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For those weaves? Yes, wear that weave, girl. You've earned it.

All Black men of a certain age--with sisters and daughters--share a singular set of unforgettable memories tinged in terror and gratefulness. Some of the recollections come from childhood, others from when we were young fathers. But none of us can ever forget ... watching, hearing and smelling the horror as baby girl got her hair "straightened" by mama.

In a tenement apartment on Maryland Avenue in northeast Washington, D.C., I was one of countless little boys who gawked at the Torturous Hair Dance. It seemed to go on all the time before me, and it went on between Black mothers and daughters everywhere.

I shuddered at the ominous metal comb and curling iron sitting inside a blue kerosene flame on a tiny stove near my mother's weary tight hand.

"Sorry, baby," she uttered again and again to my sister, as the hot comb singed her scalp, "but you've got to keep still."

As my mother worked diligently, using shiny fingers on patch after small patch of hair, I felt so bad for my big sister Barbara and little sister LaVerne, squirming and shrieking as the fizzling comb made them constantly wipe crystal rivulets off their cheeks.

Years later, as a dad, the tearful trauma played out with my daughter Dionne and her late mother, Victoria--this time without fire, but still painfully with plastic combs and brushes, picks and pomades.

And how many men and boys had the same head-shaking sentiment as I did: I feel so sorry for ya baby girl, but I'm so glad that ain't me! And knowing that they endured that punishing regimen weeks after agonizing years, is it any wonder Sisters are such sturdy and resilient beings?

Whenever anyone--especially comically coiffed downs--starts lip-flapping about Black women and their braids, their weaves, wigs, extensions, locs, tracks or tape, or about whatever gymnastics they go through regarding their hair, I say shut up, and understand this: Our Queens have richly earned the tight to do whatever they want in their eternal march of loveliness.

No group ever suffered as much in the name of pride, confidence and beauty as all those countless Black baby girls, sister girls, mama girls and granny girls. And the hot-comb sessions were only part of a 300-year struggle against anonymity when our women rarely got to show their beauty at all--much less their hair.

In slavery, Sisters were ruled by people who cared more about the grooming of their farm animals than they did about their human property--mothers and daughters. Back then, Black women's heads were almost always covered by rags. Field rags-knotted in back. Domestic rags--like Aunt Jemima--tied in front. Church rags--tied coquettishly over the right ear. And at night? Sleeping rags, the discarded stockings of Miss Lady.

Slow-moving decades brought increasing freedoms until finally those awful rags fell away. And once all that mysterious hair--fascinating, unique, precious and complicated--went public, Black women were never going to be under a reign of rags again.

They proceeded to do anything and everything to show off their Crowning Glory. At various historical times, they moved forth and back through hot combs, curling irons, crinklers, natu rals, straighteners, conditioners, perms, afros, relaxers, colorings, grease, braids, cold waves, corn rows, extensions, weaves and even wigs. No group ever worked harder and spent more time, effort, agony and energy in the name of pride, confidence and beauty.

Meanwhile, from the neck down, sporting a wide palette of skin colors and hair textures, Sisters profoundly changed the "pale" rules about appearance. They became pioneers--uncredited of course--of the fun, creative and communal arts that are style, fashion and beauty.

Today, women of all cultures are just like me: constantly checking out what The Sisters are up to. They remain edgy and elegant leaders promoting bold colors, flashy fabrics, unique tailoring, astonishing bling, fancy fingernails and prettified feet. A whole world of women are spending billions desperately pursuing their full, glistening lips, their tanned skin and their ripe, round booties.

And when it comes to that controversial hair? Sometimes other cultures just steal the ebony flourish: Think of Bo Derek's cornrows in the movie 10 or Barbra Streisand's 'fro in A Star Is Born.

And in the end, even when women from other cultures can't effectively pilfer, they stand in mute admiration thinking, "Only a Black woman could pull off THAT look."

Black women, the ones who have suffered and strived and worked and played at experimentation to be freer and oh-so beautiful, get nothing from me but awe and respect.

Or to put it another way: Baby girls, I understand what you've been through, and I'm here to say "carry on" with your superfine selves.

David E. Early is a veteran magazine and newspaper writer, and an assistant city editor at the San Jose Mercury News. He is also the father of a nowgrown daughter.
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Title Annotation:TWO SIDES
Author:Early, David E.
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2008
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