A Birmingham, Alabama native, Tonesa Jones received her undergraduate degree in creative writing from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2013. She is currently a writing MFA candidate at Savannah College of Art and Design.
When Black Hair Burns
“Andre Walker, a stylist and author of Andre Talks Hair, has created a classification system that many people have adopted to describe their own hair type. Andre’s classification system ranks from 1-4”
I discovered the difference between my hair and white girl hair on the school playground at age eight. She was in the fourth grade with long brown hair that did not smell like Pink Luster hair grease or African Pride. When she ran it flung out behind her like a cape. It was super-girl hair. I wanted that hair. I stripped my barrettes and undid my ponytails and ran beside her, feeling my hair lift behind me. I imagined I too had super-girl hair, flying behind me in a dark, thick cape, just as shiny, just as beautiful.
My mother did not smile when she saw my hair and when we got home she sat me in front of the mirror. “Look at what you did to your hair.” My hair stuck out in all directions, styled by the wind, looking less like a cape, and more like a pile of dirty laundry. I didn’t have super-girl hair. This was hard for my eight-year-old self to accept this because my favorite Disney princess and girl extraordinaire had super-girl hair. Pin straight, not curly, and their hair did not freeze in the wind when they ran. It flowed.
Straight long hair was a fantasy and sometimes when I was alone, I would wrap my curls in a pillow case or a sheet and pretend I had super-girl hair. Princess hair. Good hair.
“A relatively unusual type, wavy hair tends to be coarse, with a definite S pattern to it.”
Even when there were no white girls in my class in middle school, my hair was still a problem. It is curly like my father’s and confused the others girls in my class. They would suddenly reach and touch my puff, mesmerized in a way I had only seen when they saw white girls with long plaits. They touched without permission in blind curiosity. This was the fantasy girl effect, the effect I only thought light-skinned, bi-racial girls could have. Even without light skin, my hair looked different enough that they could accuse me being a racial other: “You don’t look completely black. Do you have some Indian in your family?” What they meant was my hair didn’t look completely black, thus my whole racial identity was questionable. I did not want a questionable racial identity. Essence Magazine taught me that black hair is either pressed flat with a chemical relaxer or an afro. My hair was too thin for an afro so by age eleven, it was chemically straighten.
Chemical relaxers at Audrey’s Beauty salon on First Avenue cost forty-five dollars, not including styling and occasionally left quarter sized chemical burns on my scalp. The chemical stayed on as long as I could tolerate it and the longer it stayed the straighter the hair. It stung like a deep itch, but I resisted complaining. Later, when my mother rubbed African Pride hair grease on my burned scalp, I could feel the damage beneath my hair, the lumps of scabbed skin. This was the ritual almost every month until I turned fifteen: dish out sixty-five bucks for a relaxer and a roller set, come home sooth the burns.
My hair attempted to resist a first. It was stubbornly curly, a trait it probably inherited from my father’s hair. My father firmly believed in knowing our “roots” and all things black history, black music and black people. Whenever I washed it, my hair would attempted to spring back into a tight coil, but the relaxer slowly beat the West African resistance in my hair. My hair, like every other thirteen-year-old girl at L.M Smith Middle, became a part of the uniform. Black or blue pants, white button-up shirt with collar, and damaged permed hair, part in the middle, to the side, or secured in a ponytail.
“Hair is shiny, with soft, smooth curls and strong elasticity. The curls are well-defined and springy.”
I was in the tenth grade when I discovered my hair could bush into an afro. By freshman year in at UAB, the chemically straighten strands were cut; the curls that bushed into a reasonable fro were moisturized by products from black owned hair lines that I did not know existed until 2010.
I stopped perming my hair when I discovered natural black hair on YouTube. African Export. Beautiful Brown Baby Doll. Girls Love Your Curls. Mahogany Curls. Long bra length hair. TWAs. Twist outs. Braid outs. Mini twists. Finger coils. I saw black hair, unrestricted black hair. Natural hair.
Natural beauty gurus taught me black hair could be a rebellious Angela Davis Afro or curvy and fully-bodied like Pam Grier in the eighties. I would sit in front of my lap top with a tub of Kinky Curly Curling Custard leaning against my thigh and wide tooth comb in my right hand following tutorials on how to care for my hair without chemicals that burn the skin off my scalp or a pressing comb frying my edges.
My fingers worked through my hair like my mother’s did before the perm, before my broken off uniform hair, before my obsession with super girl, when the only hair I knew were puffy ponytails with clamps on the ends that my mother worn in a faded black and white picture when she was six.
“Type 4 hairs looks tough and durable, but looks can be deceiving. If you have Type 4 hair, you already know that it is the most fragile hair around.”
I sat in my cousin’s basement beauty salon waiting for the “sun-kissed brown” to show through my black roots.
“I’m only doing this because you’re my cousin,” Carla told me while peeking under the cap to see if the color was taking, “I don’t do natural hair.”
Carla always did my hair, from the time I was five and sheared off a whole ponytail with craft scissors to my first relaxer. For church, for school plays, for prom, her hands manipulated my strands to be straight and uniform.
“I lost my best costumer to this natural hair shit. Like Joan. Not everybody can do it. If you got good hair like this you can, but them women walking around with that Kunta Kinte hair need a perm.”
When my mother first cut her chemically relaxed hair, she cried. It had begun to break off from years of relaxers, flat irons, hot combs, and boxed hair dye. I had never seen my mother’s natural hair, and as she looked at for the first time since she was a little girl, there was a look of disbelief. She was a vulnerable eight-year-girl again, attending an all-white school at the beginning of desegregation in Birmingham. The first year she was there, a teacher told her she was ugly, ugly compared to all the other little white girls in the class with long straight hair braided down their backs.
After she cut it, I helped her style it. We sat in the living room, her head resting against my knees as I sat on the back of the couch with a rat tail comb, parting her hair into small sections and twisting it, like she use to braid mine.
I never went back to my cousin’s basement beauty shop. I left her still believing that black hair was only beautiful when burned. She used to tell me I needed to “train” my hair to be straight by pinning it down every night until it forgot how to be curly. Sitting on the couch, feeling the texture of my mother’s natural hair, I saw the hair I always wanted, virgin black hair, unrestricted, unburdened, free.