I know the feeling. Sometimes it seems like all we ever talk about is hair. But it's not our fault. It's a rule. You can't be a black woman writer in America and not talk about hair. They won't renew your license and, well, a black woman writing without a license in America? I guess you know the penalty for that.
So we talk about hair. Jerri curls and cold waves. Pomades and permanent press and whatever that stuff is that Patti LaBelle uses to make hers stick up and out and over like the demonic diva that she is. The thing is, I don't think it's fair. I don't think we should have to tell ten hair stories a year as part of our qualification process. I think publishing and performing and having plays produced is proof enough of being a writer.
But the licensing board doesn't see it that way. Their position is that hair was, is, and ever shall be so central to the lives of black women that anybody who really is one - a black woman, that is - would, in her very genes (and I don't mean Calvins!), be thinking and feeling and writing a lot of stuff about hair.
So far, they have turned a deaf ear to my protests, and the deadline for filing is coming up on January first, so now I find myself in the awkward position of not having told my quota of hair stories for the year. The rest of my application is complete, but this hair thing is really a problem, and when I cared the Licensing Board's office I was told "no extensions for troublemakers." So, as the Emperor said to Mozart, there it is.
But it isn't going to do me any good to get mad. It's too late now to file a formal protest and I can't make a living for a whole year without writing, so I have decided to comply with the requirements of the Board. But I'm going to do it in my own way ...all at the same time, in front of the same people, with no frills to make it cute, and no knowing wink to suggest that, since we are all cooler than that now, we can afford to laugh at this hair thing. Right? Right...
ONE: The first time I got my hair straightened I was eight years old. I didn't stop straightening it until I was eighteen. Ten years. During that time, I spent approximately two hours a day worrying about my hair. Two hours a day, times 365 days, times ten years. A total of seven thousand, three hundred hours!
I could have been doing cancer research.
I could have been sleeping.
I could have been making love...
See, the thing is, I know it's a rule, but I don't understand why. I can't figure out what it is we,re supposed to be getting at with all us talk about hair. I mean, how many gently amusing stories do we need to take us back to the golden years of those Saturday afternoon visits to the beauty shop surrounded by the hot combs and the hair straighteners and the lady taking numbers over the telephone while she clacked those curlers around my head in a rhythm as familiar to me as the movement of my own hips.
A brief digression: Do you remember, during one phase or another of The Cultural Revolution, groups of Chinese young people going around reciting loudly from Chairman Mao's little red took and interpreting the dictates of the revolution for the people who had to go to work (like people always do) and so didn't have time to study and shout the teacher's words of wisdom from the deck of a raft floating lazily down the Yangtze River and probably listing to the left as was befitting a craft of such revolutionary intent and intellectual craftsmanship?
They were committed to making sure that the ideas that had fueled their hard-fought revolution would be translated continuously to those who needed to hear them the most, so they shouted the contradictions out loud as part of the healing; process. (That's also why China has all those murals of heroic men and women striding toward the future, shoulder to shoulder, noble brow to noble brow, racism and sexism merely memories from another more decade time ... )
I wonder what they would have said about hair. I wonder what we would say if we set out on a woman-made raft to correct the misinformation, and reclaim the beauty, and right the wrong and sing the song of our own black loveliness?
There is clearly something to be said that hasn't been said. I'm not sure what or how, but I know that the way we're doing it now is just going for the cheap laugh. The slave's advantage, as if there could be a slave's advantage. It excuses us from communicating the intricate, infinite complexities of our lives in the sloppy shorthand that leads down the road to Murray's and Dixie Peach and Johnson's pressing oil and worrying about, TWO, whether or not you should slow dance with a boy who sets your soul on fire because it's July in Detroit and it might mess up your hair on the cheek-to-cheek side so badly that you would be self-conscious and unable to relax for the rest of the night.
I like it better now. I can slow dance as long as I want and my hair doesn't reveal a thing. I could, for example, have spent this very afternoon slow dancing my ass off and you would never know it if I didn't tell you. And I will never tell you. That's not my style ...
But that's also neither here nor there. Discourse about afternoon slow dancing and the possibilities of grown-up, non-monogamous love, and the raising of sane and thoughtful and affectionate children, and the methods necessary to take over the world and still remain human beings is not allowed, because whenever we get together, we're supposed to bolt the door and dim the fights and look at each other and say, "O-o-o-o-o-o! This terrible hair!"
And who decided that anyway? I don't remember being asked about whether or not it's really funny to, THREE, remember how the hot grease felt when your mother wasn't paying attention and it dripped from the red hot comb down onto your neck before you could catch it with the towel your mother had lying nearby to test the heat of the comb every time she drew it out of the flame of the kitchen stove, because that's where we did hair, in the kitchen, and there would be something cooking. At Mrs. McMahan's, who did our hair all through Junior High School, it was usually red beans and rice, and men friends who always brought six packs of beer and whose laughter made my mother nervous when she came to pick us up, since Mrs. McMahan was always doing somebody's hair, and cracking that gum, and smoking those cigarettes with the red lipstick on the filter tip end, and rolling her eyes and telling the jokes that made the men laugh like that in the first place, all at the same time.
See, what I'm getting at is, if we still have to tell these ten-a-year hair stories to satisfy our license requirements, let's at least tell them differently. Let's tell them from another point of view so we'll stop thinking they are simply harmless female bonding lessons, and see them for the self-hate horror stories that they really are.
