My heart hurts. It aches for my nappy-headed compatriots. I recently read another e-mail forum response from a woman who signed her message as "Successful Black Woman," and then proceeded to explain why it's critical that African Americans perm into oblivion all of their natural hair traits so that we can be deemed acceptable to society.
Black self-hate is so incredibly powerful, I am often awestruck by its singeing sovereignty in the hearts and minds of so many of my people. Surely, by now, the force has become incarnate—something with horns, perhaps.
I need to say from the outset that I absolutely love my hair. Four years ago I went to someone certified in the Sisterlocks hair system to start the locking process. Sisterlocks aren't very common in this area, but in a nutshell, the locks are much thinner than traditional locks. Most people don't know what they are, and I'm frequently stopped by black women asking, "What are those?" and "Is that your real hair?"
Mal, who tightens my locks every six weeks or so, says a lot of black women find it difficult to believe that their hair can be both beautiful and natural. I know she's right. I endured 40 years of hair abuse to get to this point, starting with "creamy crack"—what locked sisters call the crème relaxers—braids, two-strand twists and extensions. I have spent thousands of dollars over the years committing crimes against nature. And yet, the choice to wear locks was a difficult one; I spent six months researching and thinking about it. And yes, I did wonder what "society" would think ... but not for long. The hubby was like, "Whatever makes you happy," and that was all I needed to hear. I picked a style, and the day my locks were started was truly one of the happiest, most freeing days of my life.
Which is why comments like the ones from Successful Black Woman are so disheartening. The debate began anew when a college student cut off his locks so he could get an internship at Black Enterprise magazine. I don't judge; it was his decision to make, and I hope it worked out for him. What I find hard to tolerate are those African Americans who really believe that in order to be successful, you have to do all you can to slip past employers without them noticing that—gasp!—you're black.
Listen to Earl Graves, Black Enterprise's publisher, in February 2000: "Simply put, we must remove every reason—including things as superficial as our style of hair or dress—that an advertiser, an event sponsor, a subscriber, a job candidate and even a co-worker might have for not wanting to do business with us."
Anyone seen Earl lately? You can spot his oversized, 1970s-Superfly-pork chop sideburns from 50 feet away. If you honestly think your hair is the only thing preventing you from getting a job, you've got another think coming.
My 14-year-old daughter prefers perms (or relaxers, the correct term for most of us). I would love to see her with Sisterlocks, but it's not my decision. She is a free spirit, loud, intelligent, funny and athletic. And she likes her hair the way it is. She has a handful of close friends, white and black. Her music preference is metalcore, like Boys Like Girls and Jump Suit Apparatus. I strongly dislike their music, but again, it's not up to me. I would no more demand she only listen to certain types of music than demand she stop using chemicals on her hair. My job is to help her be as healthy, successful and happy as possible, and it doesn't have a thing to do with her hair.
My 18-year-old son is into the art of graffiti, anime, martial arts and Japanese. His world is rap, break dancing and some skateboarding—and his locks were started just over a year ago. He collects friends like fleece collects lint. In fact, they are very much like lint—different colors and shapes, some of indeterminate origin. He is quiet and his unfailing respect for others has parents and professors raving about what a great person he is. I don't like the way he chooses to wear his clothes, but I honor the young man he's become and his decision to major in graphic design. I can't imagine him working anywhere where artistic expression, personal or professional, is restricted. He wouldn't want to, and I wouldn't want that for him.
I like to believe my own diverse tastes and style helped my children to know that they're free to be who they are, as long as they do not buy into the false tenets of a make-believe culture that negates their heritage or the pervasive abstraction that there are degrees of blackness: You can't have white friends, or like rock music, or you can't be successful if you dress and act "too black" or if you are sporting locks.
I've heard that crap all my life. I think '60s Motown and '70s soul comprise the best music ever created. But am I less black because between Al Jarreau and Kanye West are CDs of Elton John, Steely Dan and Carole King? Or am I too black, because my strong, healthy locks flow past my shoulders, or because I have a bookcase filled with African-American literature? Do the Shakespeare and Stephen King collections balance it out? Is it OK if I still listen to NPR on the weekends?
If I ever thought I needed others' approval to be myself, I'd likely be dead by now. Dead, because my internal organs would have burst from the persistent compression as I wound and twisted myself into a knotted, pretzel-like being to suit everyone's belief of how I should look, act and sound, complete with a lobotomy to ensure I'd be incapable of original thought. india.arie summed it up well in her 2005 hit, "I Am Not My Hair": "If I wanna shave it close or I wanna rock locks, that don't take a bit away from this soul that I got."
If people are freakin' out over locks, it's because of the chains on their brains—like Successful Black Woman, who insists that by embracing all those things that ensure our hair never is seen in its natural state, we ensure our acceptance in the country into which we were born, America, not Africa (her distinction, not mine).
I am so very, very proud to be an American. But tell me: What is American hair?
Thus, the heartache. I feel sorry for people like her who are so brainwashed that she can't even see all the happily locked and successful black professionals likely in her midst. Probably something with horns blocking her view.