By Guest Contributor Alona Sistrunk, cross-posted from HairPolitik
When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher asked each student to place five items in a box that best represented him or her. In my box, I placed a pair of scissors, a brown crayon and three other items I’ve long since forgotten. When it was time to present my “Alona box” to the class, I pulled out the scissors and cut off a piece of my weave! Holding the borrowed hair next to my heart, I professed my undying love for weave. That day, I knew that other people’s hair would always have a special place in my heart!
As I made my way back to my seat, amidst much applause from ALL of the black girls in the room, I felt conflicted. With the same zeal it took to love and publicly praise other people’s hair, privately I hated and damaged my own. Even at the tender age of thirteen I knew that didn’t make sense. The fact that I hated my kinky hair is remarkable since I’d hardly ever seen it! It was always chemically straightened or hidden underneath a barrage of ever-changing weaves. Since all I knew about my hair was that it was “bad”, not having to “deal with it” was quite alright with me.
As I grew older, my love affair with extensions grew even more complicated. How could I continue to despise the thought of “freeing” my naturally kinky hair while at the same time wholeheartedly embracing weaves (read: straight and loosely curled hair) with an almost obsessive devotion. How could I become the strong black woman that I wanted to be, that I claimed to be, if I hated who I was made to be? By the time I reached college, shouts of betrayal from the few black women who were “brave” enough to “unleash” their natural hair made me question my authenticity even more. They asked, “Why do you hate yourself, Sistah? Why are you trying to be White-something you’re not? Why don’t you embrace who you are and let your natural self show?”
Then one day, I just did it; I chopped off my relaxed hair. At first, I continued to wear straight weaves to mask the teeny weeny Afro lurking beneath. Then, in the same “just do it” fashion, I stopped wearing wigs and extensions to work and everywhere else. Gradually, as I learned to care for my own hair, I realized it really isn’t bad at all; it’s beautiful. As each day goes by, I’m writing a new love story with my own hair as the central love interest.
And yet, I miss wearing extensions. Falling in love with my own hair did not mean that I fell out of love with the ability to change my style. To say that I only embraced weaves to try to be more like white people is to give Whites way too much credit. I never wanted to look like Marsha Brady; I wanted to look like Aaliyah. I wanted to look like my mother. Besides, these styles act as a barrier against the elements, help prevent wear and tear on the ends of my hair, allow me to attain a new look without the use of heat or harsh chemicals, and are a quick alternative hairstyle after exercising. While it is true that my appreciation for straight and loosely curled styles was born out of oppression and handed down to me from generations past, it is also true that how we style our hair is yet another example of how black women have made something beautiful out of an ugly situation.Sound familiar?
Just like soul food, these styles are a cherished part of my black experience, and part of who I am. Chitterlings and sewn-in weaves alike serve as a testament to black women’s creativity and ingenuity. And when practiced in an unhealthy way, both soul food and extensions have had ravaging effects on black women’s health. So, I know that we shouldn’t practice these traditions in the same way simply because that’s what we’ve always done. We should celebrate our cultural heritage in healthier ways, while at the same time recognize these practices for what they are: beautiful and flawed. That is what I do when I occasionally wear straight, curly, and kinky extensions today. Some might think that I am a hypocrite for decrying the abuse of one’s own hair in the interest of wearing weaves or for telling people not to forgo exercise to preserve their extensions while at the same time choosing to wear extensions myself. Is a man that preaches about the dangers of ingesting fried food a hypocrite for eating oatmeal baked chicken (a healthier version of fried chicken)? I don’t think so. I want to affirm my African origins and still embrace my African American culture- both of them are flawed and beautifully ugly.
I understand the need for natural women who don’t wear weaves to scream that I hate myself. That urge is completely understandable in a world where those who stand defiantly against assimilation are rewarded with heartache and pain. I understand that you feel every black woman has to do her part to fight these nasty biases and acknowledge what we all know to be true; there is still a preference for straight and curly hair in the black community. I agree with you! I’m not suggesting that when I lovingly unwrap my newest straight lace front wig some of those unhealthy biases don’t pop up again. On the contrary, I know that I’ve been brainwashed to love these styles in such a deep and subconscious way, that I’m not sure I’ll ever completely get rid of them, though I’ll definitely keep trying. I am suggesting that my on-again/off-again trysts with weaves, of all textures, can not be defined so simply; it’s complicated.
So, to the sisters and brothers screaming, “Why do you hate yourself,” I say, “If you try to destroy all of the euro-centric influences that manifest themselves in the ways that I walk, talk, dress, style my hair and exist, then you are trying to destroy me!” Like it or not, this is who I am- a manifestation of the biases imposed upon my ancestors and a member of the new generation actively trying to fight them. To the sisters and brothers clapping at the sight of women wearing long straight extensions but who are unwilling to admit to themselves why they detest tightly curled Afros, don’t use my argument as your own. This is a terrible mess that we’ve been handed and we have to clean it up. That process can’t start unless more of us are honest with ourselves and each other.
To the little girl presenting the “Alona box” in her eighth grade English class, I would say replace the borrowed hair next to your heart with the brown crayon. Vow to color the world with images of brown girls like you who are naturally beautiful even without other people’s hair or approval. Use it to write a real love story, one in which you love yourself.
(Photo courtesy of Kashi Johnson)