[Image: Pax with natural, unstyled hair.]
As anyone reading this blog can probably see, I’m a big fan of Everyday Feminism. I read most of their articles and share many of them. But when I saw an article this week on white people with dreadlocks, I avoided reading it, until a fellow black animal liberationist asked what I thought of it. I read it and thought the author did an excellent job of explaining all of the problematic things about white people wearing this hairstyle, and addressing all of the common retorts that black folks have been putting up with for years. I have basically nothing add to her arguments.
But one of the reasons I avoided reading this article is that hair has been a sore topic – literally – for most of my life. White folks with straight or loose curly hair just can’t relate to what black folks, women in particular, go through to meet society’s standards (aka performing whiteness). I’m mixed (black/white) and have what many consider to be “good hair,” a term which is all kinds of problematic itself. Yet I too suffered through the burning hot combs, the painful detangling, the damaging relaxers (“creamy crack”), tedious roller sets, and all kinds of stress related to the dead cells on top of my head, growing up as a black girl (pre-transition) in the USA.
[Image: Pax at age 10, in pigtails with baby goats in their lap.]
When I was a baby, it took awhile for my hair to appear; strangers often thought I was a boy. (Foreshadowing?) But when it finally came in, it grew with abundance. My mother usually styled it in braids. When she decided to style me with lots of little braids, they took hours to put in. My (white) father would joke and complain about my screaming and crying from the pain of having my hair done.
[Image: Pax posing for a class picture in a green jumpsuit, with lots of braids.]
Did I mention that I was the only black and only Jewish student in my elementary school in a WASP West Virginia town? I remember being sad that I couldn’t just take out a comb and run it through my hair like I saw the other girls doing. I insisted on going to school without braids one day, combing my hair throughout the day, and a frizzy nightmare ensued. When I got home, I headed directly to the closet and closed the door behind me, frustrated and humiliated.
At age 12 we moved from West Virginia back to Pittsburgh (where I was born), and I went from a majority-white school with 180 students to a majority-black school with over 1600. I was teased relentlessly by my fellow black students. I didn’t look right, didn’t talk right, didn’t listen to the right kind of music.
But I was told by these students that I had “good hair” and should take care of it better. I was also told this by an adult black man working the cash register at a record store where I went to buy an album as a teenager. I just stared at him in silence.
[Image: Pax tunes their electric bass. They have straight black shoulder-length hair.]
By high school my mother (still taking charge of my hair) started putting relaxers in my hair, and taught me to put it in foam rollers. This was a tedious process, but if I didn’t do it every night I felt my hair did not look presentable. I only washed my hair once a week because it looked better after not being washed for a couple of days. But this meant more dandruff and itchy scalp. My white friends didn’t understand how or why I could go a whole week without washing my hair.
I was not sexually active until midway through college, and then only sporadically, so I didn’t think about the implications of having someone sleep next to me while I had my hair up in rollers. Not until later in adulthood, when a (white) man asked me how I expected him to get hard when I had curlers in my hair.
By senior year of college, I’d had enough of the relaxers and rollers. I accidentally discovered that if I let my hair air-dry, it sprung into natural curls. But it was difficult for me to manage long curly hair. So I had it cut short, and kept it short and curly for about twelve years.
[Image: Pax with their spouse Ziggy on their honeymoon. Pax has short curly black hair and is wearing a black bathing suit.]
During these years I gained a lot of weight, and felt bad about it. I was also starting to go gray, prematurely, or so I thought (not realizing how common it is for people in their 30s to get gray hair). I decided to grow my hair out again, and start going to a higher-end salon for color and highlights, as I had a decent income at that time. I read about the Curly Girl method, and finally learned how to care for my locks properly.
[Image: Pax looks over their shoulder. Their hair is curly dark brown with light brown highlights. Photo by davidhanddotnet]
[Image: Pax wearing a low-cut black tank top and curly highlighted hair. Photo by davidhanddotnet]
While I now got lots of compliments on my hair, it still took a lot of work. If I didn’t put any product in it, it looked like the photo at the top of this post. I had to use a lot of gel, and still never left the house without a scrunchy in my pocket. I considered myself lucky if I could get through an entire day without pulling my hair back into a ponytail.
During this time (my mid-30s), I took a band workshop where we were doing an R&B set, and I was the only black student. We were working on Stevie Wonder’s classic song, I Wish. One of the lyrics refers to him being a “nappy-headed boy.” I joked to the other singer, a white woman, that we’d have to change the lyrics. She laughed and agreed, saying that while I was nappy-headed I was never a boy. I pointed out that my hair was curly, not nappy. I was hurt as I had worked really hard to make it presentable. (The bit about never being a boy is ironic in retrospect.)
[Image: Pax poses holding a camera with “funcrunchphoto.com” on the strap. They are wearing curly black hair and glasses. Photo by Ziggy.]
By my early 40s, I’d lost weight and felt better about my body. I decided I didn’t want to spend any more time and money on coloring and styling my hair. At age 42, I went into the salon and got “The Big Chop.”
[Image: Pax self-portrait with short graying hair.]
I soon realized that paying salon prices for this kind of haircut was ridiculous, so I found a barbershop. I showed the barber a photo of Samira Wiley from Orange is the New Black and said “make me look like this.”
A few months later, I bought a hair clipper set from a drugstore for the same price as I was paying for a single haircut at the barbershop. I now cut my own hair each month. I usually keep it slightly longer than the above (#2 blade guard). I’m growing out my sideburns, and impatiently waiting for my beard to fill in.
