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A Hairstory
by Amber Dukes

      Ask a black girl what her type is.

      She could simply say, “Tall, dark, and handsome.”

      If she’s in a playful mood, she might quote “Whatta Man,” the Salt-N-Pepa song, “My man is smooth like Barry, and his voice got bass. A body like Arnold, with a Denzel face. He’s smart like a doctor with a real good rep.”

      When she’s hair-brained, she’ll say, “Oh, mostly 4C. But there’s a patch of hair, in the middle of my head, that’s 4B- I swear!”

      Ask a black girl what her type is. But please be specific. What type of partner do are you want? Or... What’s your hair type? If it’s the latter, prepare to listen to her hairstory, which will be riddled with kinks, submission, and hopefully, love.

      Everyone, regardless of race or gender, has a hair type. Though the categorization, read ranking, system is irrelevant outside of the black community and it mostly affects black women. The types are as follows:

      Type 1 hair is straight, and it is the standard by which all other types are judged. Type 2 hair, which is wavy, is less desirable but it’s not damning. Type 3 hair is curly. It is the type of hair people associate with mixed race women who have one black parent and one non-black parent. Last and least is type 4.

      Each type has a subtype, differentiated by the letters A, B, and C. For the sake of our conversation on black hairstory, we’re only going to delve into 4A, 4B, and 4C type hair. Also, our focus is monoracial black women and it is safe to assume that most of us fall into the type 4 category.

      Reader, I do have another ask. After you learn the differences between the 4A, 4B, and 4C hair types, do not correct a black girl who tells you she’s a 4A when she’s clearly a 4C. She will take off her bamboo earrings, kick off her Jordans, have her homegirl hold her red Telfar bag, and then proceed to beat you down like she owns you. Her self-love is hinging on a hair caste system, after all.

      Natural Hair Rules, a website run by Tamara Floyd, explains the differences between the type 4 hair subtypes but they are all designated as kinky and fragile. Type 4A is “tightly coiled” with a “more defined curly pattern” (Floyd). The next type 4B has “more of a ‘Z’ shaped pattern” where the curls are less defined (Floyd). Finally, 4Cs have “curls that are so tightly kinked, there is seemingly no definition” (Floyd).

      When I was a young’un in 1990s and early 2000s, we were not as formal when describing out hair. Your hair was bad. Nappy. “Thick” was a euphemism for “girl, your hair so nappy that Madam C.J. Walker is going to rise from her grave just to make an exceedingly, an exceptionally, and an extraordinarily strong relaxer to straighten that mess into something doable."

      Lucky for me, I had good hair. Soft hair. That 4A hair. Oh, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told, “Amber, you have a good grade of hair.” Because I am humble, I just smile. And because I practice gratitude, I have over 35 entries in my gratitude journal saying that I am grateful that my mama’s mama had a Native American grandmother. My daddy’s daddy had 4A hair, too. I got them good hair genes from both sides of my family tree!

      Okay. I’m lying like Jada Wada’s edges, or the baby hairs that are sculpted into hills of curves along her forehead. It is true that I’ve been told I have good quality hair, but I do not have a gratitude journal. Nor am I grateful for having the type of hair that I do. It’s because I understand the ugly hairstory that fuels such “compliments."

      Hair has never not been important to black people. In western Africa, prior to chattel slavery, a hairstyle denoted a person’s age, debt, fertility, manhood, marital status, social rank, tribe, and wealth. The styles were beautifully intricate, and it could take days to fashion them. The first Africans were abducted from their homeland to work as slaves in the United States in the early 17th century. Slave masters did not allow the enslaved people to practice their customs, including the hair customs. Further, black people were not given the tools to properly care for their hair. They resorted to using baking grease, butter, kerosene, and sheet brushes for haircare. As slave owners understood that a black woman’s hair was her crown, black women’s heads were shaved as a form of punishment.

      There is the macro-version of black hairstory. When we whittle the scope of our lens to the micro-level, we learn that every black girl has a hairstory. Oftentimes, our individual hairstories are tragic too.

