Friday, July 1, 2011

Caribbean Context: Black Hair

I'm always flying the multicultural flag. Having grown up in Barbados and lived in the US and Japan, and being Black, multiculturalism is one of few things I consider myself an expert in (at least compared to those who've never studied cultures officially).

Today I'd like to talk about Black hair.

Last year, I was lucky enough to interview Linda Villarosa. In her book, PASSING FOR BLACK, she said something I will never forget. I don't remember the exact quote, because I'm not good with exact, but here's the gist. If two black women start talking, it's only a matter of time before the topic goes to hair.

Two-strand twist, pic from 2009.

You might be tempted to think that's some sort of vanity. Maybe there's some vanity in there, but the flat truth is that black hair requires a heckuva lot of care.

Up-do roll. Saturday, for a charity dinner. My hair is semi-locked right now. It's still at the point where I could decide I don't want locks and easily undo them. But it's far enough along that I leave it to it's own devices it will lock.

One thing that was shocking as a kid, and amuses me even know is when I see a White person wash their hair and just go. You could so not do that with Black hair.

Corn-rows/Cane-rows are plaits which lay flat along your skull. I've got corn-rows up front and the back is regular 3-strand plaits in this 2009 December pic. And we found that taxidermied squirrel in our office. No, I don't know why. Also, I'm a one antlered reindeer. I laughed at my neighbour because his Santa pants had a hole. My antler promptly fell off in response. Kharma.

If you wash Black hair, you pretty much have to condition it. You also have to grease/oil it, or it will dry right out and if you touch it, it will sound like a gravel driveway with a truck driving over it. I made the unfortunate mistake of assuming I could buy grease in Perth, Australia. Unfortunately, it seems all the Black people live on the East coast. 2 weeks of crunchy hair. Not fun.
At The Peak, overlooking Kowloon, Hong Kong. Two-strand twists pulled back in a bun.

Also when you wash Black hair, you can't just leave it. You have to blow it out or plait it, or something. Or it will become a giant mass of steel wool. No Black person would ever do this to themselves on purpose.

There are lots of ways to start locks. Basically if you convince Black hair to stay put long enough, it becomes locks on it's own. It can take 4-12 months before it will stay on it's own. I locked my hair, by corkscrewing it. When I undo it, it's curly for a couple of days.

I think it's because of this amount of effort and the fact that Black hair is always ready to break or drop out at a moment's notice, that prompts Black women to talk about hair styles and hair care every time they meet.

Corkscrews. You just twirl and twirl the hair until it stays. Oh yeah, Black hair does that. Stays. If you plait White/Asian hair, you probably have to put something on the end. You don't with Black hair. (NB, Many Caribbean Blacks are mixed, and not all mixed hair will stay.)

Living in Japan, hair care has moved more to the forefront of my mind. I'm not much for looks and fashion, so as long as my hair isn't falling out I'm happy. Last year, a group of Caribbean people got together here for a Jamaican event, and there was a room pretty much dedicated to plaiting and talking about hair.

Geek-achu, I call you! Boredom and a camera are a bad combo. Three strand plaits. 2008.

My hair is natural, and has been for about 15 years, but many black people process their hair. They use a chemical, affectionally known as straightener, that makes the hair straight. It also looks much longer, because natural black hair has a lot of kinks. And naturally black hair curls on it's own, getting shorter/longer with the weather and if you wash it.

Wavy "locks". A few days after undoing corkscrews, they look like this. Late last year.

Since I mentioned natural hair, I will pause here to show you the difference. When Alicia Keys first started out she had natural hair. Her "mixed" has a much higher proportion of white (I have white great-grand peoples) so her hair behaves a lot more like white hair. Also, check out this link if you're interested. It shows several different Alicia Keys styles, natural and processed.
Here you can see the natural curls and kinks of her hair.

These days, she sports a straightened look, and introduces curls artificially.

While we're on the topic of straightener, I should also touch on weaves, and their predecessors, braids. Many Black females, will change their hair/extend their hair length with artificial pieces or hair that's been cut from others. Braids are done by looping a length of the hair to be introduced around the client's hair and just braiding it in. Weaves come in rows of hair. You start with your hair plait flat against your skull, and then you sew or glue in the weave. Also there are pieces you can just clip/pin in.

Black hair takes a lot of time to do. Even if you want to go for a simple ponytail, unprocessed Black hair will not go happily. It requires (years of) brushing. Brush, and brush, and ... isn't it done yet? For corn-rows and twists, you're probably looking at an hour and up. For braids, somewhere around 5 hours- with weaves somewhere in between. But it can last quite a while. If you tie it down to sleep in corn-rows can last from a week and up. Braids and weaves usually around a month. When you take out braids or a weave, they can be washed and reused. Which reminds me, you CANNOT wash Black hair every day. It will break and drop out. I think most Black females wash their hair once a week or every two weeks.

Rocking the fro. November, 2008. This look requires a lot of combing with a big-tooth comb. If you leave it out like this too long, it becomes knotty and the last thing a Black woman needs is knotty hair.

I think hair is the nuisance of every Black girl's life. First, it takes so long to do. Can you imagine as 4 year old having to sit still for an hour? Even the day-long styles take a lot longer than ponytails: 5-10 minutes or so.

Secondly, because it's long, you can be guaranteed the child will "root" (wiggle), which will result in a quick smack in the top of their head from whoever's plaiting. Oh, and this so happens to adults, as well. Also if a Black female is braiding your hair, don't reach up to touch it. The comb is a dangerous weapon!

Thirdly, it's painful. Black curls like being curly and tangly. Combs are trying to convince them not to be. Combing a Black child's hair will involve a lot of crying and quarreling. Combing a Black adult's hair will involve a lot of grimacing.
Curly fro. Plait or corn-row hair for a day or so and then undo it. Black History Month Poetry Reading. Tokyo, 2010.

