“WOW…this is all…me”, I said as I stared at my reflection in the mirror. I beheld something that I had not seen since I was seven years old: myself with a full head of natural hair. It was October 1996, the beginning of my junior year in high school. Tisha had continued to press her case for natural hair, but in the end it wasn’t her appeals that inspired me go natural. A year before I couldn’t envision myself ever rocking my kinky hair at all, let alone with pride. I was a frustrated colored girl, who’d had enough of a culture that told girls like me we could never be desired and valuable.
And then ‘The Score dropped in February 1996.
The rise of the Fugees excited me as a hip-hop head. But the ascendance of Lauryn Hill to Hip-Hop royalty thrilled me as a black woman. The sight of her in her coiffed afro in the ‘Fu-Gee-La’ video alone was shocking. A black woman, dark like me, with hair like me, wearing it naturally? Prior to that day I hadn’t considered that to even be an option. My dark skin was already one strike against me; why make things worse for myself? But each time I saw Lauryn Hill, my thoughts on hair and color were challenged. She didn’t look uncomfortable or insecure at all. On the contrary, Lauryn Hill rocked her look with such a cool proud air that you couldn’t imagine her any other way. Lauryn’s confidence in would make me question the beauty paradigm that surrounded me. To paraphrase Malcolm X, we’d been tricked, bamboozled and hoodwinked. When I looked at Lauryn on the cover of Sophisticates Black Hair magazine in all her twisted glory, I felt inspired. If she could do it, so could I. To hell with conformity, to hell with feeling straight hair was necessary to attract men. I was going natural.
When I told Tisha I wanted to go natural in March 1996 she squealed with delight. “It’s about TIME”, she said, smiling at me. Unlike Tisha I wasn’t going to do the “big chop”. I decided to get my hair braided in singles, taking them out and getting them re-done every two months. By the time I removed the last set in October the relaxed hair was all gone. My hair was extremely thick and tightly kinked, and for the first time in my life I was good with that. Done with the detangling and twisting process I walked out of Tisha’s bathroom. When Tisha saw me she was elated.
“GIRL, I LOVE it, this is so fly! Now you just need a pair of big hoops. Oh you know what else would go good with this style? A nice strong red for your lips! Let’s try it now; you can borrow my M.A.C Vino lipliner.”
I was hesitant to wear read. I’d been told that dark women shouldn’t wear bright colors because it would just bring attention to our darkness. But Tisha’s beauty advice had never steered me wring before. Tisha was the one who insisted I pluck my eyebrows when we were fifteen. “You have beautiful eyes, just let me pluck and neaten your eyebrows up so people can really see them!” Getting my eyebrows plucked for the first time hurt like hell! When Tisha finished however, I looked at myself in amazement and saw how right Tisha was.
“Okay, okay”, I said, coming back to the moment,”let’s try this lipstick out too”.
Tisha winked at me and went to work. Five minutes later I reviewed her handiwork and was stunned. I was GORGEOUS! The warning regarding bright colors was completely off point! The red was a perfect contrast with my skin and showed off the luminous perfection of my teeth. The dark coils of my twists framed my face and brought attention to my almond shaped eyes and smile. Tisha knew what she was talking about!
“Mom, come check D out”, Tisha yelled. Tisha’s Mom stepped out of her bedroom to see what we were up to.
“Oh MY”, she said, covering her mouth,”you look so pretty! I like this look on you!”
Not used to being complimented like this, I simply said thank you and smiled shyly. I looked at Tisha and her mom as they watched me in admiration, and the irony of it all hit me. With the exception of Jana from freshman year, everyone who’d tormented me for being dark looked like me. Tisha and her Mom, two sistas with the light skin and good hair so desired in our community, were my biggest advocates in my journey to accept and love myself as a black woman. My experience with Tisha and her Mom is a major part of the reason I don’t tolerate blanket assaults on light-skinned women. At a time when I was surrounded by a paradigm that told me my color and hair made me less Tisha and her Mom told me something different: that I was fine just the way I was.
Unfortunately my euphoria over my new look would be short-lived. Within a week of going public with my natural hair the backlash started. The first Sunday I went to church with my new hair people looked at me as if though I was an alien. When my aunts and other elders thought I wasn’t listening they’d snicker about my hair among themselves.
“WHY would she go and mess up her hair like that? She know she got that guinea nigga hair!”
“Mmmm mmm, and she used to be such a pretty girl!”
“Well hopefully it’s just a phase ya’ll. She’ll come back to her senses soon”.
The situation at school wasn’t much better.
“GIRL you know too black to have hair like that!”, a freshman boy called out to me as I walked up the hill to our school.
“Oooh wee, look at that nappy hair! Someone needs to hit the salon and get a press and curl!”, a girl called out from the stairs as I walked by, her friends busting out in laughter.
“Eh my nigga,” a boy said as I walked past him and his friends to the gym lockers,” don’t she look like she should be in the Lost Boyz video-Love, Peace and NAPPINESS?”
“AWWW, that was a GOOD ONE!”, one of his friends said, hi-fiving him.
That was what a typical day looked like. Though I didn’t second guess my decision to go natural, it proved that my prediction regarding what would happen if I did was accurate. Even with all the harassment I had no desire to go back to straightening my hair for I realized one thing: I looked 100% better natural. To this day when I look back at pictures of myself with relaxed hair and/or weaves I cringe in revulsion. Shiny straight hair works for some women, but I truly believe such a look does not flatter my particular features and skin tone. My family, people at church and black kids at school could crack on my hair all they wanted, but I truly liked it. Most of all, I was getting to a point where I saw I wasn’t the issue. My color and hair texture were not offensive; the mental condition of my community was.
7 thoughts on “Shades of Blackness: My Revolution Part I”
Such an irony that the ones who were regarded as the ‘pretty people’ of the black spectrum were the ones who most recognized the beauty of your natural darker hue….and in my ideal world, our people would always embrace the uniqueness of variety and beauty that all of our shades offer. We need not ever tear each other down, especially out of subconscious self-loathing. I am loving your story.
Ironic, isn’t it Brian? That’s part of the reason why it bothers me so much when I hear people making blanket statements about light-skinned sistas. My friend and her mom showed me so much more love in that respect than my blood family at times when it came to this topic.
Excellent post! I absolutely love your locs and I could not envision you any other way.
When I went natural, I was determined to never even flat-iron my hair again and I’ve forgotten what my relaxed hair felt like but I, too, always cringe when I see the old photos. For me, going natural was cultural and personal; my mom had relaxed my hair at age 6, so I had no memory of my natural texture so I was determined to find out.
Wasn’t it amazing when you saw your natural hair for the first time Emelyne? I remember being floored with the thickness of my hair and loving its’ versatility.
Yes, it really was! I used to think that my relaxed hair was thick but I had no idea how large and in charge my natural hair could be!
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