The Root of the Matter

Finding peace with natural hair.


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The year was well, that's not important. I was beginning my senior year of college. With only a few required classes remaining, I decided to take an elective physical-education class. The selections were varied: softball, jogging, golf. Instructors suggested swimming, but with my chemically processed hair, that was not an option.

Memphian Arnecye Baker has heard stories like this too many times: women trapped in what she calls "Miss America hair," unable to enjoy many of the pleasures of life (like frequent swimming) because of their processed hair. A former perm-wearer herself, Baker has embarked on a mission to help women realize the freedom of natural hairstyles.

In her third annual "Natural Sistas Day Out" celebration, "Journey to Natural Hair Freedom," Baker uses short stories to dramatize the history of women, especially African Americans, and hair maintenance. What started as a small gathering of six women in her apartment has grown by word of mouth into a daylong event at the Buckman Performing Arts Center, complete with styling demonstrations and spoken-word performances.

"The drama will be a live and up-close experience and will present the trials, triumphs, and truthful situations in dealing with our hair," says Baker. "We are trying to get to a place where we can love our hair, whatever the [styling] preference."

The show highlights the natural, or non-chemically processed hairstyles that have seen a surge in popularity within the last few years. Worn by women such as actress Alfre Woodard and singer Jill Scott and Memphians such as attorney and Shelby County mayor's wife Ruby Wharton, the natural look is back.

Many of the natural styles, like Afros, braids, and knots, are replicas of those worn by African women. During the civil rights period, natural hairstyles were used by African Americans to make cultural and political statements. Perhaps the most famous Afro of the 20th-century was that worn by activist and Black Panther-turned-professor Angela Davis.

In an interview about the significance of her hairstyle, Davis once said, "I continue to find it ironic that the popularity of the afro is attributed to me, because, in actuality, I was emulating a whole host of women -- both public figures and women I encountered in my daily life -- when I began to wear my hair natural in the late Sixties. The Afro, even though it became a hairstyle, has a political history since the police were known in certain parts of the country to single out people who had Afros because of the political significance of that hairstyle."

These days, people who wear the Afro and natural styles like it have developed their own hair communities, complete with style specialists, maintenance products, and demonstrations. In Memphis, natural hair care is big business. According to Baker, a growing number of stylists are meeting the new demands, but women still should do their own research. As with chemically treated hair, some natural styles are not conducive to every face shape or personality.

Baker, who wears her hair in traditional locks, began her personal hair journey at age 12 with her first perm. After years of processing, she experienced a hair epiphany in 1997 while on a business trip to Atlanta. There, the natural styles worn by many African-American women intrigued her so much she began her own research. "I was like a lot of women," she says. "I like the styles, but I thought they wouldn't look good on me, and I was concerned about what others would think. It was fine for Atlanta, but in Memphis, I didn't think it would go over so well."

In January 2002, Baker stopped perming her hair. "I noticed a sense of freedom and knowing that I was already beautiful," she says.

But what about people who enjoy the sleek, manageable, bouncy feel that perms provide? That's okay, says Baker. The upcoming celebration is not a perm-bash but a lesson in self-love:

"We're not going to say things like, 'Yes, I can swim with my natural hair now,' because what we're dealing with is more important than that. We're talking about a foundation. There has always been a perception of good hair being permed or straight. But all hair is good hair and that is what we are wanting women to see. Natural hair is the root of who we are. Look at a baby picture. We weren't permed. If one desires natural hair, it should not be an unheralded thought." n

"National Sistas Day Out: Journey to Natural Hair Freedom" will be held Saturday, August 21st at the Buckman Performing Arts Center at St. Mary's Episcopal School.

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