The Anne C. Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction
4 Generations of Black Hair Matters
As my toddler grandchild sits still on the carpet between my knees, her back cushioned against the sofa, I consider detangling her springy hair coils. Hours earlier, I was settling into my babysitting routine as my daughter prepared for work. Between sips of morning coffee, I asked if she wanted me to fix her daughter’s hair.
“No thanks, Mom,” she replied. “It’s healthier to leave it natural,” snapping shut the lid to a plastic container holding her lunch. In an I-know-what’s-best-for-my-child tone, she added, “I want her to have the mentality that her curl patterns are beautiful just by being free.”
It is now late afternoon. Sunbeams peer through horizontal wooden blinds in the living room. One lands beside me, shining on the hair products I may use — shea butter and a bottle of coconut oil spray. How cute it would look to pass on to our little one a version of the girlhood hairdo my mother used to give me: side-by-side puffs and bangs.
In the 1940s when she was in her twenties, my mother, Laura Ann, would smooth her shoulder-length tresses into the peekaboo hairstyle of Veronica Lake, her screen idol. My mom and her girlfriends likely preferred a femme fatale look such as Miss Lake’s for reasons they were unaware. Perhaps they were wanting to be more attractive to men, or unconsciously imitating white beauty standards. Or were they clueless hostages peeling away any layers of shame they held about their natural hair?
Black American women from the previous generation, in the early twentieth century, were sure to have had stories about or personally experienced enslavement. A quiet argument could ensue that rightly or wrongly, rejecting hairstyles like cornrows and plaits was a way to distance themselves from slavery. Despite any cultural norms or societal expectations to leave their versatile hair bushy, braided or hot-combed straight, my descendants’ hair reflected what made them uniquely American.
By the 1950s, photos of my now-married mother depicted a hairstyle that hardly changed the rest of her life: a curly bouffant reminiscent of the vintage Barbie Doll Bubble Cut. Mom usually got her hair done at the Black-owned beauty salon on Chicago’s South Side, 25 miles from our suburban home. A couple of times she did brave a nearby shop to get her gray roots dyed. But the white beauticians were unfamiliar with her hair type. She returned home with her wavy hair teased straight into a beehive style, sprayed to a stiff. The finished look resembled black-spun cotton candy. She washed it out the next day.
My girlhood hairstyles were controlled by my mother. I give her credit for earnestly trying to coif me and my younger sister’s hair, but honestly, fixing it was not her strong suit. Instead of sending us off to our all-white Catholic school in neat ponytails, she added valuable minutes to harried school mornings by braiding our bristly hair the night before into one or two stubby, thick plaits. I slept with a nylon scarf tied around my head to hold it in place. Come morning, I firmly combed back any hair that may have come loose. But by lunchtime, the hair around my front and sides protruded like cat whiskers.
A special hair-fixing session would occur if Easter or school picture day was coming up. The routine would be set in motion before dinnertime. Shampoo hair, then untangle with a rinse-out cream conditioner. Mom took the plastic handle of a rattail comb and divided my dark brown hair into four sections, and twisted it into loose buns. My hair dried while we ate.
After dishes were washed, Mom sat me in a kitchen chair. A terrycloth towel covered my shoulders. Following a stiff brushing, she poked the tip of the comb into my scalp and separated the hair into three sections: across the front for my bangs, and two parts down the middle. She slid long silver clips into the sections to keep them straight. Her two fingers scooped hair grease from the sky blue glass jar of Posner Bergamot and oiled my scalp. The hot comb and curling iron, with their lingering burnt hair odor from earlier sittings, were heating up on the coil of the electric stove.
The pressing ordeal would begin. I squinched my eyes. She might start at my sides. So my forefinger held an ear down to protect the thin skin from being nicked with the metal teeth from the hot comb. When she took the iron to my “kitchen,” the hair line at my neck and the hardest to get straight, I sucked in my breath. Still, nothing shielded me from the eventual prick of hot metal scorching my downturned ear, singeing the front of my scalp or sizzling the nape of my neck. She would always apologize for her clumsiness. Her “I’m sorry,” resembled what a stranger might say after accidentally bumping into someone: polite but said with fleeting sincerity. This was usually followed with a terse, “Sit still and stop being so tender-headed!” As if it was my fault she never learned how to use the irons.
Eventually, her efforts were complete. Where a chunky braid had once been was now a pair of curled-under ponytails held in place by coated rubber bands with clear plastic balls at either end. Atop my forehead sported a sausage bang, so named because of its obvious shape.
