As a black woman, I knew that mothering three daughters meant a great deal of my time was going to be devoted to doing hair.
The rituals hadn’t changed much since my sisters and I were young. Our mother would spend hours washing, drying, detangling and straightening our hair with hot combs, oils and pomades.
It was the price that black girls had to pay in a Eurocentric world, where good grooming was synonymous with smooth, straight hair — “good hair” in our black vernacular of the day.
But black folks’ hair tends to grow out, like a halo, instead of down, like a mane. And all the work that goes into taming our kinks can be undone by the mere whisper of rain.
By the time my daughters were old enough to understand the challenge, hot combs had been replaced by relaxers, extensions and braids. And I had become my mother, spending hours weaving their hair into dozens of long sleek plaits.
It wasn’t the “slippery hair” of their white suburban classmates, and the style was sometimes mocked or misunderstood by nonblack friends. But it gave my girls the freedom to play soccer, run track and swim.
Now, almost two decades later, I have a baby granddaughter whose hair is a tall mound of fluffy spirals. They sprout like flowers from a field of stubborn ringlets that I hope one day she will love.
Natural styles — dreadlocks, twists, braids, Afros, Bantu knots — seem to be trending, from the red carpet to Capitol Hill. Even Michelle Obama, always carefully coiffured, is allowing her long thick hair to be its free-flowing self.
Black hair salons have felt the evolution; fewer customers today are asking for the traditional press-and-curl.
“It’s about practicality,” said stylist Kim Dafney, owner of Kim’s Touch of Class Hair Design in Northridge. “People want simplicity, something they can manage all week. … And not just black people. Whites come in for braids, twists and extensions — styles that blacks have worn for years.”
But for black women the choice can have broader dimensions. It’s a return to styles that our ancestors wore, a visible connection to the African diaspora, a way to untangle the complicated relationship many of us have with our hair.
Its texture, its fragility, its temperamental curls and kinks can be a burden one day, and the next a glorious mane. It can limit where we work and how we play. Its grooming rituals can take an entire day.
That sometimes feels like living under a dictatorship. I can’t … because my hair.
In the ‘60s, my generation responded with the Afro, signaling a revolution. But the natural hair movement of today feels more like a revival — a communal embrace of a trait that we’ve been conditioned to revile.
There’s something wrong when Kim Kardashian West gets 2 million likes on Instagram for the same hairstyle that gets black women labeled “ghetto” and locked out of professional jobs. She called it “Bo Derek braids,” but we know those “cornrows” have African roots.
Stories abound of black hair being a trigger for discrimination.
The issue drew national attention last year, when a black high school wrestler in New Jersey was humiliated by a white referee, who forced him to either forfeit his match or have his dreadlocks publicly lopped off. The young man lost his locks and won the match, but his tear-stained face fueled social media outrage.
Yet employers have for years, with the assent of the courts, been demoting, firing or refusing to hire black women who deign not to straighten their hair and choose natural styles instead.
And in predominantly white schools, black girls are being suspended for wearing their hair in Afros or braids, because the styles are deemed “inappropriate” or considered a “distraction” in the classroom.
The cascade of cases prompted state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) to sponsor legislation this year that made California the first state in the nation to outlaw discrimination in workplaces or public schools against black people who wear natural hairstyles. Several other states are in the process of following suit.
Mitchell has worn her hair in tiny dreadlocks, called sister locs, for the past 15 years. “I don’t have time for high-maintenance hair,” she said. “I’ve done it all — pressed, braided, cut it off for short naturals two or three times over the years.”
The new law pushes back against the perception that there is something inherently untidy about black people’s natural hair, something discomforting about its very appearance.
“The language they’re using,” Mitchell said, “is that if I braid my daughter’s hair and send her to school then that’s somehow inappropriate — that she has a responsibility to not be a distraction to others. That is so deeply offensive to me.”
Jasmine Hamilton learned the hard way why the new law is needed, though it came too late to help her.
She wore her hair straight for the interview that landed her first corporate job, with a giant retail chain. But when she came to work one day with her own natural halo of curls, her manager pulled her aside and asked what she’d done to her hair.
“I tried to make a joke, but he didn’t laugh,” she recalled. “My colleagues were questioning me too.” Her boss began nitpicking her work and she was ultimately let go.
“I was devastated,” she told me from her chair at Kim’s Touch of Class salon, as Dafney expertly flat-ironed her long thick hair. Hamilton works in real estate now and she’s not going to take the chance that her hairstyle might turn people off.
“I’m self conscious about wearing my hair curly because of that ordeal,” she said. “It’s not fair, but your hair affects the way you’re perceived even before you speak.”
In the chair next to her, LaShawnna Courtney, a natural hair stylist, was attending a stream of clients, parting their hair into small neat squares, a first step in the painstaking process of braiding in extensions that protect the natural hair as it grows.
There was the 12-year-old who opted for braids to end the daily battles with her hair. The middle-aged woman whose heat-damaged hair led her to switch from wigs and weaves to braids with gold highlights. And the nurse who needs a break from the ordeal of tending the Afro she’s been growing for years.
Every woman I talked to in the salon used the word “journey” to describe a styling evolution that began with a mind-set change.
It took Linda Jackson two years “to get comfortable with my natural self,” she said. “That’s how long it took for my hair to grow long enough for me to cut the damage off and start fresh.”
Lorraine Phillips, the nurse, began her natural hair journey in 2015, scouring websites and studying YouTube videos to learn how best to manage and style her dense locks.
The learning curve has been steep: “You have to find the right products to nourish the hair, loosen the curls, repair the damage done over the years. It takes a lot of practice. And a lot of patience,” she said.
She’s learning to love her hair, she said. “But I’m not quite there yet.”
And my three daughters have gone through their own hair journeys, from braids to twists, locks, Afros, buns or simply wild, curly and free.
They’ve discovered all their hair can do, made peace with its shortcomings, and realized that “good hair” doesn’t have to be “slippery.”