My hairline is also now receding, which is actually a welcome development. After decades of hair struggles, I’ll be happy to go bald and forget about my hair entirely. But shaving my head now would be more work than just cutting every few weeks.
The irony is that I love long hair on men.* It’s practically a fetish. But the amount of work it takes is just not worth it for my own head. I’ll just enjoy long hair on other people, vicariously.
This post was very emotional for me to write. Every photo above was taken before I began my gender transition (the last one, from August 2013, was just a week before I announced my new name). Many trans people do not like to look at their pre-transition photos, and for some such photos can threaten their safety or livelihood. I don’t think I can ever completely eliminate all traces of my past and go stealth, even if I wanted to, considering the volume of photos and writing I’ve posted online.
I hope this post will give white people some insight of why it’s a privilege to have hair that is considered socially acceptable without going to great lengths (pun intended) to keep it so. If you read all this, and the Everyday Feminism article on dreadlocks and links from that page, and still want to talk about Vikings or personal freedom or reverse racism, just do me a favor and keep your comments off of my space.
* To be precise, my primary attraction is to people with conventionally-male-appearing bodies and a slightly masculine or androgynous presentation. I myself am male, but not a man.
15 thoughts on “My black hairstory”
Meh, I think no one’s happy with their hair. I have fine straight hair, it tangles into knots in the slightest breeze. I dread ever combing it, as even running in the house causes it to tangle.
It’s not a matter of being happy with it, it’s a matter of being judged for it.
I getcha. I may not be judged by the general public (at least not in urban areas), but I do get judged by my mother. Because she thinks both she and I are going to be judged by the general public, although whether that’s true of her or not I don’t really know.
I did enjoy your story.
That was in response to you Pax and your comment about us being judged about our hair. 🙂
Spot on! Well said Pax Ahimsa Gethen.
I love this article!!! Thank you so much for sharing your story Pax <3
I tell you, I wish hair, head hair, body hair, all hair, weren’t so damn politicized. Especially since I also do love men with long hair.
You don’t know this because you’ve never met her, but my mother uses relaxer and curlers in her hair. When she used to grows it long in the 60’s and 70’s, it looked pretty much like yours in that picture of you with the bass. She also had a lot of problems with it growing up–her sister, who has hair more like mine, was considered much more attractive. (Now, though, while my mother still has all of her hair, my aunt is nearly bald–my grandmother was, too–and I am trending that way as well.)
Mom never tried to put the relaxer in my hair, but we have spent our whole lives in a struggle over how controlled my hair should be. She’s always wanted (and still wants) me to tie my hair back, brush it straighter, cut it shorter, control it more, like she does with hers. There I was in the early 70’s, desperately wanting hair down to my butt like everyone else, and she would never let me have it longer than shoulder-length and was continually threatening me with “a la garcon” haircuts.
I realize now that part of our problem stemmed from her insistence on washing my hair in the sink, so that my face was down and all the shampoo and water ran into my eyes. Because I complained so bitterly about eye pain, she used Johnson & Johnson’s No More Tears shampoo. It didn’t help, my eyes still hurt, *and* it made my hair stick out like Roseann Rosanna Danna’s. The shower or the bathtub, and all the careful care I take now to keep soap and water out of my eyes, could have made a big difference. I knew I didn’t want short hair, but I didn’t know that what I needed was to use different stuff.
So, I’m so glad you did go to Medusalon at least once so that you could find out about the Curly Girl method and teach it to us all. I’ve learned to love my hair now, even though my mother still hates it.
My kid has hair similar to yours – the way I do it now, it looks similar to your photos in the middle of the post. I have read Curly Girl (and actually stopped using a hairbrush on myself because of it) but her method doesn’t completely work for my kid – just running my fingers through her hair doesn’t seem to get out all the tangles, so I go at it with olive oil lotion and a very wide-toothed plastic comb. It’s time consuming and she doesn’t like it – but I feel like if I don’t, not only will she be judged, but I’ll be judged as a white parent who can’t take care of his mixed child’s hair. I can’t wait for the day when I can pass responsibility for her hair on to her. As a metalhead with waist-length hair myself, I can’t help hoping she’ll grow it super long (like the singer of Coheed And Cambria, who used to have waist-length curly hair :3) but whatever she wants to do with it, from natural to shaving it all off, I’m fine with it, and the rest of the world better be too.
Oh, and I like the way you phrased your identity – “male but not a man.” I’m in kinda the same place – I’ve been calling myself “male and genderqueer” recently. (I wrote about it here: http://silencemetal.blogspot.com/2015/06/male-and-also-genderqueer-where-im-at-one-year-gender-journey.html And there’s a picture of me with my long hair 😀 )
Good story. I also enjoyed Nick Krieger’s book.
Thanks 🙂 I haven’t actually read his book yet, but it’s on my “to buy and read (and dog-ear and highlight)” list (like sooo many others..) Glad to hear you thought it was good, perhaps this will motivate me to bump it up in the list.
My own hair refuses any attempt to modify it. I was surprised on coming to USA that hair – hair! not skin colour – was a dividing racial line. My first African-USA girlfriend read me as white. I later explained I’m Latino but kinda look white / Jewish. He literally said to her in front of me, “If he can’t use your comb, don’t bring him home.” At the time I had a bit of a Rick Springfield perm going on so I used a pick to straighten it out just to hammer home the point, but it was one of my initiations into how racially fucked up USA is.
Darn it, I can’t edit. It’s her dad that read me as white, not her.
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