I became even more determined to be unapologetic for perming my tresses. I, like my hair, relaxed. Years later, I’m still perming, still trying to get past that mid-shoulder length, still going to the Dominican shop every other Saturday for a fresh wash and set and a deep condition. I am admittedly ready for a change, but it’s not because I’ve had some sudden revelation like relaxer, bad; natural hair, better. Sistas have made an art of changing their look—between weaves, twists, locs, braids, colors, texturizers, perms, cuts and design, we really should have an ongoing exhibit up in somebody’s museum. As a creative person, I think I’m running out of things to do with my hair the way it is now. But if and when I do decide to go natural, I will never assume that my decision has given me one up on the Black hand side.