Women express themselves through their hair. It tells our stories - it can even express a mood for the day. In many ways, it's a status symbol and in some cultures, it's your art form. Hair is a blank canvas, some with naturally built in texture. You can color it, twist it, braid it, add to it, cut it or not have any at all - and that's a statement too. Black women, for a long time, have struggled with the notion of good hair and bad hair. (See Chris Rock's take on Good Hair for example). Recently, within the last 5-7 years, it's been the trend to wear your hair in its natural state - to be proud of your own particular hair. Black women are literally letting their hair down and not "relaxing" it with perms to make it straight as much. Natural hair is a huge movement right now.
I went natural two years ago. I wanted to explore what my hair looked like. My mom permed my hair when I was four years old because it was too thick to manage she said. When I told her I was going natural, she said I wouldn't be accepted in corporate America. She told me that this wasn't Africa and black women just don't wear their hair "out" in America if they wanted to be viewed as a professional. I did it anyway and fell in love with my unique curl pattern. Now, 2 years later, I'm ready to find out what else my hair can do. What are the other options - what do women in Africa do with their hair and would it work for mine?
Wandering around in Indy's new "international marketplace", I found myself peering at a couple of African ladies braiding, locking and twisting hair in the back of a product shop. They looked so interesting. They were dark, adorned with beads and colorful cloths. They were smiling and speaking in their language, laughing. I made an appointment with them to do my hair two weeks later. Why not?
When I got to the shop, they proceeded to twist my hair and didn't ask for much direction from me. I tried to get a conversation going. I really wanted to learn more about their process, what hair meant to them. I noticed the lady braiding mine, Seena, had paint on her feet and a beautiful skirt on. I asked where I could get a skirt like hers. Chuckling, she said, "Oh not here, honey, you get this back home."
I told her my name was Mali, spelled like the African country. She told me that Mali was beautiful and that I'd love it. I finally got her talking - she loved talking about where she was from. She said that here in the States, people work for a living instead of just living. In her home, Senegal, there is a party every day and art. "Well, art is a part of our daily lives," she said. "It's in our clothes, in our hair, on our bodies; art is everyday normal."
I let her twist my hair for nearly four hours. Two hours in, she leaned over and said, "Let's put this in your hair, yes?" A long package of red dyed hair was dangling in my face and I quickly said oh no, no thank you. "Yes," she said. "It will be nice. I will try it and you tell me if you like it." I let her try it...
Seconds later and convinced that getting Senagal-ese twists were enough without also trying red weave, I told her I'd keep one twist red but to please take the others out. It was interesting though. I'm sure she thought that I was much too conservative and maybe, to her, not very artfully inclined. The ladies carried on, sharing stories in French and using their small fingers to make beautiful hair creations.
I left the shop with a completely new look and a new outlook on our hair. Our hair, in some cultures more than others, is an opportunity for a creative outlet, for art. Each one different than the next.