Forty years before Chris Rock's daughter asked the question that led to his 2009 documentary "Good Hair," my Memphis girl was hooking this sista up. My first trip back home after being off at college was a rite of passage I refused to fail. No matter what else was going on, it was imperative that I return "college cool."Hair has always been key to cool. Enter Rita Gatlin.
"Want me to fix your hair?" Rita gazed sympathetically upside my head.
"You know how to do hair?"
"Girl, I got a hot comb and some pressing cream." With those words, Rita Gatlin, a slim, 18-year old, smart black girl from Memphis, Tennessee, carved herself a permanent place in the story of my life with hair.
Rita and I were two of six black coeds at Lawrence University in 1967, which made us one-third of the university's black female population and, as far as we knew, one third of the total black female population in Appleton, Wisconsin (pop. 50,000). Fortunately, Rita had come armed with the proper tools of the hair trade for her foray into the Land of the White People.
When I headed for Wisconsin, I wasn't worried that I was traipsing off to integrate a whole region of the country. My biggest concern was much more basic: Stuck out there in the middle of nowhere with all of those white folks, what would I do about my hair? No black folks meant no black beauty shops in the Fox River Valley. How on earth would I be able to go from mid-August to Christmas without getting my hair done?
Even though black women have never had the clean hair fetish that seems to plague white American women, the story of us and hair is one full of twists and snags, wrenching and pulling, lotions, potions and kinks. And when I was little, I was easily satisfied with the few hairstyles Odessa thought were age appropriate, all of which involved braids: one plait hanging down on the side and two either hanging down in back or stacked horizontally high up the middle of the back of my head and anchored with hairpins. On special occasions, my braids could be loosened and turned into two-strand twists, braided at the end.
Adolescence triggered my campaign to convince Odessa to let me "get my hair fixed," straightened out stiff and shiny with grease and a hot comb. I was encouraged by my sister's example. She had begun working and could afford to buy herself a do. I desired the same. Mama tried to talk me out of it with her usual reproach.: "God didn't make nothing that needs fixing."
Easy for her to say. She had naturally straight, long hair that hung in loose waves when she unfurled it, which she never did, not wanting to flaunt the kind of "good hair" Negro women would burn, fry, and dye for. I resigned myself to my natural state until my first job enabled me to purchase my own hair remedies, which I did with swift dispatch.
The first lessons in mane-taming were the cruelest. After all of that time, sweat, money, and wincing, natural elements could wipe out my investment quicker than I could say, "Go back"-two words I loathed to have spoken in reference to my hair. I never, ever, wanted my hair to "go back." But it always snapped right back to its original, coiled kinks.
The first signs of the inexorable retreat appeared at the roots and along the edges of my hairline where fuzzy, furry new growth betrayed its older siblings which, when my luck held, would still lay plastered flat in total submission for weeks, sometimes even months. My hairdo's otherwise leisurely retreat could also be hastened with heartbreaking speed by water. Whether in the form of a rainy day, sweat from exertion, or steam from a faucet, moisture was death on my fixed head. Hair straightened with a hot comb in a standoff with dampness became a mass of puffy hair, fat hair whose volume expanded exponentially as the moisture content increased. Like others of my tribe, I was wonderfully creative at keeping water away from my hair.
Many anthropologists think that African Americans don't know how to swim because we're afraid of water. Not exactly. While many black women are afraid of water for its drowning potential, far more fear its mutilation potential, its relentless propensity to make our hair go back to the very place from which we have, at great effort and expense, rescued it.
Early 1960s chemical technology ushered in a new wave of nappy hair relief euphemistically dubbed "the permanent." Not only would a perm waterproof your hair, water on permed hair would make it even straighter! It would be a few more months before college introduced me to an even more shocking discovery: white girls got perms too-only they used the lye-based hair processing technique to curl life into their strands where black girls -and white ones with "curly" hair like ours-used a perm to wipe curls out.
In fact, the "permanent" was anything but, as it had to be repeated at six-week intervals. Also called a "relaxer," it was not that either. The ordeal began with a scalp-strafing white creamy mixture of chemicals slathered onto the scalp where it remained as long as the customer could stand it or until she began silently weeping, whichever came first. At that point, she'd be whisked to a sink for a shampoo and rinse underneath a stream of cool water that would've been soothing if it hadn't felt like it was peeling off several layers of scalp the chemicals had previously loosened from her skull.
