April 15, 2010

Demystifying Locked Hair

I don't often blog about myself, but then again, the phenomenon of locked hair (or the pop culture reference - "dreadlocked" hair) is not about me.  Indeed, the phenomenon started long before me and is really not about hair at all.  The locking of one's hair amounts to identity.

Even if those who identify locks with the hip hop culture decide to lock their hair in order to represent hip hop culture, locking, in that sense, represents a group affiliation to hip hop.

Here, however, I wish to discuss a different kind of identity politics.  And for me, this type of signifying tends to carry a more radical, counter culture frame of reference.

I decided to blog about this because students ask me weekly, if not daily, why I decided to lock my hair.
I never give them the long version of the story, the version I am going to provide here.  In fact, I decided to lock my hair at least 10 years before I actually began the process.  I remember reading an excerpt from a lecture Alice Walker gave at Spelman College in 1987 called "Oppressed Hair Puts a Ceiling on the Brain".  I had experienced exactly what she referenced in her lecture.  And from 1999 (the year I cut and shaved off my chemically relaxed hair) to 2000 (the year I started locking my hair), I rediscovered myself and my hair exactly as Walker had.

For me, like Walker and countless other Black women, the decision to lock my hair was the final journey to spiritual liberation and self realization.  I say "women" because Black men experience a different identity politics when confronting the hair locking issue. Those of us whose descendants were enslaved Africans know very intimately the sting and the trauma of oppression, racism, and spiritual and physical enslavement.  Therefore, as a scholar and student of literary history and American culture, quite frankly, I felt like a fraud reading bell hooks and Angela Davis and chanting "Power to the People" all while donning chemically straightened hair.  It was not simply that I chose to straighten my hair.  It was not a "style" that I could put on in the morning and take off in the evening.  No -- I was a prisoner to the "creme relaxer" (ironically named).  My hair was oppressed because a huge part of my psyche was oppressed.  I knew I was lying to myself if I said otherwise.

I was a slave to a process that could cost $100 or more each visit whether I had the money or not.  I was enslaved to a process that required my obedience every 6-8 weeks without fail, a process that required me to sit in a hair salon for at least four hours only to have my scalp burned and my hair severely damaged.  I was trapped in a vicious cycle, and every time I endured this self-inflicted torture, I felt tremendous guilt and inadequacy because I knew the reasons why I endured it.  I straightened my hair because I was afraid of what was underneath.  I was horrified of my own nappy, curly, kinky hair.

I chemically straightened my hair because I was hiding behind the status quo.  I felt pressured, if not coerced, to conform to the dominant culture's ideas of female beauty and acceptance.  Straight her did not and does not grow out of my head.  As one can conclude from the process I described above, straightening my hair took an inordinate amount of time, money, and pain.  So I reasoned with myself that there had to have been a more profound and binding reason to undergo this transformation religiously for the better part of my adolescence and twenties.  My conclusion -- society affirmed in magazines, music videos, commercials, and films that nappy hair was undesirable, deeply flawed, and ugly.  And if my hair was undesirable, deeply flawed, and ugly, then so was I.

I decided I was not ugly, but if I was going to be beautiful, I was going to do so on my own merit.  So, I remember the day of reckoning.  As I lathered and washed my hair, years of self-doubt, oppression, and insecurities trickled down the drain with the shampoo.  As Walker explains in her lecture, I marveled at myself in the mirror.  My thick black kinks and curls were huge and soft and divine.  I stood there that spring day and cried and laughed and cried and laughed again.  "This is me," I thought, "No additives and no preservatives."  So when I decided to lock my hair the following year, I had already fallen in love with me - the me I had been hiding under the oppressed hair far too long.