When I reached preadolescence in the late 1960s, Mom’s lack of expertise in the kinky hair department prompted her to take me to Miss Michaels Beauty Salon, her hairdresser in the city. There, I would get my hair permed straight with a chemical relaxer.
There was a lot of social upheaval and intellectual shifting going on in America during this time, especially in 1968. The revered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy would be assassinated. The Olympics in Mexico City saw two Black athletes stage a silent yet defiant act against racial discrimination in the United States. “Star Trek” aired television’s first interracial kiss, despite a boycott threat from local TV affiliates in the Deep South. Anti-Vietnam War protesters made good on their promise to come to Chicago and disrupt the Democratic national convention.
In Ebony and Jet magazines, I had seen photos of Kathleen Cleaver, one of the prominent revolutionary women within the Black Panther Party. She was married to Eldridge Cleaver, the Minister of Information for the Panthers and came from a well-educated family. Her fair skin looked like she could be one of my peoples. Her dark hair, tapered at the sides, rose into voluminous, cylinder-shaped perfection. If only my hair could look like hers. I wondered how my schoolmates and the nuns would react (impressed or scared?) when I entered class bearing a symbol of the Black Power movement.
I recall spending a Saturday away from our suburban home at my father’s drug store, a pharmacy he owned in Chicago. Per my mother’s instructions, he gave me $15 to go to the beauty shop, located several streets away. It was time for me to get a touch-up since my relaxer had “grown out” an inch or two. Instead of catching a bus, I walked a block from my father’s store to the neighborhood barber shop. I was 13 years old and decided me and my hair should appear more Afro-American (what we called ourselves back then).
The raucous banter of the barbers quieted when I entered. I became uncomfortable as they looked at me for some moments, then went back to the business of cutting hair and shaving faces. Their conversations, maybe about sports or politics, mingled with the R&B music coming from a portable clock radio on the counter. Most of them wore short-sleeved zip-up smocks. I felt self-conscious among the male customers sitting in a row of barber chairs covered in red Naugahyde.
With eyes fixed at my feet, I cleared my throat and directed a request to no one in particular. “Could someone cut my hair into an, um, natural?” My voice came out higher-pitched than normal. A dashiki-clad barber must have felt my discomfort.
“Sweetheart, are you sure that’s what you want?” A gold-capped front tooth glinted at me. I tried to look at his face and not his mouth.
“Uh-huh,” I nodded. He gestured toward his empty chair and I took a seat. The backs of my thighs scratched against cracked fabric. Wish I’d worn long pants and not culottes, I thought.
With a slight whoosh, a white and blue-striped cotton sheet was draped over my blouse. “Goldie” snapped a metal button at the back of my neck. He had the fresh smell of Old Spice after-shave cologne, like my dad. The scissors went clip-clip. Facing the mirror, I watched my hair silently drift to the gray-tiled linoleum floor…
When my father saw where most of his $15 went, he made three disapproving “tsk” sounds with his tongue. Shaking his head back and forth, he said, “Wait until your mother sees what you did.”
Sure enough, Mom did a double take when she saw my transformed shoulder length hair. It no longer looked like it belonged to a non-threatening member of the middle class, but to an aspiring, although awkward-looking Black Militant. My hair was now a lopsided three-inch high rectangle, shaped like a used pencil eraser. The short kinks on the back of my head were flattened out, probably from leaning against the car headrest on the ride back home. Or maybe it was cut wrong.
My mother struggled, and asked me a string of questions. “What in the world did you do to your hair? Have you lost your damn mind?” She rarely cursed. I think she was embarrassed for me. Or thinking how I’d feel at Sunday mass the next morning when everyone would notice this abrupt change in my appearance. She tearfully reprimanded her husband for my disobedience, “I thought you sent her to Miss Michaels, not to a gotdang barber!”
When I got older and could pay for it myself, I got my hair fixed in ways that appealed to me. It has had colorful beads attached to the tips of a hundred dangly micro-braids. I’ve had blonde extensions crocheted into my hair. Fingered into juicy curls. Wet-set on spongey rods. Cornrows interlaced with gold thread. In a blue moon, I will (carefully) use the hot comb to touch up my edges. On a bad hair day, it gets covered up with a baseball cap or a headwrap. Before vacationing in Europe and Africa, a skilled braider gave me several long, thick plaits separated by zigzagging parts. I could enjoy my excursions, undistracted if humidity or some other element affected my hair. What a luxury.
Just as my mother took me to the beauty shop, I would do the same for my daughter.
