From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Majority of One

My blackness has never been in my hair. Blackness is not a hairstyle.

Bertha Gilkey

I wanted to do it for so long—throw out my chemically relaxed hair for a natural. I had long admired sisters who sported braids, afros or locks and tossed their heads in defiance of mainstream-endorsed hair beauty regimens.

I want to be one of them, I often thought, but continually struggled with the idea of shedding the thick, dark brown, longer-than-shoulder-length hair I had been told I was blessed with.

It was so tied to my identity I could not bear to part with it. From my wide-eyed childhood to long-legged adolescence, each trip to the beauty parlor was marked by a beautician’s friendly question.

“Chile, where in the world did you get all that hair?”

Not knowing exactly how to reply to the question, I would always look at the floor, and whisper “Thank you,” while secretly harnessing the attention my hair brought.

Those precious times were a marked contrast to how I often felt about myself as a darker-skinned black adolescent, when it seemed that lighter-skinned people were all the rage in our largely black middle-class suburb.

I once asked my mother, who like the rest of family has a caramel-brown tone, if I was adopted. She pulled out ultrasound images from a scrapbook to assure me I was not. And later, she created a poster of chocolate-toned African Americans, like Iman and others, to show me I was beautiful.

As thankful as I was for her reassurance, I thought she was doing her motherly duty and still struggled to find something about me that was beautiful. I thought about those trips to the hairdresser, how special they made me feel, and so I turned to my hair for acceptance. People had always made a big deal about my longer-than-average black-girl hair. It was special when my mother allowed me to wear my hair “out,” because on those days I could truly swish and sway my hair with the best of my lighter-skinned peers.

At Duke University, I was glad I didn’t have to wear extensions or a weave. I grew it longer than ever, thinking it would allow me a better chance of getting into a sorority I was interested in. But by my junior year, I realized how long I’d been buying into the mainstream-enforced, black women-accepted notions of beauty. The ruse was exposed, and I was not, after all, like Samson; my hair didn’t hold that much power anymore.

Again I questioned, What about me was beautiful?

That summer, I wrote a poem celebrating African Americans who had the courage to make strides that included wearing their hair natural in the sixties and seventies. One line read, “I wasn’t there but I heard about those who dared to put down the hot-comb for a minute, don a dashiki and look themselves in the mirror exclaiming ‘Beautiful.’”

I longed to be like the people I felt so strongly about, people who found their beauty and acceptance in themselves.

The excuse I made to myself was that natural hair was a statement of beauty for another time and place. But deep inside, I was really unsure whether I could ever be beautiful if I discontinued my fourteen-year relationship with no-lye chemical relaxers. I knew I had long been afraid of finding out. So, after a false start my senior year, I thought I would give it another try.

I am going to go natural, I told myself.

The first three months after my last relaxer in November were easy. I had gone longer without a perm before. The real test began in March, when my “waves” grew into full-fledged naps. April came, and my mother and friends at church who, like me, knew no lives without perms or presses, asked, “Lisa, what are you planning to do with your hair again?”

I was confident in my decision to go natural but at times felt like Thoreau’s “majority of one.” Weeks went by. I pressed on but not without doubt: Was I crazy? Was this reasonable? Would this allow me to continue to live and work in mainstream America?

I felt like the world wanted me to just pick up a relaxer and be done with it. But I had to fight; I had to do it. I had to try. By May, I decided to grow my hair gradually and get braided extensions, so no one except me could witness the war being waged between my fragile, permed hair and the stronger natural roots that rose like defiant Zulu warriors month by month.

The situation was metaphoric. As the mercury rose, my roots encroached upon the territory the relaxed hair had held unchallenged for years—my heart. July came, and it was time to take out the micro braids. Once they were completely out, I vacillated between going back to a perm and continuing my quest.

I started to shield my roots from the public view with a scarf. Then on a Friday in August I looked in the mirror, grabbed scissors from a drawer and snipped a little from the back. Just enough so I can change my mind and get away with it, I told myself.

I snipped some more. I can hide this section with a scarf if I change my mind.

When I was done, I knew it would be an adjustment. I could no longer toss my head to and fro and have my hair swish and sway.

But I could finally really look myself in the mirror, and smile, exclaiming “Beautiful.” And that was all right with me.

Lisa R. Helem

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