I Know why the Caged Bird Doesn’t Sing

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Chapter 4: Methodology —The process. The formula.

One of primary ways in which I planned to gather my data centered on spending time in *∗True Tresses natural hair salon, owned by *Tia, my long time hairdresser turned home girl. Tia does my mother’s hair and when I moved back to Greensboro in 2011, she referred me to her. My mom always commented on how her effervescent personality and humorous mannerisms were similar to my late cousin, Marcia. Upon meeting her for the first time, I realized that my mom was right. Tia has a way of using the current content of our lives as fuel to transform almost every trip to the salon into either a comedy special or a therapy session: at times, both. When I decided on the natural hair topic for this thesis, I asked her if I could use her salon as a data-collection hub. She agreed,without hesitation. To be completely transparent, even though her salon is geared toward natural clientele and even though Tia told me that she prefers doing natural hair, on extremely rare trips to the salon,I noticed her put in the occasional perm, usually to a woman over the age of 40. To give some context, in going to Tia for the past 5 years, I’ve seen her chemically straighten a woman’s hair about 3 times. Overall, however, the majority of Tia’s clientele are everyday women and girls with natural hair. In my time spent at True Tresses, I’ve witnessed a great number of women getting their hair styled. I’ve seen a custodian at the local university come in wanting to have her sisterlocks bobby pinned into a stylish up-do6, a 6th grader getting her hair straightened for awards day, a lady,  totally proud about being in her 60s (she wouldn’t let us forget how old she was) who enthusiastically beamed about trying a new style for her 50th high school reunion. This is only a snapshot. Even though these girls and women had different ages, backgrounds, life values, goals, and hair textures, they/we all have one thing in common: we came to Tia to get our natural hair cared for, nourished, and styled, by one of the best. Not surprisingly, Tia was natural herself. Key word: was. One day early this year, I walked into the salon and noticed that Tia’s hair was a little bit straighter than normal, a little less alert and lively. When Tia would choose to switch it up and straighten her soft and springy curls, there was still a certain level of bounce to it: not this time. I did not really want to have this battle in my head (i.e. the mental conversation I began having with myself, consisting of questions only she could answer like, Did she just perm her hair? Did something happen to Tia since the last time I saw her? Why would she do that? What’s going on??) so I dismissed it and went along with our conversation. As I arose from the shampoo bowl, and she toweled me, I picked up a magazine, and sat in my seat, like normal, even though something felt off. We began talking about what was new and old. In mid conversation, she casually said « yea girl I permed my hair this weekend » and proceeded with the recap of her weekend. She mentioned it so seamlessly that it didn’t warrant any questions, objections, or further inquiry. It wasn’t like she made a big deal about it, so I didn’t feel it was my place to either. After all, it’s her head, and the way a Black woman or any woman wants to wear her hair, is her choice and her business. Even though I’d known her for years, I didn’t feel it my place to ask her why she permed her hair or tell her my feelings about it. With a thesis topic like this, I’m sure she already knew. She knows that I would proudly shave my head, before putting another perm in it. Overall, I felt like no matter what I said or how I said it, it would come across as rude, judgmental, or inconsiderate. Therefore, I said nothing. However, her admission almost seemed like betrayal not just to me and her other natural clients, but to this research as well. In that instant, I could no longer picture myself in a salon, asking clients why they got off the “creamy crack7,” when the owner had just relapsed. Considering her free spirited and open-minded nature, I don’t think that she would’ve minded me using her place to collect data from natural participants, but I would have. In the back of my mind, I would feel like she would now be more cynical of the purpose or utility of this research, which would have prevented me from showing up authentically to each interview. Because of this change, I realized that I had to find another way to collect info. Luckily, this was not much of an issue. Between my sociable personality (one that doesn’t mind talking to strangers) and the Internet, I knew that I’d be able to get the participants needed. Within two days of posting on my Facebook and Instagram accounts, I received responses from Black women saying that they would like to participate or responses that gave me referrals. I even received responses from two Black men that sent me the names of women who they thought would be interested in participating. The interviews in this thesis come from ten women: three women who I met while out and about in Greensboro (one at my dentist’s office, another at Vida Pour Tea, a quaint tea shop, and another in the body/skin care section at Earth Fare, The Healthy Grocery store). I already knew two women (a longtime friend of my mother’s and a woman who I always see in passing at my job). The remaining five interviewees were those that responded to my Facebook and Instagram posts.
The following sections reveal a tapestry of stories, narratives and lived experiences, all of which shed light on one of the very first steps that thousands of Black women take in order to embrace what they were born with and live comfortably and confidently in their own skin. They reveal how the process of “going natural” is at once complex and simple, is simultaneously gradual and instant, and both terrifying and liberating.