When my Millennial was eight years old, I made morning appointments for us to get our hair done. At the shop, my daughter Jade could get a better hairdo than what I was capable of giving her (Yes, I inherited my mother’s mediocre hair-fixing skills.). I wanted to look cute for a boyfriend’s holiday work party that evening.
The beautician washed and pressed my daughter’s hair, then sectioned it into a dozen squares and braided it. She secured Jade’s hair in the familiar coated rubber bands, although these plastic balls were red, blue, and neon green. We left the salon and on the drive home, Jade blurted out, “I hate my hair like this.”
I didn’t feel the need to ask why she disliked the results. After all, I was the adult and paid good money to get her hair done.
“Don’t be so dramatic. It’s adorable,” I said. “Think how easy it’ll be to fix for school come Monday morning.”
As a single mom, going on a fancy, or any kind of date, was rare for me. My mother was giddier than me about my upcoming rendezvous. When we arrived at her condo for babysitting, she couldn’t contain herself.
“He’s such a nice young man. And he’s a fireman?” she asked.
“Yes, Mom, but please don’t make a big deal when he comes to pick me up, okay?”
“Well, let me get my camera so I can take a picture of you and Jade,” she insisted. “You look gorgeous in that red dress, but,” her eyebrows raised, “what kind of hairdo do you have?”
For 1993, I was quite on trend. The crown of my hair had been gelled into a crisp mound, rolled high into a sort of backward sausage bang. The rest of my medium length hair flowed into a soft flip.
My mother then regarded her granddaughter’s hair. In her matter-of-fact way she said, “All those braids make her look like Medusa.” Thank goodness Jade didn’t know this was a reference to the Greek mythical creature, beautiful until Athena transformed her into a vicious monster with snakes for hair.
I clucked my tongue and let out one of those exasperated sighs that a daughter will give her mother when she says something ridiculous. “It does not,” I said. “Please just take the picture already.”
When I look at that Polaroid photo today, I still like my hairdo. But the forced smile on my little girl’s mouth says, “I’m mortified.”
As Jade got older, her self-confidence grew along with her ability to make her own hair decisions. However, the day she came home sporting a remarkably longer and fuller head of hair, the mom in me had to ask, “Is that a weave?”
“Why?” she asked.
“Cos I heard weaves could scar your scalp and make your hair fall out.”
“Yeah, if it’s a bad one,” she added, “but mine is sewn-in. There are braids underneath that protect my natural hair. That’ll make it grow faster.”
“Maybe so, but your boyfriend,” I joked, “is going to get his hand tangled up in all that fake hair when he tries to run his fingers through it.”
In the long run, I was wrong. She was right. A good weave and proper care improved the health of her hair.
When Jade got married and became pregnant, her dense mane of hair prompted me to comment, “I hope you’re not planning to keep in that weave while you’re expecting. It might not be good for you.”
“I haven’t had a weave for months,” she proudly informed me. “This is all mine,” tossing back her fluffy mane to prove the point. “All these pregnancy hormones are making my hair grow.”
Black hair beauty standards have evolved. Where some Black women in another time found it unsettling to see their hair in its natural state, Baby Boomers like me did not regard that as substandard. Today, the Millennials and Generation Z embrace a no-chemical look, spawning a thriving natural hair movement. Its broad influence finds more women and men of African descent keeping their natural afro-textured hair.
Will my grandchild’s hair memories include a kitchen wafting of fried hair clinging to a hot comb? Probably not. In 10 or 15 years, will Beyoncé’s daughters be the strong Black females whose hairdos she’ll want to copy?
From my couch position in Jade’s living room, I look down at the tips of my granddaughter’s corkscrew curls. They stand up like points on a princess’s crown. Best to leave her hair in this naturally royal state. I dab some shea butter moisturizer, rub it between my palms and smooth it on her hair, delighted at her calmness to let me work it in. I reshape her coils. When a spray of coconut oil rests upon them like glittering pixie dust, I smile.
The moment will come when she appreciates hair as an expressive part of her identity. A physical connection to her African roots. Her hair, like that of the Black women before her, will remind the world of her place of origin, regardless of how she chooses to wear it.
After various positions in the music and television industries, Marsha Lynn Smith is completing a memoir highlighting a rocky romance with a jazz musician, juggling single motherhood and her surprise career as a Hollywood publicist. Her work has or will be published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, River Teeth, and Rigorous. Also, her essays will appear in theprint journals of Genre: Urban Arts’ Femme Literati Mixtape No. 2, and Madville Publishing’s 2021 essay anthology, Being Home. She likes to read historical fiction novels, and admits to binge-watching international TV dramas. Follow her on Twitter: @real_marsha