How old am I in this photo? It looks like it was taken at our old house in Belmont, so I couldn’t have been older than four. And already my little face is drawn and my eyes are troubled at having to wear rollers and get my hair done.
Our hair issues start so early. From early childhood, we’re encouraged to tame it with products, to control our curls (by creating bigger, heat-processed curls), to somehow disguise our “bad hair” and create the illusion of “good hair”, better living through chemistry. And if our roots dare show (such a bitter double-entendre on that word, roots), we perm them to high hell every six weeks to keep up appearances. And our family and friends have all compounded those feelings through years of learned good intentions.
“Do something with that head of yours.” “Can you even pass a comb through that?” “Your hair looks like Buckwheat/ Sideshow Bob/ a Brillo pad/ a ju ju warrior.” I see it as an institutionalized chain of self-loathing. But according to this utterly amazing Miami Herald article about the culture of hair and blackness in the Dominican Republic, generations of women see it as self-love.
“Several women said the cultural rejection of African looking hair is so strong that people often shout insults at women with natural curls. “I cannot take the bus because people pull my hair and stick combs in it,” said wavy haired performance artist Xiomara Fortuna. “They ask me if I just got out of prison. People just don’t want that image to be seen.”
The hours spent on hair extensions and painful chemical straightening treatments are actually an expression of nationalism, said Ginetta Candelario, who studies the complexities of Dominican race and beauty at Smith College in Massachusetts. And to some of the women who relax their hair, it’s simply a way to have soft manageable hair in the Dominican Republic’s stifling humidity.
“It’s not self-hate,” Candelario said. “Going through that is to love yourself a lot. That’s someone saying, â€˜I am going to take care of me.’ It’s nationalist, it’s affirmative and celebrating self.”
Money, education, class — and of course straight hair — can make dark-skinned Dominicans be perceived as more “white,” she said. Many black Dominicans here say they never knew they were black — until they visited the United States.”
Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. There are so many issues to unpack in this article, even in this little passage from it. I’m going to start at the bottom and work my way up.
[edited at 7:20 a.m. In addition to other issues with the controversial Miami Herald article Black Denial, two of the main sources have complained of being misrepresented. Please click here to read a response written by two Dominican graduate students at Howard University, Christina Violeta Jones and Pedro R. Rivera. This was first published in Clutch Magazine, and it includes letters written by Dr. Ramona Hernandez, Director of the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute at City College in New York City, and Dr. Ginetta E. B. Candelario, Professor of Sociology at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. I found Dr. Candelario's quote about "self love" to be the most alarming quote in the article. Her rebuttal states in part, that the comments attributed to her were "a shockingly simplistic and distorted misrepresentation both of the research I presented at the Dominican Studies Institute in the fall of 2006, for which Ms. Robles was present, and of the interview I granted her afterwards." She concludes by saying that "In lieu of engaging any of that research, the article resorts to facile attributions of self-hatred, denial or social pathology to Dominicans as whole. The reality - historic and contemporary - is far more complex than that." I'm very interested in hearing a Dominican response to this article, now that I know there are two sides to it. But back to the larger points I was trying to make].
That idea, that someone could not know that they are black “until they visited the United States,” also exists in my country, and I’m willing to wager that it’s a common adage in countries where everyone’s skin is a shade of brown and prejudice becomes based less on black versus white, but on the subtle shades of skin tone. Usually, it’s said with relish and ugly delight, behind someone’s back. And now that I think about it, I really have known people who deny their blackness, or try to mask it by any means necessary. I know a mother who regularly used skin lightener on her baby, because “the child came out too dark.”
I used to hang out with this girl in my high school days who was always loud and had a chip on her shoulder. (Why was I friends with her? Hindsight is 20/20, my friends). She once told me with a smirk, that I could go to a rasta party in a bad part of St. James but she couldn’t, “because you would fit in better. You’re blacker than me.” Lucky for her, her ignorance rendered me speechless. Later on, after she left, I dreamed up the sweetest string of cuss words ever. But that always happens long after the moment has passed, doesn’t it?
Let me contextualize my outrage: This was coming from a person whose parents are practically the same skin shade as my parents, a person who also had curly, afro-textured hair. My skin is a couple shades darker than hers, but the idea that I was somehow “blacker than her” and could therefore venture into rougher neighborhoods spoke directly to her own, carefully crafted self-image. Let the record show: I did go to the party, I had a great time, and I bet she’d have been surprised to know that there were people of all races there, including several noticeably foreign, white tourists. And they were all having a good time too. She missed out on a lot of fun because of her unfounded prejudices. Now, that girl lives in Florida and the last I heard, she was working as a waitress at a restaurant with a reputation for roaches. I wonder if the adage has proven to be true for her. I wonder what that adage even means, because I find it hard to understand how an adult person could honestly and completely not know what their racial identity is. Somebody please explain that to me. The issues behind this are big enough to warrant another post at another time. I gotta talk about the hair thing right now.
