These days, there is a Natural Hair Movement going on among black American women. My husband’s “Back to Africa” witticism has become a reality for many black women… My hair, too, is permanently back to Africa. The only thing I have to do in the morning is comb it. The only hair dressers I visit are the barbers in the barber shops, African-American men, friendly, relaxed, and at ease. The atmosphere in the barber shops is much different from the women’s hair salon…
When I was growing up, hair was ordinary. It was of no consequence. As a little girl, it was not remarkable in any way, except when my mother was combing it and it snagged. However, having lived in the United States for decades and raised children who are now college graduates, I have noticed hair has a lot of political, aesthestic, racial, and commercial importance. Nothing in my past experience foretold that my hair would become one of the most salient and political markers of my identity. When I was little, in elementary school, my hair was shorn, like all children’s, boys and girls. Occasionally, a little girl or boy would wail loudly after a haircut, refusing to leave the barber’s shop, asking for his or her hair to be glued back. I don’t remember ever engaging in this type of rebellion. There was no need. All children in our school looked the same with their cut. Our barber, nicknamed Young Boy, was of our parents’ generation. Of course, we children did not call him that. It would be disrespectful to call an older man (or woman for that matter), by his name or appellation. Then, I went to a secondary school after finishing my elementary school education. I started at the age of eleven. In this school, all girls were required to cut their hair, except for the senior girls in classes four and five. We all obediently cut our hair and the default was Afro, not the big round style we would grow to know later from magazines imported from the U.K. and America. The only problem I remember having with hair in our secondary school was lice. These creatures were rampant in boarding schools, no matter how clean you were. And the standard of cleanness was quite high in our school. We got up at 6:15 a.m., all the four Houses.
Senior girls would lead us in morning prayers in our rooms, accompanied by singing from the Book of Hymns. We made up our beds neatly with the colour of our house at the top. This meant that for those of us who lived in Harding House, with the yellow colour, we spread our special yellow cotton bedsheet, on top of our white sheets. We then did our assigned housework. Some girls swept our rooms and the premises, others watered the flower gardens in front of the House, while the rest did Dining Room duties. After that we had our bath, dressed up in our school uniform, all washed and ironed by us. It was a white blouse and pleated navy blue skirt. In spite of all the efforts of the school administration to keep us clean, lice were always sharing our rooms with us. It was not unusual to see the creature on the collar of the blouse of a fellow student standing in front of you in line. Lice also made the scalp itch and sometimes the glistening reddish and white eggs, depending on the stage of maturation, could be seen in rows around the neatly washed and combed hair of a victim. Drastic measures were needed to get rid of them. We used Sanitas, a very caustic and dolorous antiseptic that stung even when diluted. At times, in desperation, girls would rub their heads with the undiluted liquid and wrap their heads in towels for a long time to kill the lice. It worked but the scalp burned intensely for days even after washing off.
So it was one holiday I went home after the school term. I had become a Senior Girl, in class four. I did nothing to my hair other than grow it and comb it out into what would be regarded now as a medium-sized Afro. My mother saw my hair was long enough to be braided so she asked me to go the old lady, Iya Ara, the hair braider in our Odogun quarter. Women in our town normally braid their hair or plait their hair with thread. I learnt later through imported magazines that this traditional braiding is called corn rows in England and America. Women’s hair styles were walking metaphors. “Patewo”, meaning “clap your hands” had the hair divided all the way from the front to the back. Each side was then divided into eight or ten parts depending on how thin you wanted each braid to be. Each section was then braided from the side of the head to the centre, with all the rows on the left and right sides of the head meeting each other at the centre, like hands brought together for clapping. A good braider would round off with the ends all nicely braided together. “Shuku” had all the rows cut around the head braided to end right at the center where they were all braided into “Oshu”, an elegant projection in the middle of the head. This style flattered women’s height and neck. There were infinite styles, all with names, with socially-recognised meanings, meant to taunt rivals, advertise husband’s affection, or simply show off to other women.