      There’s a photo of me that was taken on picture day at Busy Beaver, the school I attended for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. My mom told me I was sick. However, my dad insisted I go to school. Eventually, the school called my parents to come get me but not before I got my close up. I had on a yellow sweater, layered over a white turtleneck. If you study the photo, you can make out the gold teddy bear necklace I wore. I did not smile but my hair... Let me tell you! My mom straightened it so good there was not a nap in sight. She sectioned it into four ponytails, two in the front and two in the back, held up by white hair bobbles. Each ponytail was twisted, and white barrettes marked the end of them.

      I had hair them 4Cs dream of. And hair them 4As and 4Bs, whose hair would not grow, pray for. I was no fool, though. I saw the types of girls who were called beautiful. The types of girls who got the cute boy. They were cast to represent me but they did not look like me. Not their skin. Not their nose. Not their lips. Certainly, not their hair. Those heffas had 3A hair at best, 3C at worst. Two of my favorite heffas were Tia and Tamara Mowry, stars of Sister, Sister. Every weekend, save for weekends preceding a vacation from school, my sister and I endured a hair routine that was as painful as it was long. On Friday afternoon, my mom washed our hair. Then she greased our scalps with Blue Magic hair grease and braided it. On Saturday morning, subjected to oldies not goodies that played on the radio, we sat in an uncomfortable kitchen chair as our mom straightened our hair. If we forgot to fold our ear down when she got to the section of our hair that surrounded the ear, we got burnt. If I had a dollar for every scab I had to pick off my ear, I’d be on the Forbes list of richest black women in the world.

      I dreaded shower-time, this was even more so on the couple of days that followed Saturdays. Water was the enemy that I had to protect my straight hair from it. First, I wrapped my burgundy and black scarf around my head. If my edges were not covered, I re-wrapped. Next, I put on the shower cap. Then... the shower. I’d stop scrubbing down to reposition the scarf and shower cap when they shifted out of place. Despite all I did to keep my hair from getting wet, my kitchen, or the hair at the back of my head, kinked right back up. My only consolation was the game of make believe that I played in the mirror, placing a bath towel on my head, and imagining it was my hair. Straight, long hair - like Topanga on Boy Meets World or Cher in Clueless.

      I knew I’d never have hair like Topanga and Cher. They were white girls, and I was just a black girl. Thusly, I adjusted my aspirations accordingly. Identify the black girls with straight hair that blows in the wind and do what they did to get my hair like theirs.

      On the first few seasons of Sister, Sister, Tia and Tamera wore their hair in its natural state. Their natural hair is type 3, the acceptable curls that’d never be referred to as nappy. In season four, the twins appeared in an episode with straightened hair. A new hope blossomed within me. The days of pretending a towel was my hair could be behind me. I knew what I had to do, and I asked my mom.

      “Ma, can I get a perm so my hair can be like Tia’s and Tamera’s?”

      (Note: Perm and relaxer are used interchangeably but they are not the same thing. A perm curls the hair, and a relaxer straightens it.)

      My mom responded, destroying this new hope and without explanation, “Your hair wouldn’t look like that.”

      Well, damn. Mom let me believe Santa Claus was real until I was twelve years old. Yet, she shut me all the way down when I asked to relax my hair so it could look like the girls' on TV.

      There have been numerous iterations of a natural hair movement, the most recent one beginning in the 2010s. The purpose of the movements were to encourage black women to love their God-given hair as it is and to teach them how to take care of it. Jouelzy, a black woman who does social commentary on YouTube, posted the video, “The Natural Hair Movement Failed,” in July of 2022. She argues that one reason the movement failed is because “corporations relied on women with looser textures to promote these products” (Jouelzy). Maybe type 3s were born with it, but type 4s can buy it.

      Countless black women who have type 4 hair repeated Jouelzy’s sentiment. A movement that was started to uplift women with hair that was traditionally viewed as bad was usurped by women whose hair texture is generally considered acceptable. A Yara Shahidi, a woman with one black parent and one white parent, is hired to push curl activator to a Marsai Martin, a woman with two black parents. Tia and Tamera are cast to play black girls. While it’s revealed that their biological TV father is white at the end of the series, it’s too late for me. Two years after the series ended in 1999, I relaxed my hair. And once you relax, there’s no going back. I had my first hit of creamy crack my freshman year of high school. My mother was not opposed to me chemically straightening my hair - she started relaxing her hair one year before I was born. She only wanted me to have realistic expectations. We swapped out one hair routine for another. Chemical straighteners look like white frosting. They earned the nickname "creamy crack" because they are addicting and harmful to its users. If a black woman wants to wear her hair in its natural state after relaxing it, she will have to cut off the relaxed hair, a process we call the Big Chop.

