My first hobby was playing hairdresser to my Barbie dolls. I had my childhood in the 70s and 80s but I was not much different from Black children in the 40s who chose White dolls over Black dolls in a landmark study that lead to the desegregation of American schools. It was not that I liked chocolate skin over the cream of white colour; it really came down to the hair. I wanted straight, long, blonde, brunette or red hair, hair that blew in the wind and that I could toss over my shoulder. And when I could not wish it on my head, I used a towel instead.
Get a group of Black women together and the conversation usually turns to hair. If I had an American dollar for every time I’ve heard a Black woman’s hair story, talked about my own hair, seen a hair reference in a movie or read about hair in a book, well I could buy a lot of hair, I could pay to have my own live-in hairdresser. I thought I was the only one who changed my hair just about every week. But I have found that many other women have permed, straightened, coloured, cut, lengthened and shortened their hair as often as I have. My hairstyles have been a sign of the times inside and outside of my head.
Over the past few years, I have come to stop wanting Barbie doll hair. I spent many years in hair salons stretching out my super curly hair to dead straight and walking out of the salon with the wind blowing through my hair, and being able to toss it over my shoulder. Who says wishes do not come true – for a price. Although straightening Black hair is known as perming, there was never anything permanent about it for me. There was a war happening on my head, if my hair represented a people, straight strands with the use of chemical warfare were ethnically cleansing the curly strands.
Despite the chemicals, I have always loved the atmosphere of a salon. In this predominantly White country, Black hair salons create a Black world. During the civil rights movement, in North America barber shops and hair salons became town halls for discussions on race relations. Even now, a hair salon in South Carolina is used to educate about AIDS. Places for hair are no strangers to political activity. And it is in a salon where I came at peace with the politics happening on my own head. Hairdressers looking at my natural hair and not ready to open up a jar of Bone Strait has made me rejoice in the hair God gave me.
Professor and author Gloria Wade-Gayles once said, “my hair would be a badge, a symbol of my pride, a statement of self-affirmation. “It has taken me a long time, but I finally agree.
Back in the mid-80s, watching Oprah Winfrey’s bouncing and behaving hair was like a dream come true. I never knew that black hair could do that. I rushed to a salon, telling them to duplicate the Oprah ‘do on my head, and they did. The bad part is that just like what once happened to Oprah, my hair fell out. I was left with no hair on my head to duplicate any ‘do.
Nina Simone sings “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and actually I once thought my true soulmate was a bald man. But the inside love (that’s me) does have black hair. Learning to love my hair and myself is a never-ending project, so much so I’ve decided to make it my concentration of study at the graduate level.
I was sitting with some friends of mine at a Montreal university pub, talking about what I often do – hair. One of them said to me, “why don’t you do research on hair.” I thought she was crazy, and that I would never find information on the topic, but I was wrong on both counts. I had been thinking and talking about hair for so long that I was sure my first thought as a baby was a kinky one. It was a natural choice for me to do research on hair.
I found out that everybody is talking about black hair these days. It’s like when Dr. Ruth came out talking about sex and everyone was discussing it. I don’t know who started the black hair talk, maybe Jesus himself, but black hair is the top pick of writing topics, music, documentaries, and Internet sites.
With the growing sophistication of technology and the millennium on its way, I decided to catch up with the times and do my master’s project on an Internet site.
Finding a metaphor for the site was easy. I had spent a lifetime searching for the perfect salon. A salon with hairdressers that paid more attention to your head than the telephone. A salon that encouraged you to feel beautiful naturally. A salon with top-rate service, but low-rate prices. With the dream world one can create on the net I built a virtual one called Salon Utopia.
There’s a receptionist, Betsy, who greets you as you enter. Hairdresser Mariame fashions the inside of your head as well as the outside. Music plays in the salon that makes you want to let your hair down. There’s a resource room with a head full of information about black hair. And a hairnet café links you up with a selection of other sites about hair. Most importantly, just like any good hair salon, there is a freedom to chat and an opportunity to participate in an online discussion about hair politics.
The online community, linked through Excite Communities, is the vital part of the research coming out of this site. The most active elements of the site are the calendar and the discussion threads. Both aspects have been up and running since November 18, 1998. The calendar acts as a bulletin board for everyone who is part of the community, and visitors as well. The community is like a clubhouse, where members and visitors are free to check out at all times of day and night what is going on.
Bringing it back to 2009, the website and the online community are now defunct. What does live on is a book that came out of my graduate research called What Happened to the Afro? that can be bought by visiting my new website at http://kakonged.com. I have worn my hair natural since 1993 and still counting – with no intention to go back to chemicals. I love every minute of being happy and nappy.