Remember RUSH HOUR, when Chris Tucker was all like, "Never touch a Black man's radio!"? Well, it's the same with a Black female's hair. You don't touch it unless she tells you it's okay. Black females go through a lot for their hair. There are even some styles so elaborate, that the wearers sleep in chairs to keep them perfect. It doesn't matter who you are: her boyfriend, her step-mother, her "loved like a play-cousin" friend, you just don't touch a Black woman's hair. I, personally, am totally not picky about it, but I'm just trying to help you all keep your hands.
Corn-rows at the front and twists in back. In India, after 2 weeks of building houses for Dalits. 2009.

Finally, if you want to learn more about Black Hair and if you're considering writing a Black female character, no matter how peripheral, you NEED to watch GOOD HAIR. It's a documentary by Chris Rock about the Black woman's fascination with "good" hair, and all the things they do to acheive it.
Brushed, and brushed, and brushed, and pulled into one. 2009. Also I'm something of a legend here for odd expressions in photos. And I don't even try to make these faces. I'm a natural!

Of course, I'm also happy to be a resource if you have questions about Black hair or you want to write a Black character. Also feel free to ask Black friends. I think most people prefer you to tactfully ask a question, than to keep assuming something silly.

This post was mostly about Black natural hair- what I think is the most versatile hair type on Earth. This is just because it's what's on my head, and I know it best. Maybe in the future, I'll do a post on other Black hair styles. Let me know if you'd be interested. All of my hairstyles on this page are done solely with the use of oil, brush, hairclips, and occasionally a comb.


Sophia said...

I so have the beginnings of a blog post about growing out my natural hair after years of using a relaxer (my hair was so relaxed the lazy stuff started falling out; gotta love those euphemisms for 'super harsh chemicals'). I was writing in the context of black people wanting to look more like white people rather than thinking in terms of helping make a black/mixed character more authentic because of our hair issues though. Thanks for another interesting cultural blog post, Claire!

Dianne K. Salerni said...

What a fantastic post! As much as I have always resented my thick, unruly, won't-lay-the-way-I-want-it, but will-friz-up-at-a-moment hair ... you've just made me appreciate the basic ability to wash it and walk away. Yeah, I hate spending time on my hair, (which is why I have those problems above). Thanks for a fascinating article ... and all the great pictures of your hair!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The picture of you and the squirrel is cracking me up!

Bajanangel said...

Thanks Claire. I will share this with another black hair blogger Naturaleza...however us Black Caribbean folk take things like tying down hair for granted - that is the process of tying(putting on) a scarf(usually silk/satin but for younger children sometimes cotton) over the hair especially when going to bed. Du-rags and stocking caps are also used.

Abby Stevens said...

Wow, Claire! I can't tell you how much I love these Caribbean Context posts. Every single time, they are fascinating and I learn so much. I imagine I have basically the easiest hair there is to manage - I am white and have straight hair. I can run a brush through my hair and pop it into a ponytail or up in a clip, or add a little Frizz Ease to the area near my part (if not, the flay aways make me look like Tweety Bird) and I'm done. Even when I do something 'fancy' with my hair, which is oh, 3-4 times a year, it takes under an hour, usually 30 minutes. Reading all this makes me understand why black women joke (but are serious) about not touching their hair. Not that I would anyway, of course. I hate when people touch my hair even on a normal day, so I can't imagine if I'd put hours of work into it!

And I have a question for you: is it true that lice won't infest black hair? Because if so, that is at least one perk of having it! Just about every white girl I know has had lice at some point in middle or elementary school, and you want to talk about a HORRIBLE experience!

Abby Stevens said...

That would be fly* aways. ;)

Marsha Sigman said...

I watched the Chris Rock special a while back, it's really facinating and I love him no matter what he's doing.

I consider myself lucky that my extended family includes a few different races so I know a lot about black hair. It's way too much work! But it looks so good afterwards!

Claire Dawn said...

Thanks guys!

I'm really enjoying the Caribbean Context posts, as well, as something that I feel so connected to, and are also quite unique in the writer blogosphere.


I'd never heard that. But I've never heard mention of lice at home. For that matter, I've never heard of ppl getting ticks either. I didn't know they could until my Aussie family told me. We do get ringworm as kids though.


Having family or friends of different ethnicities is such an education!

@BajanAngel, thanks for spreading the love.

@Alex, it's one of my fave pics ever :)

Claire Dawn said...

@ Dianne, Thanks. I think we all have perks and drawbacks to our specific situations.

@Sophia, I'm looking forward to that post!

Renee said...

Interesting post. I'm also Caribbean -- Jamaican -- but I'm mixed, so my haircare process is a little different. I am so envious that you're living in Japan right now... It's somewhere I've always wanted to visit. I was wondering how you find the product selection over there. I am assuming that Japan has mostly Japanese people living there, so do you find a decent selection of haircare supplies (since your needs would be different from the straight-haired locals)? Also, how are you finding the people down there. I hope I don't sound ignorant, but I've heard from some people that the Japanese can be shy about interacting with foreigners (of any kind), so how is the socializing and interaction going for you? Hope you're enjoying your time there!

S. said...

Cute pics! i like the one in which ure wearing a sari!

Sidrah said...

nice! =D love the hairstyles!

Anonymous said...

Nice blog post.
I'm black and have natural hair but it doesn't usually take me long to do my hair. I've gone to a bunch of natural hair websites to "research."
Nice perspective though.

Megan said...

Love the squirrel, love the post.

Transcend said...

Thanks for the read i also do hair professionally and full time and will share your site on my blog when its posted if you would like to network contact me and we can exchange ideas on hair and hair products. hair salon niagara falls ny

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