by Constance Garcia-Barrio

The first time I straightened my hair with a hot comb in college, my nine white housemates stampeded to the bathroom to watch. The sight even beat out “Batman,” a top TV show in the 1960s during my college years.

“Far out!” one of the girls said.

“Does that hurt?” asked another.

Some older cousins, beauticians, had taught me how to press my hair. That knowledge let me save money I would have spent at a beauty parlor to buy textbooks instead. Accustomed from girlhood to going to beauty shops for a shampoo-and-press — and seeing my mother and other women do the same — I’d never considered anything else.

Then along came Black is Beautiful. Afros, dreadlocks and other natural styles broadened the definition of attractiveness. Angela Davis sported a huge Afro. Some Black gals in the popular 007 James Bond spy thrillers wore their hair natural.

Despite the thumbs up on the big screen, in daily life Afro-textured hair could carry a cost. “So many qualified Black women ace interviews,” said an uncle of mine, a supervisor with the Pennsylvania State Employment Service, “but they’re not hired because they don’t straighten their hair. It’s a shame.”

I continued pressing my hair until 1970 when I started swimming to stay in shape. My straightened hair kinks up when it gets wet, so I adopted an Afro not because of politics but practicality. My new style raised the eyebrows of some friends, but I fluffed my hair with my Afro-pic and kept moving.

More of my girlfriends adopted natural styles in the ’70s, but then ambivalence seemed to return. “When I came to the U.S. in 2001, I lived In Piscataway, New Jersey,” said Neneh Bah, 40, owner of Soukundo Natural Hair Salon, 5950 Germantown Ave. “I couldn’t even find a salon that did natural hair, but I had always worn my hair that way. That lack of natural hair salons helped me decide to study hair care, get my license and open my own salon.” Soukundo just celebrated its 10th anniversary.

In the early 2000s, after Bah’s arrival, the natural hair movement had a renaissance. Some black women again wore their hair in its natural tightly coiled state. Yet, mixed feelings persisted. “Lots of women approached me and said, ‘I wish I had the nerve to wear my hair like yours,’” said Bah. “Many women were afraid they’d be judged.”

These women have a point. Consider the case of high school wrestler Andrew Johnson, of Buena Vista Township, New Jersey. Wrestling referee Alan Maloney forced Johnson to either cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit a wrestling match in December, 2018. Later, authorities found that Maloney had overstepped and suspended him from refereeing for two years, but Johnson, an apparently quiet young man who defines himself as multiracial, stands in an unwanted spotlight. Some of his peers support him while others criticize him for raising hackles in the largely white community where he and his family live.

Gold-medal gymnast Gabby Douglas has also borne criticism for wearing her hair in a natural style. Why the fuss? Journalist Jesse Washington makes a good point when he says that “Hair is Africa’s most enduring marker in America, the phenotype most likely to persist through generations of interracial children.”

For Johnson, Douglas and many African-heritage people who choose natural styles, kinky hair is a proud distinction, but that very pride may irritate people like coach Maloney. One wonders if Maloney has the insight and honesty to look at that issue.

Other whites in power may be less vocal but no less punishing. Corporate culture, for instance, may require straight hair for advancement. “Some Black women have weaves (where one’s own hair is done in braids and straight hair is sewn onto them) because they want to fit in at work,” Bah says. “Other women wear wigs at the office to conform but keep their hair natural underneath it.”

Here’s a huge question: Will young Black people get the message that their kinky hair — and other aspects of who they are — will hold them back? Given our society’s racism, they may already have been made to feel unacceptable, less valuable as human beings.  

One would like to embrace optimism. “I see lots of Germantown parents bringing kids in to have their hair done in natural styles,” Bah says. “That tells the kids that they’re fine just being themselves.” Bah and her partner have two sons and a daughter, all of whom wear natural styles.

As for me, I walk more than swim now, following my doctor’s advice about weight-bearing exercise for stronger bones, but I haven’t come near a straightening comb in 50 years. I love my kinky twists.

Usually, healthy hair, no matter the texture, is beautiful, so maybe questions about kinky hair should probe beyond beauty: Do you feel attractive with natural hair? If you belong to other ethnic groups, how do you respond to kinky hair and why? If you’re Black, will kinky hair stop you from reaching a secure position or one where you can help build a society in which hair texture no longer matters?

Constance Garcia-Barrio is a long-time Mt. Airy resident and a retired professor of Romance languages at West Chester University.