I remember watching my Aunt Kitty, the official family beautician, who had actually trained at the local beauty college when she was young; comb and brush my Cousin Kathy’s naturally straight hair. She had “good hair” I had heard the women of the family say. It was long with deep waves ending in a tangle of soft curls at the end. I wondered why her hair was so different from mine. I wondered why she smiled and talked softly to me while her hair was groomed, like a proud horse being brushed by his loving owner. Long sweeping brush strokes, gentle plating, only one sometimes two of those “parts” that I hated so badly separating the hair into great masses of soft easily manageable sections which would sometimes be secured with bright ribbons or a rubber band, allowing the hair to fall to her waist like the tails of twin ponies.
I soon learned that good hair represented beauty and freedom. Kathy could quickly run out and play and was sometimes even allowed to “do” her own hair! She was only a little older than me it seemed, but my hair even though I thought it was “strong,” was considered “bad” by the rest of the family, and the rest of the world, as I was soon to learn. Unlike Kathy, my hair had to be tamed by a trainer the reins pulled taught, before I could be released into the fields to play. The center part and rubber bands were reserved for special occasions and on those occasions, the clumps of hair stood stiffly, on either side of my head. Instead of looking like Kathy’s twin ponies running in the wind, my hair looked more like sticky cotton candy puffs at the school Halloween carnival.
Grandma had good hair too. It wasn’t as good as Kathy’s but it was better than mine. It was long, a very important aspect. According to her she only let Aunt Kitty straighten it a little with the hot comb barely warm because she wanted to, not because she had to. She could simply just wash it and go if she wanted to, but she was a professional lady and needed to look presentable! I began to understand that presentable meant looking more like white people. Bad hair was bad because it didn’t look like white people’s hair. Soon I learned that Kathy’s hair was good because her daddy was an Italian man that we didn’t know. My daddy’s hair was good too, and I wished I had gotten some of his hair instead of the forest of thickness that covered my head. Why had Kathy gotten hair like her daddy and not me? I felt cheated! Why was grandma’s hair better than mine? I became furious. I wondered if the goodness of their hair made them somehow better more superior than me. Except for her hair, she was just a plain skinny girl, I couldn’t understand why, but I knew that everyone looked at Kathy like she was extra special. I, on the other hand was just ordinary. Long flowing hair was to be envied and desired. Boys wanted to touch her hair and girls hated her for having it. Suddenly it became apparent to me that being presentable and beautiful was all connected to the goodness or badness of hair. Hair was the single most important determiner of becoming presentable. So if I wanted to be presentable I would have to allow my hair to be pressed into submission, in order to achieve the ultimate level of acceptability and success.
The texture of my hair unlike anything else about me was mutable and must somehow change from its natural unacceptable state into a relaxed and acceptable shape. It must be somehow be set free from the bonds that held it, it must be allowed to swing when I turned my head like the white girls at school and like Kathy. At that reckoning I was at last introduced to my first perm, and I welcomed the change with open arms! My hair could now appear, at least for a while to be not itself but at thing of beauty.
When my mother told me about the appointment I was so excited. The permanent chemical straighter would be applied by a real professional in a licensed salon. Not in the kitchen by Aunt Kitty with the trembling hands whose reputation for burning ears and various other body parts with her red hot iron weapons named “hot comb and curlers,” was legendary. These ingot like weapons had been fired in the ancient ovens of old and sheathed in a white towel bearing the battle scars of several scorch marks. They were hidden carefully in the kitchen drawer. That drawer which remained untouched until time for the ritual to would begin. Hidden with the weapons were the curling wax and pressing grease. Essential ingredients for a successful fry job.
I had never been to a hair salon before. Aunt Kitty had always “done” my hair. She would put the hot comb on the stove in Mama’s kitchen, where the light was better, since her eyesight was failing. It was that failing eyesight and those same trembling hands that had ten years earlier scared my mother’s chest permanently, with a second degree burn. Aunt Kitty had dropped the comb on my mother’s chest, and when she picked it up the skin came with it. I can remember my mothers recount; she would pull her blouse open and reveal the scar like those wounded in great battles. I would never tire of her retelling of the gruesome incident, and how the comb got stuck in her bra while the flesh burned.” What did it smell like I would always ask?” She would laugh and say “it smelled like barbeque girl, sweet barbeque.”
Needless to say, when my mother informed me that I was old enough to get a perm, I welcomed the beauty parlor appointment. The perm would last for a month maybe two since my hair was considered resistant! I prefer my own term, strong! It would be done at Miss Ayesha’s salon where grown women went!
My heart pounded and my palms broke out in a sweat as we entered this place of mature womanhood. The smells were strange. Not only the recognizable burning of the hot comb weapons and curling wax, but a new pungent odor that burned my eyes like fire. The smell of chemical straightners which would literally change the texture of my hair. Little did I know that the horrible smell foreshadowed the intense experience that was to come.
Sybil Johnson has been involved with theatre for most of her life. She has worked with children’s theatre, community theatre as well as college and university programs. Sybil is currently senior lecturer in Theatre Arts at USP.