My Dreadlocks, My Self

I sometimes let my hair do the talking

| September-October 1999

I have two relationships with the outside world: One is with my hair, and the other is with the rest of me. Sure, I have concerns and points of pride with my body. I like the curve of my butt but dislike my powerhouse thighs. My breasts, once considered too small, have been proclaimed perfect so often that not only am I starting to believe the hype, but also am booking my next vacation to a topless resort in Greece. But my hair. Oh, my hair.

I have reddish brown dreadlocks that fall just below shoulder length. Eventually, they will cover my aforementioned breasts, at which time I will give serious thought to nude modeling at my local art school. I like my hair—a lot. But over the last eight years my dreadlocks have conferred upon me the following roles: rebel child, Rasta mama, Nubian princess, drug dealer, unemployed artist, rock star, world-famous comedienne, and nature chick. None of which is true. It has occurred to me more than once that my hair is a whole lot more interesting than I am.

Because I am a black woman, I have always had a complicated relationship with my hair. Here's a quick primer on the politics of hair and beauty aesthetics in the black community vis-à-vis race and class in the late 20th century: "Good" hair is straight and, preferably, long. Think Naomi Campbell. Diana Ross. For that matter, think RuPaul. "Bad" hair is thick and coarse, aka "nappy," and, often, short. Think Buckwheat in The Little Rascals. Not the more recent version, but the old one in which Buckwheat looked like Don King's grandson.

Understand that these are stereotypes: broad and imprecise. Some will say that the idea of "good" hair and "bad" hair is outdated. And it is less prevalent than in the '70s when I was growing up. Sometimes I see little girls with their hair in braids and Senegalese twists sporting cute little T-shirts that say happy to be nappy and I get teary-eyed. I was born between the black power Afros of the '60s and the blue contact lenses and weaves of the '80s; in my childhood, no one seemed happy to be nappy at all.

I knew from the age of 4 that I had "bad" hair because my relatives and family friends discussed it as they might discuss a rare blood disease. "Something must be done," they would cluck sadly. "I think I know someone," an aunt would murmur, referring to a hairdresser as if she were a medical specialist. Some of my earliest memories are of Brooklyn apartments where women did hair for extra money. These makeshift beauty parlors were lively and loud, the air thick with the smell of lye from harsh relaxer, the smell of hair burning as the hot straightening comb did its job.

When did I first begin to desire hair that bounced? Was it because black Barbie wasn't, and still isn't, happy to be nappy? Was it Brenda, the redhead, my best friend in second grade? Every time she flicked her hair to the side, she seemed beyond sophistication. My hair bounced the first day back from the hairdresser's, but not much longer. "Don't sweat out that perm," my mother would call. But I found it impossible to sit still. Hairdressers despaired like cowardly lion tamers at the thought of training my kinky hair. "This is some hard hair," they would say. I knew that I was not beautiful and I blamed it on my hair.

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