I grew up in the kind of culture that Ginetta Candelario speaks of, a “pain is beauty” culture where many women are encouraged to start creating the illusion of straight hair from an early age. Having grown up in that culture, I can’t agree that the practice of straightening hair generally comes from self-love. I did it to be accepted. I relaxed my hair to fit in, and to be considered attractive in the same way that my girlfriends were. I did it for eighteen years. But I hated everything about the process. I hated the stink of the chemicals, I hated the burning, I hated that I needed to go back and get my fix every six weeks, lest my real texture ruin the illusion. The processes made my hair brittle and weak, and I hated how it looked. I got a pixie cut, so I wouldn’t be rocking one of those stubby little barely-there ponytails. (I know you know what I’m talking about). And I’m sure that there were many, many other women who felt the same way I did.
I also know that there are many women who don’t feel as strongly anti-straightener as I do. For many women, it ain’t that serious. It’s just hair, and they can switch the style up whenever they want with wigs or weaves, or hot combs. I admire that versatility, but I’m happy to work with what I’ve got right now. For me, my hair feels like an extension of me. It’s who I am. For me, it’s not just a hair style, it’s a life style.
I know that some of the members of my family straighten their hair because they love the look of it, they love the feel of it. But I also know that some of the members of my family are damaging their hair with chemicals. I’m sure that they do it out of routine, expectations, and just plain not knowing how to deal with their natural texture. I think that many women would love to go natural, but they just aren’t sure how. Or they’re afraid of how their hair will look because they’re never let it grow naturally, they’re worried about what people will think. They worry that their husbands or boyfriends or men in general won’t find them as beautiful. And in the case of the Dominican Republic that is presented in the Miami Herald article, apparently they’re painfully aware that the whole society will reject them. That’s a whole lot of pressure to conform.
If you’re considering going natural, I’d like to take this opportunity to dispel some falsehoods and address 50% of the Ask Afrobella questions I haven’t gotten around to yet.
Natural hair isn’t THAT hard to care for. Sure, transitioning can be traumatic if you’re not used to having hair with its own will. But if you learn how to work with it, your rewards will be great. Imagine being able to go swimming and get your hair wet without worrying about ruining your do. Imagine having fun outdoors, or working out as often as you’d like because you don’t have to worry about sweating out your roots. Imagine being able to wake up, wash, style, and go without spending an hour fussing with a flat iron. Imagine fluffing your fro or pulling back your locs and looking effortlessly cute after riding in a convertible. Imagine having healthy, strong hair that’s nourished and undamaged by heat, harsh treatments and processes.
If you go natural, it can take a while to find the perfect product for you. I’m not even gonna lie. Not every thing works for everybody. My advice is, try as many at home hair recipes as you can. Motown Girl and Anita Grant and Nappturality are incredible resources of information. Do your research on any of the favorite product lines you hear the most about in natural hair circles, or on websites like Nappturality, or Motown Girl. Do price and ingredient comparisons on Anita Grant, Miss Jessie’s, Carol’s Daughter, Curls, Kinky Curly, Qhemet, and Oyin. Read product reviews. Educate yourself on ingredients and hair types. Don’t go into transitioning without knowing to expect. Make sure you’re good and ready and don’t plan to turn back any time soon before you quit the fire cream cold turkey.
Natural hair can be gorgeous on everybody, but I think many women of color don’t realize or don’t believe that. Wearing a big mop of free form curls, a crown of twists, or a regal mane of locs is a guaranteed attention getter, and it takes confidence. I can’t tell you how many people – men and women of varied races – have given me unsolicited compliments on my natural hair. Little kids love it. Why? Because it looks healthy and distinctive and cool, and I wear it with pride. I still get the classic Trini “what’s happening with your hair” attitude when I get home, but it’s no thing. Those comments always come from empty vessels. Respond with a warm smile, good humor, and a laid back attitude, and they’ll slink away looking like fools. My friend Melissa calls it “taking the high road.” It’s hard to do, but I try my best.
I’d like to think that acceptance of natural hair is becoming more common. At least here in Miami, I’m noticing more and more black and Latina women wearing their hair in eye-catching au natural styles rather than using heat or chemicals to straighten their hair. Here’s hoping that more and more women of color recognize that black skin is beautiful in all of its tints and tones. Natural black hair is gorgeous and good. And owning your heritage — celebrating the color of your skin, the shape of your nose, the curves of your body, the true texture of your hair — feels incredibly liberating. I couldn’t recommend it more.