For most of my childhood, I was deeply obsessed with Rudy Huxtable’s hair. Rudy, one of the few non-mixed black girls on television, had natural hair that looked an awful lot like mine after a good wash ’n’ blow dry.
“Mo-oom, can I please just wear it puffy today?” I begged. “Puffy” is what I called my hair after it had been washed and dried, before it would be straightened. I pessimistically watched my mom warm up the electrical hot comb in the bathroom mirror’s reflection. It was picture day in second grade, and I already knew that I preferred the puffy version of my thick black pigtails over the straightened version.
“Today is picture day. You want to look well put together now hold your head up so we can go!” she responded in a run-on sentence mastered only by black moms. Ever compliant, I held my head up with eyes closed, nervous system bracing itself for the hot iron teeth that would undoubtedly make contact with my scalp. When it was all over, I opened my eyes to see one long pigtail thoughtfully hanging to the side, another pigtail back and centered, both held by matching Goody hairballs.
Today, I look back at that picture and chuckle victoriously each time. Because for all the commotion around straightening every hair on my head, pictures were taken after recess. Sweat and wild-child zeal for life had devoured my straightened hair. Frazzled and kinky hairs are celebratorily sticking out of my hairballs in every which way. My smile is an unmistakable sign of satisfaction.
I knew I wanted natural hair all along, beginning with some unusual fireside chats I’d have with my otherwise-wordless father. During the early years, when he enjoyed a single beer in His Chair after a long day of work, watching reruns of Good Times, he’d say something like, “Florida’s hair looks just fine. More of our women should just leave their hair alone!” Usually grading papers in Her Chair, Mom would put her red pen down and quip that Florida Evans doesn’t work at a school or an office or somewhere that expects Negroes to be culturally agreeable. I looked at Florida Evans’s neatly manicured Afro like a modern marvel. And besides, I’d already been determined to impress my dad with my grades and wit, so I just added “have natural hair” to the long list of things I’d devote my life to for his favorable gaze.
Thankfully, the concept of “good hair” didn’t exist in my household. This was no easy feat given my parents’ Creole heritage, ravaged with preferential treatment to any features that increase a black person’s ability to “pass.” My mom’s quest for her daughters to have straight hair was more about social politeness, and maybe ease. The concept of “natural-hair care” didn’t exist in the ’80s and ’90s, so I’d imagine having three heads of black hair to manage could get overwhelming for even the most woke mother. Nevertheless, when I got to middle school, I was shocked by the premium placed on “good hair.”
The moment my pinkie toe stepped onto Johnston Middle School’s campus, I noticed black boys’ heads turning whenever light-skinned black girls walked by. For a while, I wondered if there was some orientation handbook I was supposed to have received before the start of sixth grade to explain this phenomenon. For that year, I couldn’t figure out the mystique. I’d look at these girls’ facial features, and though they were also God’s children, I saw nothing special. Nothing exceptionally beautiful.
After a year of confusion, the first day of French class in seventh grade would explain everything. Midway through roll call, the door flung open, and in walked Jewel. She shuffled past me to take her seat, and then for the following five minutes, her Black Rapunzel hair followed. Her hair was as thick and soft as any hair I’d seen on a human to date. The jaws of the few black boys in the classroom dropped. It was probably a combination of her wicker-basket-colored skin and flowing hair, but that day, it hit me that maybe there was a sort of hair hierarchy within the black race that I was supposed to care about.