Braiding is a form of art. It's one of the ways I freely express myself. I've been braiding hair since the age of five and been braiding professionally for fifteen years. I've braided, styled, and eared for thousands of heads of hair in my lifetime, taking care of hair textures ranging from curly-tight to straight and finding the style that best suits each person.
People constantly ask me. Why the obsession with natural hair? It began in 1987, during my sophomore year at Temple University in Philadelphia. I was the president of the African-American student union and was invited to attend a conference at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where the late Kwame Tome, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, was the keynote speaker. Mr. Toure is best remembered as an outspoken militant civil rights leader who attacked racism all over the world. He was the chairman for the All-African People's Revolutionary Party (AARP), which worked toward ending the exploitation and subordination of black people.
While waiting for the lecture to begin, Toure and I were surrounded by a group of students like myself. There was a mixture of hairstyles among the crowd. I admired the braided hairstyle of one student. I complimented her and asked her how long she'd been wearing braids. We started debating the importance of natural hair. One sister shouted, "You can straighten your hair as long as you don't unbraid your mind."
Those words haunted me for a very long time. My choice then was to be a revolutionary-thinking person with my hair all fried-up. I was preaching and pushing natural hair care by encouraging black people to stop relaxing and straightening their hair, and yet I wasn't wearing my own hair in a natural style. As long as I stood by those words, I didn't have to be responsible for any of the suppressed hate I held for my own natural hair texture.
At the time, my hair was pressed with a straightening comb, or, as some folks call it, a hot comb. I'd been wearing my hair that way since high school. I was in full support of an African aesthetic, hut I wouldn't he caught dead with natural hair because it honestly never occurred to me that wearing my own hair natural was an option if I wanted beauty, success, or love.
Secretly, I was afraid of natural hair. I thought that political activists like Angela Davis were doing a great job representing the aesthetics of natural black hair with their bountiful afros. They didn't need me.
When Kwame Toure began the lecture, he opened by acknowledging me. He mentioned that there was a powerful young sister in the audience who had great ideas and needed some direction. Toure spoke about the beauty of natural hair, and questioned why black folks hated their natural hair texture.
After the lecture, I began to question myself: Why did I choose relaxers? For me, hair straightening was part of a natural growing-up process, a rite of passage that just was supposed to happen.
My parents never believed in chemicals for my sister and me, not because they supported natural hair, but because my mom and dad believed my sister and I had "good hair." Our hair texture was wavy and easy to comb. When my hair was damp, with the aid of a little grease, my mother was able to style my hair into "pretty ponytails."
Other children used to ask me if I was mixed with white or Indian blood. I loved that question because it separated me from the "nappy-headed" kids. I felt that whatever mixed blood I had running through my veins saved me and my hair from the shame other children had to endure simply because of the texture of their hair.
I was beautiful in my own right, until my sister, Julie, was born. My sister's hair was straighter then mine. Julie's hair texture was like deeper waves in an ocean. Adults, as well as children, would compare my sister's hair texture to my hair texture and say, "Jena, your hair is pretty, hut Julie's hair is prettier than yours. Jena, your hair is long but your sister's hair is longer." I heard this almost daily. At age five, it became clear to me that the straighter your hair was, the prettier you were considered to be and the more people liked you. I decided that since I didn't feel so beautiful anymore I would concentrate on excelling intellectually. I also started straightening my hair when I was fifteen.
Years later, when I was a freshman in college, hair still straightened, I was entering my apartment. A young brother walking by turned to me and said, "Hey, beautiful."
I looked around to see if he was talking to someone else because, up until then, only my parents and my grandmother had told me I was beautiful. I started to open my eyes to my own beauty, and the lecture by Brother Toure was the beginning of me embracing my natural hair.
Like the little girl who came into my salon with her mother, I was a victim of institutionalized racism. We'd adopted a beauty standard that was foreign to us by definition, but that was nonetheless passed on from generation to generation. Ultimately, this unhealthy way of thinking stems back to slavery, where we accepted the notion that our locks of hair were anything but beautiful because they didn't look like the oppressors'. We were not born hating our hair. It was taught to us.
Sometimes we relax our hair in the name of beauty, to be seen as beautiful by our brothers and sisters, or in an effort to fit into some white establishments. We seem to believe that as long as we don't remind white people that we are different, things will work well for us.