A BRIEF HISTORY OF HAIR HATE
BY LORIEN PEREYRA
I avocado, 1 fully ripened banana, 1 egg, and equal parts castor oil to coconut oil. I combine the ingredients and massage the mixture into my wild locks. My hair is thick, like the main of a lion. But I am not a lion, and my hair does not need taming. My roots are thirsty, longing for love and affection that I did not give them for many years. The gentle caress of the hair mask against my curls breaths life into them again. Dry hair, a side effect of living in a dry climate during the winter months. But dry is just a temporary state, and 20-30 minutes later my curls are restored.
Beads, chains, ornaments, and jewels. Along the West Coast of Africa was a dazzling array of elaborate hairstyles, rich with culture and infused with melanin. The Fulani women of West Africa wore their hair like halos around their heads. Weaved like a glorious basket, a woman’s hair would have elaborate decorations either embedded in the hair or hanging off touching the edges of her face. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the hair fans out away from the face. Braids weaved together with other objects in order to shape the disc that surrounds the woman’s delicate features. Braids, curls, shaven heads, and cornrows. Hair was a symbol, a beautiful display of elegance and status. The hairstyles and natural ingredients varied from group to group. Nonetheless, it is demonstrative of the people’s use of natural elements in elevating their beauty.
I was 3 Years old when my aunt put a chemical relaxer into my hair. A relaxer is a harsh chemical that alters the protein bonds on the follicle. It would change curly hair to make it straighter by permanently breaking the bonds until it hung limp and lifeless.
I was 3 years old when my aunt, with intentions, only to make me feel more normal, slathered the white chemical smelling cream on my head. Her reason? They always said it was because I, at the age of 3, had expressed discontent with the delicate curls that framed my tiny face.
I was 3 years old when I was told that the hair that grew naturally out of my head was wrong.
In a successful attempt at erasing their culture and identity slave owners would mix slaves from different tribes. Languages, and customs that once united people, now kept them separate. To further this separation and to flex their control slave owners would force their slaves to shave their heads. Women were no longer decorated in the lavish hairstyles that had once graced their head. Traditions began to disappear.
Slaves where dehumanized. Their hair was compared and even referred to as “wool.” They were seen as animals less than their White owners. What once was beautiful with roots as rich as the cultures from where it was derived, was now seen as unacceptable, as bad.
“Pelo malo.” Bad hair. How could hair be bad? I don’t know, all I knew was that I have it, like a disease that needed to be kept at bay. It was a phrase that had been thrown around, like a deadly game of catch, and the only person hurt was me. My hair was in a constant battle with itself. My mom would rush me to a hair salon as soon as my roots would start to show. That just how relaxers are. They work for a bit and then once the roots would come in that part would need to be relaxed to match the rest of the hair.
“Bad hair,” that’s what I had. Hair that didn’t like to cooperate. Hair that would get so tangled that my head would throb at the end of a detangling session. Hair that had a mind of its own.
I would wrap my hair in what Dominicans called a “Tubi.” This was a method of preservation. The hair would be parted in the back and then wrapped around the head until you made it back to the start. Then to sleep the hair would be put inside a cap. I remember one time I tied the cap around my head so tight it hurt, I even felt a bit light headed. But in the morning my hair had never looked straighter.
Far from the natural hair remedies they used in Africa, slaves were reduced to bacon grease, butter and kerosene as hair products, and even using wool carding tools to comb their hair. The darker they were, the kinkier their hair, the less they were worth at auctions. The lighter skinned slaves with “good hair” had a higher price tag. How could one not internalize this bias that promoted the idea that blacks with those less desirable features were ugly, unattractive and unwanted?
Emancipation came and went yet still all were not equal. “Good hair” became the barrier for many black women when it came to attending churches, and being a part of different social networks. Natural hair became a method of “othering” black women. They faced pressure to assimilate into white culture and try to emulate white beauty standards. Metal hot combs became common in the states and were used to straighten kinky hair.
Picture perfect models dance across the screen in a way that I could never move. Golden locks flowing from the conveniently placed fan right below her on the catwalk. A type of beauty that I could never be. I would do countless hair treatments, hours in the salon and all in the hopes that my “bad hair” could be fixed. That somehow, by some miracle, my hair would be straight and soft to the touch by the end of the 3-hour appointment.
At the end of these appointments, there was only one rule: never get it wet! So on days when the sun shouted in my direction, I was not allowed to sweat. If it ever started to rain I would run under cover until I could either find an umbrella or an empty plastic shopping bag that I could put on my head as a protective cap.
I remember one summer my mother felt bad for me and she bought me a swimming cap. She wrapped my hair like she would with a Tubi and snapped that cap on. I was elated and definitely took advantage of that cap. I was finally able to get into the pool and play with my cousins and friends, instead of watching from the sidelines. When it was time to go, I got out of the water, and carefully I pulled off the rubber hat that had stuck to my hair and skin. The hair underneath was soaked, and I had to go get my hair washed and straightened again.
The civil rights movement became the time of unapologetically black. Afros burst out from scalps as signs of pride and rebellion. Angela Davis and her Afro became an icon, helping to empower more black men and women to do the same. In the 1970’s Cicely Tyson brought cornrows into fashion. Black women were empowered through these newly accepted styles created by their people for their hair. At the same time, people were being fired because of their Afros and cornrows were not “professional” enough.
The last half of the 20th century and the beginning of the next one the rise (and fall) of styles like the Jheri curl, flat tops, side fades, wigs, weaves, dreadlocks, head wraps and most recently natural curly hair. Slowly, piece-by-piece the eras of hair hate were being cut off. New love and appreciation were growing from these roots.
I am liberated. It’s my hair again. My limp dead and damaged hair hung around my head like shackles. And I cut them off. Little by little I trimmed the dead ends while nourishing the new growth at my roots. I had heard about the natural hair movement before and I decided to try it. My hair was curly once before, who is to say that it couldn’t be like that again?
I spent so much time rejecting who I was born to be. Rejecting the proud curls that would grow out of my scalp, and screamed to the world that I am of that seed. Yes, that seed. The one they tried to suppress and quench. My hair curled up to the sky in the unapologetic way that those before me raised their fist in solidarity.
We are the liberated children of men and women who were brave enough to proclaim and reclaim their identities. We are liberated. It is our hair again.