Memories of Hair

I was born with a head full of black hair that could be pulled up into a little top pony tail. It soon fell out leaving me practically bald with a bit of blond hair. It slowly grew in sandy and kinky like my father’s and grandfather’s rather than wavy/straight like my mother’s and grandmother’s.

Hair_3_blogFrom a letter written to her in-laws by my mother, written March 18, 1947.

Kris (with her 2 teeth) says any time for you all laughing at her bald head – I fear it’ll be covered all too soon with first one thing and then another.

Doris

When Pearl and I were little, my mother didn’t wash our hair often. Once every two weeks? Once a month? Not very often. She used Breck shampoo, put a little olive oil in the sink full of warm water and poured it over for the final rinse. After and between washings she’d part our hair and put “Three Flowers” grease on our scalp. I remember that sometimes, when I was in elementary school, she would roll it up on kleenix curlers and let me wear it “down” for one day after she washed it. I enjoyed the change from braids but it wasn’t really “down”.

Aunt Abbie, my maternal great grandmother’s sister, lived with my grandparents. She assured my mother that is was all right that Pearl and I didn’t have “good” hair because we had blue eyes.  She assured my Aunt Mary V. it was okay her daughter’s didn’t have light hair or eyes because they had “good” hair. The sister’s shook their heads about it.

When I was in sixth grade, a classmate asked me during art class if I had ever had my hair straightened. I had not. She hadn’t either. Ironically, that afternoon after school, my sister and I went to the beauty shop on 12th street near Calvert recommended by Aunt Mary V. and had our hair straightened for the first time. We got pony tails in back and a pony tail down the side. Going to the beauty shop always gave me a headache. I remember listening to my beautician talking to the other women about how hot it was and how her husband was going to have to sleep on the couch because it was too hot to be all up in the bed with another hot, sweaty body.

Eventually I stopped going to the beauty shop, although my sister continued for years. There were the beauty shop headaches and I started taking swimming in junior high and high school. Those horrible bathing caps didn’t keep out the water and my hair soon took back it’s natural form.

My mother still straightened my hair for special occasions. She heated the comb on the stove and there were the inevitable burnings of the ear. Other times I wore my hair in what a classmate described as a “shredded wheat biscuit”.  Sometimes I borrowed some of my father’s Murray’s Pomade and after brushing the stiff, yellowish stuff in, it did lay down and had small waves.

During the summers when I was about nine to thirteen, I spent a week at the mostly white Camp Talahi.  Some of the girl campers would ask me “Why is your hair like that?”.  At first I would say because that’s the way it grows.  Eventually I just responded with “Why is your hair like that?”  They would look puzzled.

My last semester of high school I didn’t take swimming and discovered that if I rolled my hair up on those hard, pink curlers I could wear it in a sort of curly side wave on the side and pull the back into a barrette for a low pony tail. Sometimes I even wore it down, somewhat like those hairdos in elementary school.  Once Pearl and I braided it all up into lots and lots of little braids, which reminded us of the paintings in Egyptian tombs. We thought it was great, and I would have been way ahead of the times, however my father hated it and I never wore it like that anywhere.

While visiting Pearl at Howard for Thanksgiving of 1966, I let one of her roommates straighten my hair. My mother complimented me and thought it looked lovely. When I went down to Wayne, I met Jim in the Montieth Center. He was aghast that I had straightened my hair. I went into the restroom and washed it out in the sink and that was the last time I straightened my hair. I was 20.

At one point in our lives, Pearl and I complained to each other that we had inherited our father’s kinky hair instead of our mother’s wavy hair. We reasoned that boys were supposed to get their mother’s hair so if he had gotten his mother’s wavy hair, we would have inherited that because girls (in our theory) inherited their father’s hair. Later, when natural hair came in we were so glad we had the hair we did. We didn’t have to do anything but wash and wear to have afros.

The next summer, 1967, we had the Detroit riot/rebellion. My cousins, Janis and Greta, came to visit us for the first time from Athens, TN.  They were the same age as Pearl and I. Somehow, it came up that I wanted to cut my hair for an afro. Greta volunteered to do it for me and she did. It was great! I loved it. The only scary part was going to my Grandmother Cleages for the first time afterwards. We were afraid she might say something negative or even mention it during mealtime prayers, but she didn’t. I was one of the first to wear an afro on Wayne’s campus.  That fall, in Miriam’s Jeffries project student apartment, I cut several people’s hair for their first afros. I remember Kathy Gamble was sad to see her long hair fall on the floor.  I cut Martha Prescod’s and can’t remember who else. I hadn’t cut anybody’s hair before, although I cut my own when it got too long.