I got to Iya Ara, meaning Mother from Ara. All older women are mothers. They are Mothers of their children, or Mothers who trade in some good or service, or Mothers who came from somewhere else, like a different part of town, or a different city. Iya Ara was born in Ara, a town about twelve miles from our town, but married someone in our town. Her nomenclature reflected her town of birth. I never knew her husband. She was much older than my parents, old enough to be my grandmother. She was a magnificent braider, a master creator who cut and braid every row stylishly in the finest, detailed, and elegant fashion. Her work announced her creativity. Other women knew immediately you had been to Iya Ara once they saw your hair. She was like a master sculptor. She was a slow, careful braider. She took her time, parting my hair, oiling my scalp thoroughly with the native coconut oil, unlike the Clarissa and Morgan pomades, British imports, my mother used. Then she discovered what I knew was there all along, which I was too ashamed and afraid to tell my mother. Lice, juicy fat lice, lots of them. This wonderful woman never said a word. I, too, pretended not to notice that every few minutes, she plucked a lice from my hair, set it between the nails of the two thumbs, and press the nails together to kill this menace. I could hear the loud popping sound as each lice or egg was extinguished. That was the way people killed lice because they were very tough creatures. You could not just squish them between your fingers like an ant. The eggs were destroyed this way as well, when you were not using chemicals.
After about two hours, she finished her job. My hair looked fabulous, and I went home. I did not have the courage to tell my mother of the inhabitants in my newly-braided hair. Iya Ara probably suspected I didn’t tell my mother, so soon after I left her house, she was at our front door, calling out greetings. I quickly disappeared to another part of the house, while my mother thanked her for such a good job. There was no doubt what her mission was in our house, given my mother’s reaction after she left. Not only was my mother so furious, she asked me to sit down on a low stool, got a pair of scissors and comb, and got to work. She undid all the lovely tight braids, and cut my hair so badly no one could miss the fact that my hair had been cut by someone who was very angry with me. Then she applied that Sanitas in the most viscous form, leaving my scalp screaming in pain. What I had done was unforgiveable in my mother’s eyes. I had come back from my fancy boarding school on holidays, brought back lice, and by my not telling her, I had inadvertently allowed her to share this shameful secret with an esteemed neighbour. It was a thing of shame to have lice in my town. It was a sign of uncleanness. All the lice in my hair and their eggs died a swift death under my mother’s angry eyes. For days, she checked my hair daily to make sure they were all exterminated. It took the whole holiday to grow my hair back into a decent size and shape.
When I was about ten years old, my mother wanted to try something new with my hair. She was an adventurous woman. She sewed as a hobby. She used to make my dresses, until I rebelled when I became a teenager. It was not unusual for her to try new ways of doing things. There was a man around town selling some new kind of hair service. He carried a basket full of bottles and brushes and other implements, unlike what the women braiders used. He also wore an apron. I had never seen anybody in our town wear an apron. He was a roving salesman. He carried a small bell which he rang to advertise his service as he went around town. My mother decided to try this new thing. She called him and he came to the front of our house. There was a large veranda which served as a social space. He set his basket down and explained to my mother what wonders his potions would do for my hair. He sat me down, wore some gloves, and started applying some thick cream to my hair with a brush until all of my hair was covered. He asked my mother to wait for some time before she washed it out. My mother did. She paid him and he left. By the time my mother washed this potion off, my hair was coming out in chunks. After she rinsed all the chemical off, my hair was all in patches, with more still falling out. That was the very day my aunt, my father’s older sister, resident in Lagos, came home to visit. Mama Eko, we called her. She was a very fashionable and elegant dresser. As a Lagosian, a cosmopolitan, she was keenly aware of fashion trends. She alighted from the long-distance taxi that brought her. We, the children, all ran to meet her and helped her with her portmanteaus. She exclaimed in shock when she saw my hair. “What happened to your hair?” My mother was in the uncomfortable position of explaining to her about the hair service that was supposed to make my hair look better. She strongly forbade my mother to ever allow anybody to put chemicals on my hair. She had more authority in the family. In our kind of patriarchy, birth order takes precedence over gender. She had more power in the family, more than my father, her junior brother. This meant my mother must defer to her, even more than she did to my father. My mother was a wife to her younger brother, a lower status in the totem pole. Never again did my mother attempt any fancy hair service on my head.
