In college I didn’t know what my real hair looked like. That’s because it spent 90% of the time in braid extensions. I kept them in for months at a time and had developed a strategic timetable for when to take them down.

It had to be a weekend — preferably a long weekend. Beauty shops were closed on Sundays, so I’d have to start taking the braids down on Friday, right after class was up, and work through the night in time for a Saturday appointment, which typically lasted 6 to 7 hours. This left little to no window of time when my college classmates could see my hair. I sent my roommates to the dining hall with my meal card for food, and hungrily at the apples, yogurt and granola they returned with as I dexterously pulled out my braids, flecks of dirt and dandruff flying everywhere.

By my junior year I had this routine down pat, but during my freshman year I was still getting adjusted. One Fall weekend I miscalculated my “braid takedown time” and found myself on a Sunday — with no beauty shop in town open and Monday classes around the corner, panicking in my dorm room with my dirty 4-inch afro.

My friends Liz and Kristin, both black, huddled around my bewildered head. They washed the fro — which seemed to make it even more intractable. Then, taking ginger stabs with the comb, tried to style it into submission. It was too short for a pony. Too wild-looking with a headband. Too unkempt for a shake-and-go.

Finally Kristin ran her hands through the angry knots on my head “Ceeelieee,” she called out in her best Oprah-Winfrey-as-Harpo voice, then fell back onto the dorm bed laughing hysterically.

I didn’t think it was funny.

Kristin spent the next few days apologizing. But that incident stayed with me.

Recently, one of my blog readers sent an email.

“It’s been fun/frustrating figuring out my hair texture and what it likes. The problem is my mother has berated me everyday since (which has only been for 2-3 weeks). Yesterday she said the following “What’s wrong with your hair?” “You look like a slave””

Slave, field hand, buckwheat, Celie. It sounds so familiar. Many people still associate natural hair with these things. They hear the word “natural” and their minds trail off to black-and-white photos of slave/sharecropping families, standing smilelessly against barn walls, hair more knotted than their tired brows.

Instinctually, this association makes me angry. But I also understand why people make it.

As a disclaimer, I fully understand that there are people who — no matter how gorgeous the head of hair — will affiliate being natural with poverty and blight.

But it is also true that we as natural women aren’t quite there yet. Of course there are plenty success stories of women who go natural and proceed to grow out luscious, full heads of kinky, coily, curly hair.

But there are also plenty stories of natural women whose hair is dry, won’t grow, won’t even budge. Like natural hair of the early 1900s — a time of poor scalp health and virtually no education.

Did my poorly-cared-for freshman fro deserve to be derided? No. But it didn’t deserve to be applauded either. As black women we won’t be able to break the association of natural hair with “slave hair” until we learn how to manage our scalps and our strands, and release the bondage of stagnant, frustrating hair.

For more natural hair related commentary, news and inspiration please visit www.bglhonline.com.

— Leila Noelliste

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