I don't remember the exact first time that my hair was relaxed, but I do remember my first chemical burn. The person who had applied the relaxer had mistakenly applied a super-strength instead of mild formula onto my no more than six-year-old scalp. I do remember sitting in the chair at the beauty shop waiting for the relaxer to work its "magic," which basically entailed straightening out my hair follicles at any cost. That day the cost was my crown, which by the time I left the shop, was severely damaged.
But I cannot discuss my hair journey without discussing my mom's (pictured below. She was the first person I saw when I came out the womb, an 80s baby, and I watched her many hair transformations growing up, from the 'fro (the look she had when she and my father emigrated from Nigeria) to the Jheri curl to the straight relaxer. No doubt influenced by the constant pummeling of images in the West, which promoted a Euro standard of beauty. When my mother traded in her Afro to a relaxer, it was inevitable that my own hair would suffer the same fate.
Then once you become ingrained into something, it can become automatic to the point where you don't really reflect on why you are doing that particular behavior. I had been ingrained into the relaxing process. Which meant that every four to six weeks, I expected that either my mom or someone else would relax my hair.
Growing up, I did not spend time to think about why it was that I was encouraged to relax my hair or why I was putting something in my hair that could literally destroy it if left in for too long.
Ironically, I never particularly enjoyed having my hair relaxed. For one, the relaxer smells terrible as it's working its "magic." Secondly, I was always paranoid that the relaxer would get in my eye and blind me. The best part of the whole process was rinsing it out.
At the time, I had my hair in a short style and I would go to the salon every two weeks to maintain that style. I get restless quite easily, so that style began to bore me. My youngest sister has been natural for over five years and her hair is fierce. It's also full, and that's something I noticed I didn't have with my relaxed hair: it wasn't as full as I would have liked. So, I just decided on a whim that I would go natural.
This was not a revolutionary stance or a method of attention-seeking, quite simply, this was me doing what I saw fit me.
To make the transition to natural hair, I decided that I would grow out the perm that I had in my hair at the time. I had just shaved down the back of my hair, so there wasn't much to work with back there. I could have simply done a big chop, or BC, where I cut off all my processed hair, but I decided to just let the perm grow out on its own.
I can be quite impatient at times, so everyday I would inspect my hair to see if I saw a curl forming.
In a perfect world, I would wake up one day that I had a fierce Angela Davis or Assata Shakur 'fro. Unfortunately, reality doesn't work like that. Waiting for my hair to get back its tight curl was like watching paint dry. But I had to be patient.
I would say that it took a few months for all the processed hair to become unprocessed. What sped up the process was one day I became tired of watching paint dry and decided to snip off the processed ends.
Nonetheless, the response that I received was great. I got a lot of compliments. One person actually wanted to touch my 'fro, which he admitted that was why he had been staring at me from a distance. Apparently, he imagined that my 'fro was fluffy and that made him happy.
On another occasion, I was walking down the street shortly after I debuted my TWA, and a brother stopped me in the street and shouted "You make me proud to be black!" That image of me walking down the block with my hair out inspired something in him. I replied "Thank you. You should be proud."
Since then, I have mainly kept my hair in a braided style. This offers me the freedom to just wake up and oil my scalp and not spend time picking out my fro and shaping it each morning. Instead, I can get up and go. My latest style was inspired by the singer Goapele, whose hairstyles I find awesome and creative.
"The exhausted are those who have
Of imagination, who have limited
Their possibilities, who have thought
Themselves into the dead ends
That they call the highest
Points of their civilisations.
There is no exhaustion where there is much
To be hoped for, much to work towards,
And where the dreams and sufferings
Of our ancestors
Have not been realised,
- Ben Okri (from the book 'Mental Fight')
I don't believe that we are limited in our creative possibilities. It's only we that limit ourselves. When it comes to hair, no one should be able to tell you that the Creator has made a mistake in the way that your hair grows out your scalp. Frankly, the double standard around our hair disgusts me because I know that my hair tells a story that goes beyond the surface. It connects me with those who came before me and it is my prerogative how I choose to wear my hair. Everyone's hair has a story to tell. The question is are you the author of that story or is someone else?