I’ve been meaning to write this entry since a few months after I moved back to Kentucky from Philly, but I guess its better that I didn’t do it so soon. After being natural for two years and spending one of those years in Louisville, KY, I’ve had a lot more time to really examine the experience.
So. I’m from Louisville, KY, born and raised. I moved to Philadelphia, PA in 2005 for graduate school, which didn’t work out on account of me absolutely hating everything about it. I lived in Philly for four years, and while I was there, I kind of went natural by accident. I was still perming when I moved, but I was hesitant to find a stylist in the city because A – salons (along with everything else) are WAY more expensive up there, and B – …I didn’t really trust anyone there to do my hair. I’d always be on the lookout for somebody with super cute, thoroughly fried, dyed, and laid to the side hair so that I could ask them where they got their hair done, but never found anybody. I was never the type that had to have a touch-up every 6 weeks; with a good flat ironing, I could keep it up pretty well, and that’s how I ended up falling into the transitioning phase: while I waited to find a good referral, I washed and flat ironed my hair every two weeks or so. Before I knew it, a year had passed, and then I was kinda like, ‘well, I guess I might as well just see where this goes.’
I don’t know that this could have or would have happened had I still been living in Louisville. once I discovered that my hair was curly at the age of 18 (I got my first perm at 12), I got curious and kind of wanted to stop perming to see what my natural hair was like, but I was very hesitant because I knew I’d stick out like a sore thumb. And though I was fine with doing that in college where I was one of like 30 black people, the idea of standing out too much among my own people kind of shook me. Which is normal for that age, I suppose. But in Philly, natural hair was as common as relaxed hair, and seeing it every day in the living world (and not just on TV in McDonald’s commercials) normalized it for me. With so many diverse black folks in Philly, no matter what I did, I wouldn’t find myself in the margins, so it felt safe to do it there, and maybe gave me the courage I needed to do it.
But in Louisville, my security blanket would be gone. when I decided to move back home, I was very mindful of kids I’d seen teased in school–because they had short hair, nappy hair, or (worst of all back then) short AND nappy hair; because they didn’t/couldn’t keep up their relaxers. And I can count on two hands the number of people in my life who still believe in the existence of “good hair” (some family members included). I didn’t know how Louisville had changed since I’d been gone, if it had at all, so I kind of expected this mentality to still be as pervasive as it was when I was a kid. When I decided to be natural in Philly, I had to fight to accept this new vision of me that I’d find in the mirror. When I decided to be natural in Kentucky, I had to prepare for others to reject this new version, because I just knew it was going to happen. So there I was, David, polishing her rock, etching Goliath’s name in its side; Daniel, getting ready to go tell the lions to STFU already. the good news is that in expecting this, I found an additional , stronger later of that steely resolve to be myself no matter what, which was awesome.
The better news is that when I got here, I found that I didn’t need it.
And now we come to the meat of the story: just what is it like being natural in Kentucky? For me (and this is only my personal story), it’s amazing. I do stand out, as expected, but that’s only because the visage of a black woman walking around with a big ol’ fro is relatively new here. I get lots of questions and comments from people who just don’t know what it means to “go natural” or to have hair that you don’t process in some sort of way; lots of women ask me what kind of rollers I use to get the curls that I have, and are surprised when I tell them that I don’t perm my hair. But I haven’t heard a single negative word about my hair, have noticed no dirty looks. It’s actually quite the opposite–I think I received about 5 compliments on my hair, total, in Philly, but here? It happens at least once a day, from all types of people.
And I did wonder how certain types of people would receive/respond to me. What would my dating experience be in Louisville? As visually driven as men can be, would the men in Louisville be interested in and attracted to a woman with natural hair, especially when most of the women in the city are relaxed? What about white folks? We kind of scare them already.. Will this extra layer of blackness cause a bigger brew-ha-ha? What do I do with my hair in the workplace? Will my hair work against me in interviews?
The answer to all those questions, except the first one, is no. Most of the compliments that I get are from men. And not all of them are from men trying to sweet talk me to see what color my panniedraws are. Most of the men who do compliment my hair are older, 40+, and they often reference certain nostalgia–”that’s from back in my day! I love seeing this again!” And something else I’ve noticed…older white men really love it, which actually kind of… creeps me out? LOL. Like what is this, you tryna live out your grandfather’s dark chocolate fantasies?? Does the afro remind you of the good ol’ days? Are you calling me Kizzy in your head right now?! lol. My racial paranoia aside, it’s still pretty cool. I also appreciate seeing men younger than me accepting natural hair, because the younger generation will probably be the last to really embrace it, I think, because it’s so hard to go against the grain when you’re young and trying to fit in with everything else around you. It’s possible though. I think it will happen in due time.
My experience with natural hair in the workplace has been favorable; I’ve only had one eye-rolling moment, and that came from a white woman in the office I used to work in who told me that I “look so professional now!” the one day I came to work with my hair straightened. Everyone else in the office (I was the only black person there) actually told me they prefer my hair natural and curly (not that I’d asked them, but, you know). As far as landing jobs, my initial policy was straighten for the interview, then give them the Angela Davis on the first day of work. Then sue if they fire you. on two separate occasions, I stayed up til the butt crack of dawn the night before interviews straightening my hair only to wash it right out, not pleased with the results. I expected that my interviewers, who were both white, would keep me at a distance, thinking my hair “unprofessional,” but I was actually complimented by them both (and one told me how creative I was after I explained that I used the leg of a pair of pantyhose to pull my hair back before offering me the job). So, no barrier there. …So far.
My absolute favorite response is the one that I get from other naturals, though. It’s not rare at all for me to be stopped by natural haired women that I don’t know (or for me to stop other naturals that I see walking around in the city) and have a 30 minute conversation about hair. There’s just so much excitement and kindness and interest in those exchanges–’OMG I love your hair! How long have you been natural?? What do you use?!’ And I’m not really use to that; I don’t want to generalize or make any stereotypical statements about black women, but I will say this: that never happened when I was relaxed. Could be because since that was the norm, it wasn’t really necessary. but I kind of think that when everybody looks the same, it’s easy to find yourself in competition with the people around you in order to stand out, so you become critical and judgmental of others in order to elevate yourself a bit. That’s a fancy way of saying you become a hater. ‘Ugh, her hair is busted and disgusted. She prolly think she look cute, too. She needs to fix that kitchen on the back of her neck! And you see her shoes? Don’t even get me started on the shitty eyeliner job she got goin’ on.’ When I was permed, I got plenty of side-eyes, eye rolls, and baseless suspicion from women I didn’t know. And though I know that perms aren’t to blame for such behavior, and wouldn’t be so naive to think that natural women aren’t capable of this as well (because lord knows y’all/we are!), I’ve just noticed that it doesn’t happen as much anymore. Or maybe going natural has just made me more secure, secure enough for me to not notice or care when it happens now. Whatever the cause, I’m in love with the effect.
I really think there’s certain between women inspired by the common ground we share as people who have chosen to live and operate in the margins of beauty. There’s kind of an unspoken respect, one that says ‘I see you and what you’re doing; I probably know what a struggle this has been for you, and I share the story; I commend you for your bravery.’ My experience as a natural here in KY has been something I never ever expected it to, and I love it.
There is a downside, though: I get called Jill Scott and Erykah Badu waaaay too much for my liking. But other than that, it’s been a dope ride so far, and I look forward to seeing the natural community in this city and state grows.
Ladies: What have your experiences been like in your particular city/state? How does it differ from other areas, if at all?