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Is Natural Hair the End of Black Beauty Culture?

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There is a natural hair revolution going on among black women in the U.S., and this time the revolution is being televised. Last Sunday, the "Melissa Harris-Perry" show on MSNBC included a roundtable discussion on black hair in which the entire panel of black women donned natural styles. Just two weeks ago, the NYTimes.com posted filmmaker, Zina Saro-Wiwa's short documentary film, "Transition," and her corresponding op ed on the increasing number of black women who are choosing natural hair, as opposed to chemically straightened hair or weaves. While it might sound like a throwback to the 60's Black Power era, the tenor of the current natural hair movement is decidedly different. While black hair certainly has political implications, the constant refrain of the current natural hair movement is self-acceptance, freedom, health, and spiritual growth.

While many, including me, celebrate the natural hair movement's emphasis on self-discovery, I cannot help but wonder if something has also been lost with this cultural shift. For all the horrible things about hair straightening, the experiences associated with it have created a powerful thread that connects the vast majority of black women. Even if you have kinky hair now, you probably have memories of time spent with family and friends in kitchens getting your hair done by someone who loved you and who you trusted enough to wield a sizzling hot straightening comb next to your ear. You probably remember that first trip to the beauty shop where black women talked about grown folks' business, and nearly every sentence began with the endearment, "girl." It does not matter if your mother was a teacher or housekeeper, or if you were in New York or Alabama because these experiences crossed class and region. Hair straightening was a rite of passage, an entry into the world of black women.

Full disclosure: I am happy to be nappy and have been for over eight years. I do not miss the fiery sensation of chemicals caustic enough to smack the kink out of my hair. Nor do I miss treating an element as basic as water like it was napalm because it made my straight locks explode into kinky curls. I do, however, miss black beauty culture, spaces where laughter, love, information, and insight commingled freely.

Yes, there are salons for natural hair, especially in major metropolitan areas, like Atlanta, D.C., and New York. But the natural journey is not salon focused. In fact, natural hair allows for a certain amount of freedom from salons, which is good because many natural salons cost significantly more than traditional ones. For some who are natural the cost of certain curly salons is prohibitive. In addition, there are regions where natural hair salons are few and far between. The focal point of the natural hair community seems to be online message boards and YouTube, rather than beauty shops.

My experience with salons and natural hair is vastly different from the beauty shop culture. I go to the salon no more than twice a year. Recently, I crossed one of the most powerful color lines in America: I let a white girl do my hair. She gave me a good cut, and I was back on the street in 20 minutes. In comparison, my mother whose hair is chemically straightened goes to the beauty shop every two weeks for a couple of hours. She comes home smelling of oil sheen spray and full of news. She knows everything, from the platform of candidates for the school board, to the proposed sight for the new grocery store, to who was admitted to the hospital last night. She is not just informed; she is engaged, full of laughter, concern, and outrage.

My mother is part of a powerful community that I remember fondly. When I was teenager, my hairdresser's abusive husband showed up at the beauty shop demanding that she come outside. My mother looked up from her chair and told him to leave. A dozen heads, some in rollers, others dripping with hair dye, nodded grimly at him, before he scurried out. We could not stop what he did at home, but the beauty shop was our space, our time, our community.

To be sure, beauty shop culture is far from dead. Most black women still have chemically straightened hair, and there are still people who consider natural hair socially unacceptable. When a naturallycurly.com web poll asked if the U.S. was ready for a first lady with natural kinky hair, 56% of respondents said no. Black hair is still political. Even those who view their natural hair journey as an internal process are engaged in a powerful political act, just by virtue of reclaiming the meaning of their natural hair. As more and more women make the choice to go natural, I wonder what it will mean for the beauty shop.

Right now, the beauty shop is still there, but I am not. I will not take my daughter there because I want her to love her perfect springy curls. She will hear me laugh with my sister about the time that she 'kissed' my ear with a hot straightening comb, but my daughter will never know how such a tool of pain could evoke such warm intimacy. I want her to love her hair as it grew out of her head, but I also want her to know a place where tired black women can shame a man with a word and look. But I cannot have it both ways.