Today, an opinion-documentary from the New York Times was featured in my Facebook timeline. It represents the view of Zina Saro-Wiwa, a British-Nigerian film-maker and writer (and daughter of the late Ken Saro-Wiwa).
In it she explains how she planned to be an objective observer of the transitioning movement and ended up being a participant herself. What is transitioning? It is that process where a Black woman cuts off her chemically straightened hair and embraces her natural hair texture. If you are not a Black woman or familiar with one you may be wondering what the big deal is. After all, there are lots of non-Black women out there who straighten their hair chemically or with daily heat, or who are “bottle blondes” and have been since they were old enough to control their hair styles.
Well it is a big deal. Black women and their relationship with their hair is a topic on which theses have been written, films have been made, forums have been created, and social media thrives on. It is a topic that keeps coming up to the joy of some and annoyance of others. But what I found different about Ms. Saro-Wiwa’s analysis was her observance that the “transitioning movement” has been a silent one, one so silent that it has spoken volumes. It is indeed about self-acceptance.
I myself “transitioned” without knowing that I was transitioning. In those days the movement was not yet a movement. To give some background, unlike a lot of other Black women whose hair was relaxed when they were children my hair did not lose it’s virginity to relaxers (aka creamy crack) until I was 14 years old. Previous to that I enjoyed having my hair braided, corn-rowed, and plaited (with thread). I did however look forward to the rare occasions that my hair would be hot-combed straight (and my ears singed!) so that I too could flip my hair and run a comb smoothly through it.
But at age 14, I had come to the United States from Ghana, and wearing braids and plaits was simply not an acceptable look for a young woman. I will admit, that my cry of resistance was weak. As much as I enjoyed the braiding sessions and the various styles, in a way I understood that relaxing my hair was one more badge to collect on the way to womanhood. The alternative would have been to cut off all the hair in order to go to secondary school in Ghana and I definitely did not want to do that! (cue in discussion about women’s desires to have hair on their head – the longer the better mentality).
I found my years under the influence of relaxers to be a bore. I would not say that I became addicted to the creamy crack nor was my mind really enslaved to the mentality that I must have straight hair. It wasn’t particularly costly for me as my mother would buy the relaxing kit and relax my hair every 2-3 months at home in order to chemically straighten any new growth. But it was such an odd experience punishing my new growth with this foul odoured product for which gloves had to be worn to apply it. A product for which I had to be sure to smear petroleum jelly around my hairline and on my ears just in case any of it strayed onto bare skin. A product that I knew was working once it started to “burn” my scalp. And then once it was washed out, my mother would proceed to curl my hair on rollers for either blow-drying (on the highest heat setting of course) or air drying. Imagine, I just took out curls from my head in order to put curls in my hair! And then I would proceed to wear pony-tail after pony-tail because I did not know what else to do with it. Boring!
But I continued this way until I got to college. There had been one girl in high school who wore her hair naturally in an afro but she walked to her own tune in so many different ways. In college there were a handful of women who also wore their hair naturally. But there was no movement. No nappy awareness as the Americans would say. (Yes, for me a nappy is still a baby’s diaper, a used one at that!) In the beginning, I would return home for my mother to relax the new growth. As I began to feel more at home on campus, I found another Ghanaian student on campus to do it for me. Thus I never found my way into a salon. When this student graduated years before me, I had decided that I wasn’t going to travel home just for the sake of getting my hair done and I didn’t want to explore salons nor give up $50 – $80 of my money to do so.. So I simply stopped “living the lye” after this 4-5 year “odd experience”. My hair was not falling out in clumps, I had not developed any areas of alopecia or any other damage. And I hadn’t really spent too much money down that way. It just wasn’t for me. For the remainder of college I simply wore my hair in braid extensions because I did not know what else to do.
Was it easy? No. I was beginning to apply for medical school and I was so afraid that my hair would be looked at negatively and I wouldn’t get in any where. Can you believe this? But my fears were not unfounded. Have Black women not been asked to not wear certain (natural) hairstyles in the workplace? No, back then I was very conscious of being different because my hair was different.
I do remember that one day in my senior year I took down my braids and washed my hair. When I looked in the mirror I had about a 5 inch afro all around with an additional 6 inch + pitiful looking limp straight ends. So truly pitiful! Scissors in hand, I walked over to a friend’s room (an Ethiopian who did not relax her naturally curly hair) and had her cut off the straight ends. It was an exciting occasion, no not liberating at all, but a fearfully exciting occasion. I do remember feeling my texture and being in awe then attempting to plait it myself with thread but ending up looking totally unkempt which in itself was not so bad as my college was a women’s college (so who was I going to look silly in front of) however, I did end up scaring a number of white women coming around corners and in dark staircases. They must have thought I was a life size gollywog of sorts. Something had to be done! LOL!
So back to braid extensions it was. That summer, summer of 2000, now living with boys from a neighbouring college, I again took down my braids and after washing my hair received a lot of positive comments from my house-mates. One offered to shape it for me so here we were. I let him have the liberty. It wasn’t exactly a “big chop” but in retrospect, that was my big chop moment, if any remnant of relaxed hair had remained after the previous hair cut, it was certainly gone with this one. That was probably my liberating moment – liberating because boys liked my hair! Who needs medical school to accept me?! Yes, I am that shallow, but seriously, I had barely left my teens, this was a very important milestone. It was also at that time that I discovered online forums for Black women wanting to wear their hair naturally. I still wore braid extensions though, for another 4 months through the fall – the first half of first year medical school. This time for whatever reason, when I took down the extensions my hair felt wretched and I simply chose to never ever wear fake hair (ie. one not growing from hair bulbs under my scalp) again.I gave myself another major haircut this time using a ruler to cut inches away all over my head myself – I do not recommend this method!
I transitioned without knowing that I was transitioning, before there was even a label placed on the process of accepting one’s God-given kinky curly hair.
It has been 15 years since my last dose of creamy crack. 12 years since I last added fake hair to my scalp (extensions). 7 years since I last run a flaming tool of torture (hot comb) through my hair. 6 years since I stopped looking for the Holy Grail that would “define my curls” and make it look like somebody elses and begun to accept my unique tight coils and inevitable shrinkage. And through the years I have realized that I have become more confident in my looks and more critical of the products I apply to my skin and what I ingest. This transitioning movement has been more than hair. It’s a whole lifestyle of loving one-self just as God created and doing whatever possible to respect one’s body. It’s a luxury few women, of any ethnicity, share. But yes, it is much easier for me to lift my head up high because there are so many more like me out there, silently approving of ourselves, even though we do not need approval of each other or anyone else.