From Dark and Lovely to Happy and NappyJun 01, 2022 06:00AM ● By Trish Ahjel Roberts
My mother was married to a Portuguese guy before she married my Jamaican father. French-speaking and born on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia, she always referred to my father as “shabeen.” The word was French patois— the local dialect my mother spoke when she was growing up—meaning a light-skinned Black man with coarse hair.
I grew up hearing references to the “grade” of one’s hair, as if it had to pass a cultural exam. My mother’s hair was what we called “good” hair back in those days; she had only soft curls. Even so, she was intent on her monthly visits to the hair salon to get her hair chemically relaxed. Sometimes she couldn’t even wait a month. With only three weeks of new growth, she was off to get her hair straightened.
In my Brooklyn neighborhood in the ‘70s, playground references about whose hair had undesirable “naps” or “peas”, further contributed to my ideas of what desirable hair looked like. I will never forget the look on my mother’s face when I told her I wished she had stayed with her first husband so that I could have had “good” hair. I was only six, but the fact that my young mind had combed through so much thought about hair shows how pervasive the topic was in our community.
My mother was not amused. “If I stayed married to him, you wouldn’t be here!” Her anger startled me, but even at such a young age, I knew she was right.
I was delighted to get my first relaxer two years later. It was a source of both pride and shame. Pride, because adults always praised my “full head” of straightened, flowing hair. I felt pretty. My hair could blow in the wind just like Farrah Fawcett’s in Charlie’s Angels. Shame, because when asked if my hair was “permed”—we didn’t call it “relaxed” back then—I had to admit, yes, it was. It wasn’t the natural texture of my hair.
I used to think that all Black people had the same hair texture because, after a couple of years, I couldn’t remember mine. As soon as my curly roots grew in, I was taken to have them chemically straightened. The occasional chemical burns to my scalp were better than getting my hair pressed, and the straightening lasted longer. They also beat the misery of sitting perfectly still next to the stove, waiting for the hot comb, and holding my ears down for fear of getting burned.
By high school, I was buying my own “Dark and Lovely” kits and hair color at the pharmacy. I bleached a blonde streak in my hair and watched it crumble and fall out. I quickly learned bleaching and relaxing are not a good mix.
When I was 21, I shortened my hair into a Salt-n-Pepa bob, where the hair is relaxed on top but natural in the back. I discovered I liked the natural curls at the nape of my neck and wondered what the rest of my hair was like. I went to a hair salon and let them shorten my bob again and again until I finally had the nerve to take it all off. It was liberating! The breeze blew and the sun shone on my scalp, healing it from dryness caused by years of chemical damage. I wore my hair natural for many years, occasionally “texturizing” it by using a light relaxer. It wasn’t until 2007— when I moved to Atlanta—that I fully relaxed my natural hair out of fear of not being able to land a job in the new city.
My beautiful mother died of breast cancer in 2011. I don’t know what caused her cancer, but I’ve since learned that the relaxers she loved so much and used for decades were toxic. Since her death, I’ve made the lifetime commitment to natural hair. I’ve been enjoying a full head of dreadlocks since 2019, and I couldn’t be happier or healthier. I like to think that I make it just a little bit safer for my daughter and other young Black women to embrace their natural beauty. ❧
Trish Ahjel Roberts is a self-actualization and diversity coach, happiness expert, founder of Mind-Blowing Happiness, a coaching business, and creator of the brand Black Vegan Life. For more information, visit TrishAhjelRoberts.com.