Chapter 5: Discoveries

Section 1: Taming Day

In the majority of the interviews, I continued to hear the same story, the same thread of experience: most women recalled a day of the week (usually a Saturday or Sunday) set aside to undo, wash, condition, and style their hair, for the upcoming week or weeks. In these narratives, we’ll see how the distinct layers in being natural emerge. While, on one hand, the virgin texture of the hair mostly remains in tact, we’ll also see that the hair needed to be strategically manipulated (via braids, twists, plats, a hot comb, thread, blow dryers, styling pomades, and a generous scoop of labor) in order for it to be presentable. None of these women mentioned wearing their hair freely as a child. When I say freely, I’m referring to a girl wearing her hair out, as is, with little to no alteration, a way of wearing the hair that is seen quite commonly in cultures where the hair is naturally straight. On a number of occasions, when dropping my 8-year-old son off at school, I’ve even seen non-Black girls come to school with their hair still wet. From my time spent in corporate America to my days spent in graduate school, I’ve noticed White adults enter work and school with wet hair. Wet hair typically signifies that someone has just finished showering or bathing and didn’t have the time to dry their hair (or maybe just didn’t feel like drying it) before coming to school or work. For ethnicities with naturally straight hair, when the hair is wet, although there is a difference in look, in terms of form, it’s not that much different than when it’s dry. For people with naturally straight hair, whether the hair is wet or dry, it still hangs. Hanging straight hair is a unanimous hallmark of the European standard of beauty. Black hair rises, even when it’s wet. This option to step out of the shower and casually scurry into school (or work) with a head full of wet hair (hair that is still acceptable even when it’s damp, uncombed, un-styled, unthought-of) is a true sign of privilege. To know that you’ll still be welcomed and approved of, even when your hair hasn’t even received a second thought or even a first thought, is a feeling that many Black girls and women don’t ever experience. Furthermore, it’s important to note that “taming” begins early for Black girls. This notion, that something, anything, needs to be done to this mane, in order for it to be more palatable for the public, can emerge as early as three and four years old; the age of two of my interviewees when they had their first perms. However, while we will explore how this taming plays into Black respectability in a predominately White country, this taming is not a wholehearted reflection of Black acquiescence to oppressive beauty standards. To be clear, having a day set aside to do a Black child’s hair is as much about style and protection, as it is about effective time management. It goes without saying that Black hair is different. Black hair defies the law of gravity. Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part, Black hair (in its natural, non-manipulated state) does not dangle, droop, or lay down. Black hair grows upward and outward. It stands at attention. Because of this, it can be easy for onlookers of other ethnicities to think that Black hair is tough and invincible. However, because of its dry nature and wooly or cotton like texture, it’s actually quite delicate and sensitive. Therefore, in addition to honoring one’s culture and/or spiritual or religious beliefs, timeless and historic protective styles like braids and dreadlocks are extremely beneficial. Not only can Black hair hold styles for lengthy periods of time, but Black hair is much less oily than White hair so it doesn’t need to be washed every day or as frequently. Due to the thick, coiled, curly, or kinky nature of Black people’s hair, styling the hair every morning is not a time conscious option and can end up being emotionally draining on the child and the one styling, especially if the child is tender-headed. So yes, there are benefits in having the hair “tamed” but it’s problematic when this benefit constantly prevents Black girls from having the opportunity or even the choice to wear their hair out freely, especially if it’s being oiled, moisturized, and/or otherwise properly maintained, in terms of general hygiene. To reiterate my word choice of “freely,” I’m referring