“So D, when are you going to stop relaxing your hair?”
Here we go again, I said to myself. Tisha and I were walking through her neighborhood, the CD, when she challenged me about my hair. It was fall 1995 and we were now sophomores. Over the summer Tisha decided to go through with the “big chop”. Encouraged by the example of a few older sisters she’d met, Tisha began to feel that there was something wrong with using chemicals to straighten her hair. In spite of the protests of others, Tisha cut off her mane of back length jet-black hair(she started dyeing it back in middle school) and returned to school rocking a short ‘do, very similar to the look that Jada Pinkett was wearing at the time. Girls and boys alike gawked at her in surprise on the first day of school. People frequently asked Tisha what would make her get rid of “all that good, pretty hair”! Tisha would roll her eyes and shrug off comments like that.
What Tisha would not shrug off, however, was my complete refusal to join her in her natural hair journey. For months, Tisha would plead with me, going on and on about how I was damaging my hair with chemicals and conforming to a white image of beauty by relaxing my hair. I was fully aware of what the ‘creamy crack’ did to my hair. The burning and scabs left on my scalp were proof of that. But as far as I was concerned that damage was worth it. I HAD TO RELAX MY HAIR. I saw where Tisha was coming from, but felt her unique plight blinded her to mine. Of course you can go natural, I wanted to tell Tisha. Going natural isn’t as much as a problem when you already have what black folks call ‘good hair’ and a redbone complexion. Tisha’s natural hair made no difference at all to the legions of boys who swarmed her, nor did it cause people to tease and ostracize her. I knew better. The careless remarks made about my hair texture by the women in my family, beauticians and braiders over the years had let me know one thing: I had the absolute worst texture of hair possible for a black woman.
In 2012 I finally learned of a neutral term to describe my hair type-4C. In 1995, however, such terms were not used. What I had on my head-prior to the “civilizing” influence of lye at least- was bad hair, nigga hair, brillo pad hair, nappy hair, African bush hair, slave hair, guinea nigga hair. My hair texture was always described with a mixture of scorn and pity by those around me, so the idea of me loving it and forgoing chemicals was out of the question. I HAD TO RELAX MY HAIR. Wearing my hair natural would make me even more unpopular and unapproachable in the eyes of black boys, and that was a chance I was unwilling to take.
The reality, however, was that even with my slick, relaxed hair my love life was nonexistent. Looking back now as a thirty-two year old Mom I can laugh and chastise myself for how concerned I was with landing a boyfriend. But as they say hindsight is 20/20. In high school crushing on boys and hanging out with them was important. I’d frequently share my woes with an uncle, who would admonish me to not sweat it and tell me to worry about being a young lady and developing a ‘presence’ about myself. My uncle’s affirmations couldn’t wash away the hurt I felt at being the girl who was never picked. Socially I rolled with Tisha and our crew was multiracial. Without fail black boys would sweat Tisha, my Latina friend Angie and my white friend Joy. I’d be left standing awkwardly to the side, waiting for a guy to finish spitting his game to my girls.
My girls noticed how this rejection made me feel, and tried helping out in their own way. Cynthia, a sweet girl I met during freshman year at orientation, tried matching me up with her boyfriend’s cousin. We went on a double date, and when I first saw Tommy I was floored. At only fifteen years old Tommy stood nearly 6’3 and had glistening charcoal skin. I thought Tommy was gorgeous. Tommy was very cool and distant towards me, wandering away from us. I felt like more of a third wheel on Cynthia’s date than on a double one.
“Cynthia, what did I do wrong ?”, I would ask her a week later. “ Was there something on my teeth, did I need a mint, was my dress wrinkled?”
Cynthia would remain silent for a moment before answering. “You didn’t do anything wrong. Tommy told John after the date that you were a nice girl, but too black for him. I’m really sorry girl, had I known he was like that I wouldn’t have bothered with him”.
I looked at my phone, my shock quickly turning to anger. How was a boy with skin darker than mine going to say I was ‘too black’? If he thought that my mahogany skin was too black, what did he think of his charcoal complexion? Such irony, I thought to myself. I adored Tommy’s skin; he despised mine. Cynthia would try to play matchmaker two more times and it ended the same way: my skin was too dark for the taste of the boys who shared it. After that point whenever Cynthia mentioned a guy she wanted me to meet I would cut her off.
“Yeah yeah, okay girl. Did you show him a picture? Did you at least tell him I’m dark?”
Cynthia would give them a description and my color was always a deal breaker. The rejection stung the same each time, but at least I spared myself the embarrassment of actually meeting the guy and watching his eyes fall in disappointment when he saw me.
Tisha, being my closest friend, was aware of the feelings of loneliness and insecurity that these episodes spawned in me. So Tisha began implementing her own type of affirmative action plan. When guys would step to her she’d try to divert their attention.
“Sorry”, she’d laugh, “I’m already taken. Why don’t you talk to my girl though, she’s not talking to anybody!”
I cringed. Tisha’s intentions were good, I knew that. Tisha didn’t realize that there was a reason they approached her first and never acknowledged my presence, though we were side by side.
“Nah, I don’t want the dark one, I’m trying to get at you! What’s good?”
At that point Tisha would become disgusted and walk away. She persisted in this method of trying to get me on for a few weeks. I soon had enough with the embarrassment it caused though. I didn’t want to offend my girl though, so I had to word my request carefully.
“Tisha, I know your hearts’ in the right place”, I told her as we took a break from our homework one day. “But when guys step to you, can you just leave me out of it completely? Their reactions when you suggest they talk to me just makes it hurt even more”.
Tisha looked at my sheepishly. “Okay, girl, I won’t do it anymore. I’m sorry; you know I was just trying to help…”
“I know”, I said, ‘but let’s just leave it alone from now on, deal?”
“Deal”, Tisha replied. And with that we went back to our homework, Tisha’s quest to make guys talk to me came to an unceremonious end.
It was an odd year. I began to feel there was an undercurrent of hypocrisy among my people. Every year we faithfully commemorated Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday in January and celebrated Black History Month in February. In school and at church we paid homage to our culture and its heroes, reciting our pride in our blackness. From my point it looked like a farce. How could we say black is beautiful, yet malign dark-skinned women in such a casual and shameless manner? Even the so-called Black Nationalist men were hopelessly colorstruck. That spring I interned at a local non-profit. There were a few older brothers there who were Five Percenters. They were cool with Tisha and I, and we’d frequently ‘build’ with them. One day Tisha and I were working on a project, and her Mom came in the office to pick us up. When the brothers saw her Mama they turned into drooling fools. When we left Tisha would sarcastically remark to me:
“They talk all that back to the motherland/black pride shit but won’t date a sista who looks like you. Yet they see my Mama and damn near cream their jeans in excitement!”
I laughed at Tisha’s observation, for she was dead on. As far as I could see black was only viewed as beautiful if it came in lighter shades. Jim Crow fell decades ago, but when it came to attitudes about color I may as well have been living in the 1940s. The rhyme sung by Black children in my Grandma’s day was just as valid for me in 1996:
“If you’re white, you’re alright;
If you’re yellow, everything’s mellow;
If you’re brown stick around;
But if you’re BLACK- GIT BACK, GIT BACK GIT BACK!”