An Abbreviated History of My Hair in Prose and with Rhyme

Posted on June 15, 2011 by


by Stephani Maari Booker

The author with a Jheri curl

“Aay-aay, aay-aay,

What’s the matter with your Afro, nee-ger-ro?

That stuff don’t even grow!

Afro Sheen, Vaseline,

That stuff don’t do a thing!”

1970s schoolyard chant sung to the tune of “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone

I always wanted an Afro. A big, fat, giant Stevie-Wonder-and-The-Jacksons-back-in-the-day ’fro. What I got were perms and presses that kept my hair a freaky, spiky four inches at the top, and a stunted, stupid two inches in the back. Now, this was in the late 1970s, people. This was before the Anita Baker/Salt-N-Pepa asymmetrical haircut 1980s. (Those mixed long-and-short dos saved a lot of sisters’ heads from Hair Breakage Purgatory.) This was also before THE CURL.

“Get yourself a Jheri Curl!

Are you scared? Well, don’t be!”

Early 1980s schoolyard chant/taunt

When I was twelve, the most recent round of perming had lay waste to what little hair I had, so my mother had my head shaved down to an inch. I looked like my younger brother’s twin. Months later, a hairdresser girlfriend of my uncle offered to do my sister’s and my hair for free. So one day I walked into a beauty show with my hair still drawn up to where it looked like it was barely long enough to pull a pick through—and, four hours later, I walked out with this beautiful bush of shiny and perfect fat curls. The Care Free Curl! It grew my hair! It was a miracle!

I was a curl junkie from that moment on. Through my teenage years, whenever I could get a hold of thirty to forty dollars, or get someone else to pay thirty to forty dollars, or get somebody to do my hair without asking for thirty to forty dollars, I got a curl. The conditions I’ve just named under which I could get a curl didn’t always exist, so in my teens I was forced to go back and forth between the curl (HAIR!) and a straight perm (no hair.). By my early twenties, conditions were a little more stable, and I was able to keep a curl in my head for three years straight. The hair in the back of my head grew to cover my neck and brush my shoulders. I bought stick combs, banana clips, multicolored plastic fasteners shaped like triangles and squares, to twist and tie my hair into cutesy pulled-back wonders. My cheeks were spotted with pimples from the petroleum-based activators and moisturizers my hair drank up daily. But that was OK. The more I washed my hair, the more the perfect curls became wild frizz, but that was OK. I had hair!

I discovered short spots as I was doing my hair one day. I showed my head to some acquaintances later that day, and they confirmed it—my hair was breaking off! Yet, it still seemed impossible. Three years of Care Free Curls and Wave Nouveaus were too much.

“My mama and your mama were sittin’ in a ditch,

My mama called your mama a bald-headed—”

A 1970s schoolyard rhyme

I cut the scary curl out of my hair in the early 1990s. At that time, the Afrocentric resurgence was on, and I took full advantage. Headscarves and kufi caps became an indispensable and—to this day—permanent part of my wardrobe. Under the head coverings, I kept my struggle to figure out what to do with my newly nappy hair under wraps. As it grew a couple of inches, I would braid it into plaits, but that was a lot of time and fuss. Combing my coiling, springy stuff was just a time-consuming pain in the butt, along with people on the street eying my covered head and constantly asking me, “Is you a Muz-lim?”

A sister-friend of mine who was going through the same (sung to tune of the O’Jays’ “Now That We’ve Found Love”) “Now that you’ve gone nappy, what are you gonna do with it?” dilemma told me that for the second time in her life she was going to try to “lock it up.” I knew of a few role models for hair locking—Marley and Whoopi, of course; the late actor Rosalind Cash; comedian Dr. Bertice Berry—but I didn’t have a clue about what made your hair do “that thing.” My friend offered to photocopy a one-page article on locking out of Essence magazine for me so I could find out. The article was essentially a hair-locking recipe, complete with ingredients like nettle, rosemary and sage for a home-brewed hair tonic tea. I decided to give it a try.

The reactions I got that first year of locking my hair were real interesting:

“I’d like to do my hair like yours, but I’m scared I’d lose job opportunities.”

“When you go out to look for a job, you’re going to have to wear a wig.”

“Your hair ugly!”

A lot of the time, I still hid my head under hats and wraps, especially for dress occasions and, I’m afraid, job interviews. As the years went by, I learned more about locking and how to maintain my hair, and I learned more about my hair. The more I washed and separated and groomed my locks, the more I became willing to obey the wishes of my hair, to listen to it as it told me what it wanted to do.

Over the last few years, as my hair has started trailing down my back, I’ve started receiving a new set of interesting reactions:

“Is that all your hair?”

“I wasn’t sure if that was your real hair.”

“Oh, that’s your hair. I thought you was just another bald-headed sister!”

(Now, if I were going to buy my hair, I would have it bone straight and down to my butt! But I digress.)

The knowledge about my hair, myself and other people that I’ve acquired through the decade-long process of hair locking has been invaluable. Having hair down to the middle of my back is pretty good, too! However, about ten years from now, when I’m fifty, to mark the next stage in my life, I’m cutting all my hair off. I don’t care what will be in style then—I’m growing into my life as an elder with a big, fat gray Afro!

“Feel it! Feel it!

The Afros in the house, the Afros in the house!”

—Early 1990s novelty rap hit

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