      I would not be offended if you question my intelligence, or other black women’s intelligence, after you read the next two paragraphs. This is not an excuse, but we are desperate. Sojourner Truth asked, “Ain’t I a woman?” in 1851 and we’re still asking that question in 2022. We’re breasts. And hips. Thighs. Rear ends. We’re strong. And angry. Sassy. Temptresses. (Worst of all, we don’t even have pretty hair.) We’re reduced to body parts or personality traits. We human though and we wanna be loved too.

      Relaxers smell like rotten eggs. That should’ve been enough to change my mind. The promise of a future where I could shower without my edges coiling up was too alluring. My mom slathered the white substance on my hair. The goal is to let the relaxer stay on as long as possible for the best results. I never lasted more than 10 minutes. No sooner had the relaxer started to burn I cried, “Ma, it’s burning. We gotta wash it out!”

      The pain I experienced from washing the perm out was worse than the burning I felt after it was applied. When the water hit my scalp, every hair follicle stung. The pain traveled from my scalp to the unwounded strands of hair. The outcome was mostly worth the discomfort. Destiny’s Child’s album, The Writing’s on the Wall, came out the same year Sister, Sister was cancelled. My favorite member, Beyonce, is front and center on the album cover art. Her brown hair is cornrowed, with hints of blond throughout the braids. My big-ticket Christmas gift for 2001 was that I got my hair braided just like Beyonce - sort of.

      I showed the woman who was going to braid my hair the album cover and pointed a figure at Beyonce, “I want my hair like hers.”

      Two hundred dollars down my parents’ toilet and eight hours later, the woman finished my hair. She didn’t cornrow the black hair all the way down. Instead, she braided the hair to the crown of my head and left the rest of it hang loose in a wavy pattern. Coincidentally, my best friend’s hair was done in a similar style. A kid in our heath class asked me if I got my hair done to match with my friend. I said yes. You lose some, you lose some.

      If a black girl maintains her braids, she can keep them in for a few months. I only kept mine in for a few weeks. I took care of them, but they were so heavy. And itchy. My mom and I took them out in the living room, where the television was, departing from the kitchen where our hair routines were usually performed.

      One of the worst things you can say to a black girl is, “Your hair is falling out.” As she was taking the synthetic hair that was mixed in with my hair out, mom said, “I hope this is not your hair.”

      My mane attraction, tresses that cascaded past my shoulders, was now thin and barely reached the base of my neck. I didn’t know what to do with it so I sported the same weak hairstyle for the better part of three years. I combed my hair back and wore different styles of headbands. I had not learned to make lemonade out of lemons as my foremothers had. Enslaved women did not have the same resources to style their hair as their ancestors had. Still, they worked with what they had to do their hair in styles that were pleasing to them. White women felt threatened because white men were attracted to the enslaved women with exotic hairstyles. To curtail this attraction, the Tignon Law was passed in the 18th century. The law required black women and mixed-race women to wear headscarves to signify they were members of the slave class, whether they were enslaved or not. They also could not wear their hair in pretty styles or wear feathers or jewelry in their hair. The law said the feathers and jewelry couldn’t be worn in their hair. Not the scarves. Black women used high end fabric for the scarves and decorated them with beads, brooches, and ribbons.

      I’ve been a baldie for about five years now. Baldie is the term for women who wear their hair in the shorter length that is typically worn by men. It’s not uncommon for black women to be baldies, especially after the Big Chop. I never did the Big Chop. Mine was more of a chop, not big, and little c.

      By the time I started junior year of high school, I was so sick of my hair I was willing to try anything. My mom, sister, and I occasionally watched Charmed, starring Holly Marie Combs, Rose McGowen, and Alyssa Milano. I do not remember anything about that show except when Alyssa rocked a pixie cut.