After a long time, we both went to my bathroom, put my head over the bath tub and washed off this magical potion. She dried my hair and applied something called a conditioner. I didn’t know what for. But at the end of this arduous process, my hair came out unrecognisable, lifeless. It looked limp and unhealthy, straightened and unable to stand on its own when I combed it.
The next time I had chemicals on my hair was the year I graduated from university. I was twenty-two. Like other young Nigerians who had completed their first degrees, I was doing a year of national service in the South-Eastern part of Nigeria, in the lovely city of Calabar. It was the capital of the state. It had a university, television and radio stations, a Naval Command, and several cultural institutions. It used to be an administrative headquarter for the sub-region under British colonisation. The National Service was designed to enable young educated Nigerians to know their fellow Nigerians, not unlike the Erasmus programme in Europe. The country is a conglomeration of many ethno-nationalities put together as a political unit for administrative convenience by the British who colonised us. So, a young graduate would be sent to another part of the country with different languages, culture, and even religion, to serve in either the private or public sector for a year. The experience was supposed to educate the young person about the cultural diversity of the country. It worked. I learnt about the Efik and Ibibio people who lived in the South-East. For example, I learnt about their culture of the Fattening Room. In pre-colonial times, once girls approached puberty, families would send them to the Fattening Room, where they would stay for months or years, depending on how wealthy their families were. They would be pampered and also tutored on the fine details of feminine and domestic arts. The girls would also be fattened, whether their stay there is long or short. Plumpness was the ideal of feminine beauty in Efik and Ibibio cultures.
During my service year, I made a friend with a pretty Efik girl, who I’ll call Uduak. She was studying Chemistry at the local university. She was slightly built and exuded a lot of joy. She smiled and laughed a lot. She could also be coquettish, especially when we were with male friends and acquaintances. We spent a lot of time together, exploring the city, talking, and sharing. She introduced me to a song called “Welcome to Hotel California”, which she played over and over again, and she pointed my attention to the part that said, “you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.” I didn’t quite understand what it all meant but it seemed to resonate emotionally with her. She was in love with someone who could never return that love because he was married. He considered her too young and so left her to marry someone close to his age. She was devastated but still loved him. That song somehow spoke to her impossible situation. I introduced her to ABBA, to a particular song whose lyrics included, “but I know I don’t possess you, so go your way God bless you, you are still love and my life, Still my one and only.” I, too, had my own impossible romantic situation.
When I first got to Calabar, I went to the market, a place full of exotic and delightful products I had never seen before. It was a port city. I grew up in a hilly and rural area of South-Western Nigeria, far from any large bodies of water. Calabar was much closer to the Atlantic Ocean. There were varieties of sea food I had never seen before in my entire life. Periwinkles? What’s that? The traditional major dish for which this culture is known is Edikaikong, a sumptuous and delicious assembly of vegetables, cooked with meats and a smorgasbord of seafood. There is a national narrative that whenever non-Efik men taste the cooking of Efik girls, they are hooked for life. They marry the girls. In that market, I found a woman braider who crowned my head with beautiful braided styles, a little different from those I was familiar with in my own Yoruba culture. I liked the new styles and I also liked the braider. She was a tall, very beautiful woman whose very dark skin felt like velvet. Her hands were supple and she spoke gently as we chatted with each other. The only language between us was Pidgin English, since she did not speak Yoruba and I did not speak Efik. The whites of her beautiful almond eyes shone brightly, and I liked the sound of her laugh when she found something funny. We seemed to like each other.