to a black girl being able to wear her hair out in whatever kinky or curly wondrous mass that is present when she wakes up. The Black mother might use her hands to fluff the hair a little bit (to make it fuller or more even, if it happens to be flat on the side her daughter was sleeping on), but there’s no heat usage, braiding, twisting, contorting, heavy brushing or combing involved. Ultimately, the hair is free to do whatever it wants. For example, CiCi, who’s in her late twenties, keenly remembers wearing her hair in pig tails for so long that she laughingly states, “I still have a part going down the middle of my head, from wearing pigtails as a girl.” As was the case with the majority of women that I interviewed, this so-called “taming day” was typically not a day marked by felicity. When the day came, you already knew that the majority of your day would be compromised. CiCi recalls, “I hated having my hair done. I absolutely hated it. I had a lot of hair. Still do. When washday came, it was ‘C’mon go head- get your hair washed.’ We had these old school counter tops and cabinets where my mom would actually lay me down on the cabinet, just so, ya know, my hair is hanging in the sink and she washes it while my head is hanging in the sink too. That was probably my main memory of having my hair done as a kid –and I absolutely hated it.” This was only half of the hair taming procedure for CiCi. After she arose from the awkward and uncomfortable position, her damp hair was then meticulously blow dried (with heat), parted faithfully down the middle, then twisted into two rope-like fixtures at opposing sides of her head, and finally sealed with a beret at each end. It’s important to note that although blow-drying one’s hair is definitely less intense and damaging than perming the hair, it’s still an extra unnecessary step in the taming process. It’s an unnecessary step because Black hair can be done while damp or in the process of drying. Black people do not need to blow dry their hair. However, it’s a step that lengthens and slightly straightens the hair. The blow dryer is used in order to stretch the hair and smooth it out, because still, eradicating and controlling the kinkiness is typically the goal of taming day. That said, in my perspective, the blow dryer is like the person who smiles at you and befriends you, but deep down they don’t really like you. However, the hot comb, another traditional, tried and true staple of many a Black household, is the person that will boldly tell you that they don’t like you. The hot comb has no pretense. In my perspective, its mere existence is like law enforcement for a Black girl or woman’s head. A hot comb was the straightening tool of choice for many Black mothers and hairstylists, regardless of the generation. Even though she says her hair was and is really soft, and would “frizz right back up shortly after I got it straightened,” Ms. Williams, a woman in her mid-60s remembers “getting burned on the ear with the hot comb” during her childhood taming days. I point out that her hair was soft because countless Black girls have soft hair – hair that is fluffy and cotton-candy-like to the touch. But clearly, having soft hair (as opposed to a coarser textured hair) didn’t make Ms. Williams immune to the swift high heat voltage of the relentless hot comb. For those baffled as to how her ear would get burned in this process, I’ll explain. In order to successfully straighten the root of the hair, the person styling needs to get the hot comb extremely close to the scalp and ear area, in order to smooth out the kinkiness: a site that is still a detractor of femininity in the eyes of many Black people, still today. This is essentially the process of getting one’s hair “pressed.” And, at this point in my sociological education, I can’t even look at the word ‘pressed’ without immediately thinking of oppression. As Marilyn Frye so eloquently puts it:

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: History — Getting to the Root of it
Chapter 3: Theoretical Insights
Chapter 4: Methodology —The Process. The Formula
Chapter 5: Discoveries
Section 1: Taming Day
Section 2: Unsupporting Actors
Section 3: I Know why the Caged Bird Doesn’t Sing
Section 4: Supporting Actors
Section 5: The Return
Chapter 6: Hindsight
Chapter 7: Closing Thoughts in the Age of Aquarius


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