      I know what you are probably thinking, “Amber, you jacked up your hair trying to be like Tia, Tamera, and Beyonce. Now, you’re going to get your hair done like Alyssa? And she has white girl hair, you don’t!” Hear me out. Please.

     I knew it was possible to get my hair done in a style like Alyssa’s hair. Anita Baker, Toni Baker, Nia Long, black women with short hair, were proof.

      My family and I were at the mall. My mom sent me to Arby’s to get curly fries. A black woman, with a blond pixie cut was in line. I told her I liked her hair. Coincidentally or not, she was a hair stylist. I scheduled an appointment with her about a month later. She chopped a few inches off my hair and styled it à la Anita Baker and I haven’t looked back since.

      Between 2014 and 2017, I stopped relaxing my hair. The most recent natural hair movement was also underway, but I was not aware of it. I don’t have social media so I’m always out of the loop. Although, I noticed the increasing numbers of black women and girls whose hair was natural. In 2015, I got a job that I had to take one bus, and two trains to get to. Smart phone in my hand, long commute - music was a way to make the rides tolerable. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was released spring 2015.

      During my interminable commute to and from work, I listened to Lamar’s catalog. He’s a Californian native and several of his songs have references to the Black Panther Party. I superficially knew who the Panthers were, but his music made me want to learn about them. I read Huey Newton, Angela Davis, George Jackson, Mumia Abu-Jamal. Perhaps we could say my re-education was not in chronological order because I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X after I read about the people Malcolm inspired.

      In undergrad, I chose Malcolm X to be the subject for an essay I had to write for a history course. During my research, I came across a video of him making a speech. Even after I completed the assignment, I’d pull up that video.

      In the speech, Malcolm asks his audience, “Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet?” He goes on to say, “You should ask yourself who taught you to hate being what God made you.”

       He was speaking to an audience of black people, but self-hate is a universal affliction. And while it’s universal, it’s not innate. A man who is short does not hate being short because shortness indicates something is “wrong” with him. He hates being short because he was taught that short men are not as valuable as tall men. Type 4 hair isn’t bad. Ugly. Or unprofessional. There’s an oppressive hairstory that says it is.

      Recently, I’ve grown bored with the baldie look and I’ve been considering dreadlocks. My sister told me that the “dread” in dreadlocks was derogatory, but she did not tell me why.

      Haile Selassie was crowned emperor of Ethiopia, or Negus, in 1930. Six years later, he went into exile after leading a resistance against an Italian invasion. Ethiopian warriors refused to cut their type 4 hair until Selassie was released. After a while, their hair matted and locked. These warriors were “dreaded,” and the term dreadlocks was born.

      When I learned where the “dread” in dreadlocks came from, it didn’t seem so derogatory to me. The Negus guerilla warriors were so badass that a hairstyle was named after them. The origin of the term “dreadlocks.” The Tignon Laws. Baking grease, butter, kerosene, sheetbrushes. Lemons to lemonade.

      Black hairstory and history, macro and micro, it seems is about perspective. When I look at pictures of black people in cotton fields, I see survivors not slaves. I choose to love my upward-bound coils not hate my nappy hair.

      As a collective, black women can choose to participate in categorization systems that rank our hair as last and least. Or we can choose not to. It’s not that simple but nothing worth having in life is.

      Maybe one day when a black girl with a magnificent afro is asked what her type is, there’ll only be one way to answer it, “Well-a, I like ‘em real wild, b-boy style by the mile. Smooth black skin with a smile. Bright as the sun” (Salt-n-Pepa).

      But please, reader. No matter how tempting it is, do not touch her hair. I’ll be waiting by her side, ready to hold her bag. Because one thing that will never be acceptable is to touch a black woman’s hair.

Amber Dukes - I do not enjoy long walks on the beach, but I love touring malls across the United States to see how they differ from one another. Surprisingly, working in retail for 15 years has not made me mall-phobic. I entered the banking field in 2020-a dream come true for a personal finance enthusiast-and am currently pursuing an M.A. in Creative and Professional Writing. If I’m not working or doing coursework, I am probably at my local library.

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