FOUR, my earliest hair memory is being saddened, by the realization that, while I had my father's hair, my mother had wavy chestnut hair like Jo, the middle sister in Little Women, had before she cut it off to sell because Marmee needed the money, or like the heroine of O. Herry's tale of the self-sacrificing newlywed who sold her hair to buy her beloved husband a watch charm not knowing that he had sold his watch to buy her a decorative comb which, when pulled slowly from where it secured the shining curls, would release the shimmering cascade of hair that Tina Turner used to dream about before she put Ike out and became a Buddhist and asked the immortal question, What's love got to do with it?
What indeed! You may as well ask why we keep talking about hair even as the raft rounds the comer by Ray's Restaurant on the River and we raise our small red books at the diners who have taken an ill-advised stroll in the moonlight just as we open our well-rehearsed mouths to say," "O-o-o-o-o-o! This terrible hair!
Three of my first cousins on my mother's side had "good" hair. FIVE, they got it from their father, my uncle Buddy, a large, Italian-looking black man with a bushy mustache and an abundance of thick, wavy black hair the likes of which show up rarely enough in black America for it to be the cause of rejoicing on both sides of the family if it makes it through that crucial first year without turning to fuzz.
Uncle Buddy parted his hair on the side and brushed it to the left in a symphony of confident curls and greasily voluptuous waves that drove his wife crazy and earned him a well-deserved reputation as a ladies man. His three daughters, my cousins, inherited his hair. It made them instant stars in our neighborhood and was a sore point between us throughout our childhood and adolescent years.
Okay. Now our raft is steaming along toward that place on the river where people dive off every summer and get killed because of hidden rocks or stumps or something that doesn't move but they seem to believe will, or has, as they step off into space, laughing drunkenly the moment before they hit the water with a final splash and go down, down, down for the third time.
SIX, I decided to stop straightening my hair when I was eighteen. It was 1968 and black was arguably more beautiful than it had been at any other time since I had been alive. I delivered the news to my smooth-faced young boyfriend, who, looked at me in horror and withdrew his premedical school arm from its customary place on my shoulder and said, a bit self-righteously, I thought, even then.
"Well, you do what you want, but I'll never touch your hair again." Now that was quite a blow to me since he was the first lover I had ever had, and the only reason we had reached such status was my absolute conviction that we would marry upon graduation and remain together to the grave and beyond throughout all eternity. I was not, after all, a fast girl.
I tried to picture making love throughout eternity with him being careful to avoid any contact with my afroed head. It was not a pretty picture.
SEVEN, but he wasn't the first to let me know that my hair left a little something to be desired. There was the evening when my mother fluffed my four-year-old natural around my head like a golden crown and led me innocently in to bask in the anticipated delight and affection of my father. When my father looked up from his desk to find me grinning in the doorway, he masked his irritation with a quick smile.
Look at your beautiful daughter," said my mother, pushing me into the room. My father patted my shoulder gently, his eyes flickering over my hair, a longer, lighter replica of his own in an un-Murrayed state. He said, "It's not quite long enough for her to wear it down yet, is it?"
Now I was only four, but I was old enough to know that "not quite long enough" was a polite way of saying "not quite good enough," as in the phrase she got that good stuff, when applied to hair. Good in this context needed no qualifiers. Good could stand alone. We all knew what it meant and we were humble, especially since "good hair" often occurred along with other oppressed-community-defined qualities of beauty, such as lighter-toned skin, sharper features, and, every now and then, the wonder of light eyes.
In fact (EIGHT) ever since the kids in my elementary school established that I was not an albino, I was allowed into the "fine" category simply on the basis of two out of three. I was certainly light enough and I had blue eyes. The fact that I didn't have "good hair" was overlooked as unfortunate, but not terminal, and on the strength of the two things I did have, people sometimes consciously or unconsciously upgraded the quality of my hair by several huge notches. This accounted for a pomade-waved paramour's shocked surprise at the condition of my sweat-soaked hairdo as we parted after a particularly satisfying slow dance.
"I thought," he said indignantly "that you had good hair!" Undoubtedly this boy was what is known as "color struck"; otherwise the condition of my pageboy would have been of less consequence to him than the fact that we had been grinding in perfect synch throughout "If This World Were Mine." I probably would have kissed him in a friendly sort of promissory way if he hadn't acted such a fool.
(NINE) this presumption of light skin "good" hair also accounted for the time a new beautician rinsed the soap out of my locks to discover a thickly tangled brown mass instead of the limply obedient curls she'd expected. "She's too light to be growing some shit like this," she hissed to her friend behind the next chair, rolling her eyes in my direction as if I had willed my roots to crinkle just to fuck with her Friday.
Okay. Last one.
My sister, aged twenty and in the throes of the black cultural revolution and her first love affair, cut her shoulder-length. hair into a beautiful afro about the size and shape of Kathleen Cleaver's when she married Eldridge. She put on a pair of dangling African earrings and went over to show off the new look to my grandmother
We rang the front doorbell and my grandmother peeked out the window to see who it was. Catching sight of my sister's hair, my grandmother's smile hardened into a line of disapproval. She flung open the door and shook her pale bony finger in my sister's flushed face.
"What have you done?" she demanded, her voice trembling with indignation. "If God had intended your hair to look like that, he would have made it that way!"
My sister looked at my grandmother and said in a tone that mirrored complete confusion but no disrespect, "Say what?" And my grandmother said, "O-o-o-o-o-o! This terrible hair!"
Pearl Cleage is an Atlanta-based creative writer and journalist. She is the editor of Catalyst, a literary journal. "Hair-peace" was written as a performance piece.
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|Title Annotation:||Section 1: Black South Culture; requirement for Afro-American women writers to discuss hair|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1993|
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