No Straight Answers

I have to be at work at 7 a.m. tomorrow so I really should be asleep right now. There are no wild parties going on across the street tonight to keep me entertained and awake.

So what's my problem? I suppose it's just a matter of thinking too much, thinking about all the people, places, things and ideas whirling through my head. Some of these thoughts have been spurred by my decision to flat iron my hair tonight. It took me a good hour to flat-iron all my hair, so I had ample time to psychoanalyze myself and the debates I have with myself over my hair. I'll tell you a few of them.

I was very aware at a very young age that my hair needed to be tied up, braided, greased, and pressed and sizzled into a state of decency and appropriateness. I didn't even know what my natural texture of hair looked like as a child. I never wore my hair unstraightened in public until 1996.

Meanwhile, every white girl I went to school with had the long, flowing ponytail that blew freely in the wind and bounced with joy as she turned her head. My hair did not flip. It did not bounce. It was pressed straight, braided and pinned to my head. And I knew I better not run too much at recess because the sweat would make my hair go back to the state of undesired nappiness.

I went to Catholic school for grade school and going to Mass comes with the territory. I absolutely loved going to Mass, even though I wasn't Catholic. I loved the prayers. I loved the singing. I had the Apostle's Creed completely memorized. Then, one day, while kneeling in the pew, the girl next to me passed me a few strands of her hair and said, "Maybe if you pray hard enough, God will make your hair straight like mine." There were soft snickers of laughter and I recall feeling so confused, so embarrassed. And angry.

Who was I angry at? I was angry at those girls, of course. But, I was also angry at my mom. Since my mom is black and my dad is Irish, it felt like it was her fault for making my hair different, for making it nappy. I can't tell you how many times I've had it said to me by other black folks, "You're mixed? I wouldn't have known! I mean, you don't even have 'good' hair." What's good hair? Think about most of the black women you see in commercials. Does their hair look like the average black woman you see walking down the street? Nope! They always have the bouncy curly hair on their heads, the Halle Berry and Alicia Keys hair. The Mariah Carey hair.

As a teacher in Compton, I saw the little Black girls in my classroom stroking the hair of the Latina girls and saying, "I wish I had your hair. It's so pretty and long." Most of those nine-year old Black girls had their hair braided with extensions or had the braided and controlled look I had grown up with.

A year ago, I had to get my hair cut to chin length because I'd gotten it braided over the summer. I thought it would be fun and different. Unfortunately, the fake hair that got braided in with my own hair also broke off all of my hair. I had to cut it because it broke so unevenly. It was a bit traumatizing to have my hair that short. I know other black women that are reading this can relate to the fear that your hair will never grow back. Of course, it did grow back and it's long again like it's been most of my life. I'm left with the fun decisions of if I'll wear my hair natural and nappy, pressed, relaxed, texturized or braided, or do I get a blond weave like everyone's favorite black female role model, Beyonce?

It all ends up feeling political. I have to ask myself, how much of my decisions around how I wear my hair every day are based on societal pressures instead of what I actually like? And how do I know if I really decided to flat-iron my hair tonight because I sometimes like it straight? Or did I do it because I am giving presentations all day tomorrow for work and I know that in America, straight hair equals professionalism? How can I be sure?


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