I wore an afro until about 1988 when I decided to let my hair grow out and see what happened. I let it grow until 2004 or so when I cut it all off again and have kept it cut ever since.

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11 Responses to Memories of Hair

  1. Paul Lee says:

    Dear Kris,

    I know that I’m “almost” family, so you and Jim will have to forgive me for saying this, but the wonderful sequence of photos of the different hairstyles you’ve worn thruout your life only prove to me what I wrote you two weeks ago — namely, that you’re not only beautiful, but different KINDS of beautiful, a process that will never end, just as it didn’t with your mother, with Pearl, your aunts, cousins or any of the other women in your family.

    As if the Cleage gene pool isn’t rich enough, you all are even MORE beautiful inside, which says a lot — brilliant, sensitive, caring, devoted to family and, of course, our people. That a family like yours would consider me even “almost” related to you is more of an honor that you might guess.

    I have the honor to remain

    Your Li’l Bro,

    Paul

  2. Kathy says:

    Women and our hair – we do have stories to tell about it. I don’t know if men have such a personal history with their hair or not? Is it a gender thing? I’ve written a couple of “hairstories” on my blog and one or two more will probably show up one day or another. We once had an associate pastor at our church who gave a whole talk (very funny!) at a women’s retreat about her life through the context of her hair, which was considered bushy, wild and hard to tame. She even received anonymous letters from a woman in the congregation who found the pastor’s hair particularly distracting. (She was found out when she approached the pastor after service one day and complimented her hair.) How funny that you worried that your hair would be mentioned in mealtime prayer!
    I enjoyed seeing your pictures throughout the years and your various hairstyles.

    • Kristin says:

      It didn’t seem very funny at the time.

      Maybe we have to do a survey of men to see if they have such hair stories. They probably have a few but I doubt if they loom large.

  3. ebonie says:

    Black women and our hair stories are very much apart of our culture.

  4. Liv says:

    OMG! Kristin, I have not thought about or seen a bottle of “Three Flowers” in a very long time — LOL!

    There’s nothing like black hair I tell you! From press and curl pigtails, tight curls from pin curls, afro-puffs, jherri curls, corn-rows, perms and Revlon hair shows, to the natural short cut I’ve been sporting for 8 years now . . . I’ve worn it all and loved every moment of it!

    I may not be my hair, as India Arie song goes, but I certainly enjoyed the bold and fresh statement I made with my various looks and styles, not to mention seeing heads turn when I walked into a room . . . .LOL! I tell you, there’s nothing like black hair! THANK YOU so much for this hair celebration!

  5. LindaRe says:

    I enjoyed seeing your hair story through pictures. Beautiful.

  6. Angella says:

    We all have hair stories. I loved hearing yours.

  7. Kristin says:

    I am glad you enjoyed the hair stories. I wrote on it for awhile and then wasn’t sure about posting it. It seems like the posts I’m not sure about, turn out to be some of the better ones.

  8. Mary McCawley says:

    I was thinking this morning of taking a picture of my hair. Anyone who knows me knows how much i hate my hair and have always hated my hair. I bleach it, and perm it so that when i put curlers in it it will stay where I put it. My hair is so straight that it sticks straight out. I don’t have limp, straight Peter,Paul and Mary hair. My hair has body. Because I washed it last night and was too lazy by the time it dried to put my warm steam curlers in it, this morning I awoke with a cock’s comb. The sides and back were flattened from having slept on them, but the top stood straight up and flipped from side to side. Had I not slept on the sides and back they would have stuck straight out like Bozo’s. I have never understood why any Black woman with nappy, curly, frizzy, or whatever you want to call black hair would do anything but clip it short and take a pick to it.
    I’ve thought of having my head buzzed, but I am pretty sure that somehow i would end up with lines across my head and hair, short as it was, pushing in odd directions. I am the only one anywhere in my family on either side with this hair, although my son, Jonathan’s hair comes close. He has his head buzzed, because even half an inch long he has to fight with it. I think hair is a nuisance, and I always harbor a small secret loathing for people with good hair. Don’t get me started on make-up.

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