One day, my dear friend, Uduak, came to my apartment with a proposition. She said I was no longer a student, and that my being a graduate had given me a new status. My hair must show that status. Cutting or braiding my hair was a no-no. She would help me relax my hair the next time she visited. She instructed me to go to the market to buy Revlon Relaxer. There were two kinds. I should buy a particular one, and I should look carefully so I wasn’t sold a fake. I went to the market and purchased this magical potion, and I avoided seeing my beautiful braider. True to her word, Uduak showed up and proceeded to give my hair a new, graduate-worthy, acceptable look. Throughout my time as a student, I cut my hair short. Many female students permed their hair, but I never really understood what they did to it. It seemed to involve a lot of expense and time, because you had to retouch the hair every two weeks, to convert the natural hair growing underneath to permed hair. There was a threat that if you did not retouch, the natural hair would take over the whole of your head, and you would have to do what was called virgin perm. Because I had never gone this route, Stella told me I was doing virgin perm and that it might hurt a little. She applied Vaseline around my ears and to the root of my hair to minimise the burning effect of the Revlon Relaxer. Then the operation started. She, too, wore gloves like that exotic hair changer of my youth who had promised to make my hair better.
After about almost an hour, she finished. She told me I had to wait for some time before we washed off the caustic potion. My virgin hair needed time for the potion to change it from its natural form to a graduate-worthy form. I waited. Thirty minutes. No, I had to wait more. My scalp was beginning to feel as if someone poured concentrated capsaicin on it. I told her about my scalp. She smiled and gently said, no pain, no gain. After a long time, we both went to my bathroom, put my head over the bath tub and washed off this magical potion. She dried my hair and applied something called a conditioner. I didn’t know what for. But at the end of this arduous process, my hair came out unrecognisable, lifeless. It looked limp and unhealthy, straightened and unable to stand on its own when I combed it. You could see right through it to my scalp. I had some burns from the relaxer which she assured me would heal with time. This new hair made me look like someone recovering from a long, terrible illness. My high-cheek bones which used to compliment my Afro or Shuku braiding now made my look gaunt.
She went into her handbag and brought out something called rollers and a hand dryer. She took chunks of my hair and put them in these rollers. She then applied the heat from the hand dryer to my hair which made an already-stinging scalp beg for relief. It took about four hours from the beginning to the end of this hair adventure. Even after she had finished heat-drying it, she said I should keep the rollers in my hair overnight. She would come back the following day to style it for me. After she left, I kept looking in the mirror if I had the graduate look she was advocating for, and which I secretly desired. I also kept touching the burns at the back of my head and my scalp. I didn’t sleep well that night because of the strange rollers in my hair. They were uncomfortable. I had to go to work the following day, so I tied a scarf around my head to hide the rollers, looking like the pious born-again Christian girls who made their appearance as unattractive as possible to please Jesus.
I did not know then I was part of a black world being constructed by mighty hegemonic forces in very far away places like America, where hair and body that looked like mine, were subject to a hostile gaze, debate and exploitation. There was a reason why all the hair products used in making me look sophisticated were imported, why none of it looked like the products Iya Ara and other braiders used in making women’s hair beautiful.
Again, my friend showed up and took the rollers out. She brought all kinds of combs, with small, medium, and big teeth to run through my hair, this way and that way, trying to find the style that suited my face. At the end of it, I looked foreign to myself. The cowardly part of me that agreed to the perm, thinking I would look sophisticated hoped I would eventually look the part. It took work to maintain the perm. I needed to wear some kind of night cap to preserve it. I had to style it every morning, an endeavour that took time. I couldn’t wash it when I had a bath. I couldn’t let it get wet in the rain, and God forbid a boyfriend in his ardor touch it romantically. I had arrived, the sophisticated university graduate. I did not know then I was part of a black world being constructed by mighty hegemonic forces in very far away places like America, where hair and body that looked like mine, were subject to a hostile gaze, debate and exploitation. There was a reason why all the hair products used in making me look sophisticated were imported, why none of it looked like the products Iya Ara and other braiders used in making women’s hair beautiful.
