At the age of nine my mom gave me a perm -perm being short for permanent relaxer. I still can feel the cold white cream lathered on to my head, the tingling sensation that could soon lead to burning, the relief of water washing it all away. Like cornrows and box braids relaxer became another hair routine between me and my mom. Soon she gave the job over to the neighborhood hair salons -Haitians were our favorites and later Dominicans. Though I was well aware of racism even then in my young teen years I never quite saw permanent relaxer as an expression of internalized racism. It just seemed to be a part of growing up, between the ages of 9 and 12 everyone just got a perm. No one questioned whether you would get a perm or not it was only a matter of when.
Before I reach my ‘ah ha’ moment of internalized racism I can’t forget that getting a perm often also correlated with the age you were expected to do your own hair or your mother was simply tired of sitting you between her legs for another crying session. In some ways how can I blame black mothers for making hair styling easier on themselves and their daughters? Black hair is not difficult to deal with but it takes and entirely different approach to hair care than our mothers were use to. It takes over night protective styles, ample hair conditioning and -most shockingly, ‘gentleness’. Madame C.J. Walker did us a great benefit by creating the perm and giving us a means to “easy” hair care and a way to fit in to the mold of mainstream beauty standards but we also lost a great deal in not being able to learn to take care of our own hair and create our own beauty regimes and standards to pass down to our children and allow them the option not the “necessity” of permanent relaxer.
My “ah ha” moment came when I read an essay connecting perms to internalized racism. It isn’t what I wanted to hear but my heart knew the author was right. I chopped most of my perm off after reading the essay. Though I regret not “phasing in” to natural and keeping my length I know I made the right decision. My hair has grown back and I continue to learn how to care for it and to appreciate it. Women like Tracee Ellis Ross give me hope that authentic blackness is okay and cool, women like Angela Davis show me that blackness doesn’t go out of style. I asked my dad about the Afro in the 70’s and how popular it was and why it died out, he told me of its omnipresence and that it became a style dissociated from its original black power movement and when a new style came -Jerry curls and later relaxer once again, most people went to that style. It died because it became a trend and trends fade, so I asked him how we keep it alive now given the newer natural hair movement and he said to me “Well how did it never die for people like Angela Davis? It was more than a passing style, it was a statement”.