Depending upon the final effect desired, various size curlers would be used as tension rods around which hair would be wrapped as taut as humanly possible short of the hairdresser bracing her knee against the small of her customer's back and ordering her to "Pull!" The head so trussed would then be guided into a high wattage hair dryer-a small head furnace equipped with a metal bonnet and blasting heat-where it would bake for 3-4 hours while the customer tried to ignore both her headache hammer and the scorching heat that was soldering her scalp flaps back to her skull. Hard plastic "flesh colored" caps were available upon request to keep the customers' ears from melting and sliding down the side of her face.
But, perms were prohibitively expensive in the early years and enough of enough of a cosmetic novelty for me the summer before college that I wasn't about to try one for fear that I would end up bald. So the weekend before I headed for Wisconsin, I got my hair straightened-"pressed and curled"-with a hot comb one last time and prayed it would last until my return home at Christmas. As our holiday vacation rolled around, though, it was clear my prayer had not been answered. My hair was what caught the attention of hot-comb wielding Rita.
"I can fix your hair now if you want me to." Thus spoke Saint Rita, offering immediate salvation. Water had not touched my head for nearly four months. My scalp was raw along ruts dug by fingernails trying to scrape away the itch borne of a head direly needing a shampoo. The once effective scratch-inspect-flick routine no longer worked. My scalp was so sore it could hardly bear the weight of a thought.
I floated behind Rita up to her dorm room. Sitting in a chair facing the mirror, I gazed admiringly at the accoutrements of my cosmetic deliverance lined up on a towel on the desk: fat, black plastic comb, nylon bristle brush, and jar of pressing grease.
Rita snapped a white towel in the air beside my head and draped it around my neck. Then she wet her finger with spit and gingerly touched the tiny stainless steel oven that housed the straightening comb and was plugged into the wall. When she pulled the comb from the oven, I inhaled the familiar curl of warm blue smoke wafting towards the ceiling and closed my eyes.
At first, we talked and laughed while Rita parted, greased, and straightened small chunks of my hair. Eventually, though, I floated off in a reverie of redemption. From time to time, I'd open one eye and see my fat hair gradually being replaced by a glistening shoulder-length mane plastered to my head. Hours passed before Rita roused me from my state of near slumber. The comb glided through my hair, followed by the light pressure from her hands smoothing my head. Thinking she was done, I got up. Rita pushed me back down.
"You want a hard press, right?" A hard press? I had no idea what that was, but I was so overcome with Rita's skill and generosity that she could've offered to attach a third ear to my forehead and my answer would've been the same.
"Oh. Yeah." Extracting the hot comb from the oven, she started on me again. This time, though, instead of using the teeth, Rita used the back of the comb to press a smoking path the length of my hair. An hour later, she really was through and my helmet of hair was notebook paper flat. I gazed at my reflection, using the big mirror and Rita's pocket mirror to check her handiwork, front and back. So that was a hard press. I loved it.
Suffused with pleasure, I put on my coat and pranced back across campus with my head bare head despite December's wintry blast. Further stiffened by the cold, my hair hung in a motionless wedge by the time I burst back into my dorm and bounded up the stairs to my room. I slowed to a saunter down the corridor, eager for my floor mates to catch sight of my new do. Sure enough, upon spying me, one after another called out after me, puzzled by the specifics of my transformation.
"Berni, did you go swimming today?" "Why is your head wet?" "Did you cut your hair?" Did I cut my hair? Stupid white girls. My hair was hanging at least a half-foot longer than it had been four hours earlier and they wanted to know if I had cut my hair! I waved silently and speeded up. Perched on the side of the sink in my room, I leaned into the mirror above it. I was still stuck there admiring my slick transition when Kolleen burst in.
She stopped short. "Oh, Jeeze! Is that grease?! You put grease in your hair?!" She stuck her head in the hallway to recruit more witnesses. "Hey, you guys, come see what Berni did to her hair! She's got it all gunked up with grease!"
I couldn't wait to away from these silly white girls, get back home where my and Rita's toil would find an appropriately appreciative audience.