A decade later, I was a mother in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an outcome of the great adventure of love and marriage that sometimes takes women very far away from their homeland and across the seas. I had married my African-American sweetheart, who I met in graduate school years earlier at the University of Ibadan. We had given birth to our first child, a daughter. My husband, Randy, is a black nationalist. His preference for the natural hair was clear. After we became a romantic couple, he would go with me to Abadina, the junior staff quarters at the university, and sit patiently while my hair was being braided. Decades later in our marriage, he wittily described black hair that has been processed with chemicals but is stubbornly showing its natural roots as “going back to Africa.” Living in Cambridge as parents meant we were embedded in a very new world neither of us grew up in, a white one. Even though he had graduated from Harvard years earlier, the experience of living there as a family man and a professor was different from that of a student. He grew up in Washington, D.C, a scion of the black professional class. His father was a professor of surgery at Howard University and his mother a psychologist. He grew in a strong community of such people.
We had to do something with our little girl’s hair. For the first few years, I gave a scissors cut. As she grew, it was evident that this would not do. Randy then shaved her hair with a clipper, giving her a nice neat Afro. Her kindergarten picture showed a lovely little girl wearing a beautiful Afro. I don’t know at what point in her young life she started asking for long hair, perhaps after she got her first black Barbie doll with straightened long hair. I remember by the third grade, I started combing her hair out, not cutting it anymore, but tying it into three of four puffs around her head. We were at a party in Brookline one evening when a Haitian poetess looked at her, smiled, and called her Puff-Baby. She wore her puffs until perhaps middle school when she again demanded something else. All the Barbies, white or black, had long hair.
I had started braiding my again, but not the natural sculpture of Iya Ara. I now discovered that braiding meant buying something called extensions, long straightened fake hair, often plastic, with different hues from brown to very dark. I was supposed to choose the ones that matched the colour of my hair. The women who did this braiding in Cambridge were from Francophone Africa, Guinea and Senegal. I could also buy the “natural hair” but it was very expensive. I learnt much later the natural hair was the hair of Indian women shorn at temples for religious reasons, but turned into hard cash by the international hair fashion system, with demands coming specifically from black women. I always bought the fake hair because that was what I could afford. None of the women knew how to do the natural corn-row braiding. The only people in the population of Cambridge who wore exquisite natural corn-rows were young black boys who told us they were done by family members, not by commercial braiders. This plastic hair would be woven tightly into my hair according to my style preference. Different styles cost different amounts of money. It was also the first time I experienced the tyranny of the hair dresser. It was a phenomenon I witnessed and suffered as I continued to use their services over decades. Sometimes, the hair was nicely done, other times, not. We haggled over prices. Hair dressers had strong opinions on what style you should do and what products were good for your hair, and any small request to alter a style meant jacking up the price. The relationship with them universally was always antagonistic. The nice experience of an Iya Ara braiding my hair or my beautiful Calabar braider exchanging stories with me was gone for ever. It was into this braiding culture I launched my own daughter, far away from my Ekiti home town roots.
My husband was never impressed with any of these. He never liked the plastic extension or the braiding done with them. He complained it scratched his face and that it never matched the colour and texture of my hair. All these I ignored as I continued with my pursuit of hair fashion.
These days, there is a Natural Hair Movement going on among black American women. My husband’s “Back to Africa” witticism has become a reality for many black women. My daughter, who has now become a college graduate, and a young urban professional, managed her own natural hair. While she looked for natural oils and products to groom her hair, she could never even think of applying any chemical to perm, straighten, jerry-curl or alter her hair in any way. I regret not learning how to braid as a teenager, stubbornly refusing when my mother tried to teach me. My hair, too, is permanently back to Africa. The only thing I have to do in the morning is comb it. The only hair dressers I visit are the barbers in the barber shops, African-American men, friendly, relaxed, and at ease. The atmosphere in the barber shops is much different from the women’s hair salon, which was always filled with tension for me. The sun does rise in the east.
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory studied at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University in Boston. She is mother of two and now lives in retirement at North Carolina in the US.