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Black hair has political roots

22 Aug 2005

Who came up with the term, “relaxing” anyway? Is our natural hair so stressed out that we have to chemically straighten its new growth every 6 to 8 weeks?

The term perm is short for permanent. The first entrepreneurs to hawk the product swore it was the better alternative to hot combs that only straightened hair temporarily until water touched it. Until a few years ago, lye was the main ingredient in most perms; a chemical substance known for among other side effects, burning the skin.

It took a visual cue for me to really put all this into context while I was sipping my oh-so-trendy and to-die-for guava martini at the Trane Studio, a jazz restaurant/lounge on Bathurst that also moonlights as an Art Bar. One of his pieces on the wall depicted a ritual all too familiar to a lot of Black women: a mother seated in a chair and her daughter on the floor with her head slightly bent holding a bottle of perm. The mother is wearing gloves and the daughter has a towel draped around her child’s shoulders. The blatant irony is hard to miss. The mother has gloves to protect her hands from the harsh chemicals in the perm. Clothes are shielded by the towel. But what is protecting her daughter’s scalp? Any reputable dermatologist or trichologist will tell you that perms or chemical straighteners are the number one cause of hair loss among Black women.  

In their August issue, Essence magazine reported that the problem of hair loss has reached near epidemic proportions. Interestingly enough, the number one cosmetic grievance among Black women is that their hair doesn’t grow fast enough or long enough for that matter. I say let''s learn to love our own hair. That''s what I did in my second year at university. And I had to read quite a lot to educate myself on my own hair. It wasn’t easy to access all the information.

To solve the problem of scarce education on natural Black hair, Stephanie Joseph started a Natural Hair & Beauty Show. Via phone, Joseph explained that she had always heard of natural hair shows in the United States, but was surprised and frustrated that none existed in Toronto. To fill that gap, she held the first show at the Ashanti Room and about 150 people showed up. She hardly had enough room for everyone in attendance. The second show, about 400 people came out. Joseph’s main aim is to educate people on how to take care of their hair.  So whether you have a perm, braids, locks or a weave, you are sure to pick up some great tips.  This year''s show took place at Centennial College Residence Conference Centre in Scarbourough last Sunday and drew a diverse group of vendors with natural hair products. There were also workshops and lectures on the impact of chemicals on the skull and the body in general. One of the discussions even delved into issues of Genetically-Modified food.

I’ve had to defend my choice to go natural a few times from friends, family and even strangers. I am proud of my little nappy ‘fro.  It actually makes me feels sexy and empowered, I don’t care if corporate Canada isn’t ready for it.  It’s encouraging to see that there has been a revived natural hair revolution in the past 5 or 6 years.  For a while, it seemed like the politically charged Afros of the sixties and seventies were never to be celebrated en masse again.  How times have changed.  Remember when Lauryn Hill warned you about that thing and India.Arie told you she wasn’t your video girl while rocking their beautiful locks? Then Alicia Keys kept fallin’ for her cornrows, Jill Scott took a long walk wearing her Afro and Erykah Badu ditched the fake dreads and became a bag lady with short  ‘do. These styles were shunned and looked down upon by our own communities in the past and it’s good to see them being embraced by the mainstream culture. Trey Anthony’s play, Da Kink in My Hair had a successful run at the Princess of Wales Theatre and it was a very much-needed celebration of our natural beauty and exploration of our battles with our very-much politicized crowning glory.  One of my favourite quotes from the play is delivered in a monologue by one of the main characters, “If you want to know what’s going on with a Black woman, just look at how she’s wearing her hair.”

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