Merlene Davis: Program offers ways for black women to embrace their natural hair

Members of the advocacy group Hair Matters ... Live Curly want black women to embrace their naturally curly hair. From left, Rasheedah El-Amin, Deborah Majeed, Melanie Higgins-Day and Jill Chenault-Wilson.
Members of the advocacy group Hair Matters ... Live Curly want black women to embrace their naturally curly hair. From left, Rasheedah El-Amin, Deborah Majeed, Melanie Higgins-Day and Jill Chenault-Wilson.

When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I chose to wear my hair in a very large Afro.

It was my in-your-face statement about being black and being proud of it. It was my need to push back against some of the experiences I had endured while a student at the University of Kentucky. It was me going natural.

As the years passed and I needed employment, I chemically relaxed my hair so I could wear more acceptable straight styles that didn't seem to scare employers.

But several years ago, when I found myself leaving the house every morning with two small kids in tow and chemically treated hair that required more attention than I had time to give it, I cut my hair and went natural.

And although I have dabbled with various styles over the years, I have never regretted it.

But going natural isn't really natural for many black women.

"Our mind-set is that if you have natural hair, you are ugly," said Deborah Majeed, whose hair has been natural for nearly two decades.

Natural hair for black women is not processed or chemically altered.

Majeed and Melanie Higgins-Day, members of Hair Matters ... Live Curly, a grassroots advocacy group, want black women to embrace their naturally curly hair and redefine their self-image through information offered at an event they are hosting on March 18.

"Naturally you: curls, coils and locs" will feature local and out-of-state stylists who will display the range of styles available with naturally textured hair, as well as ways to better care for curly follicles. The information could be eye-opening for some biracial girls as well.

One of the presenters will be Ladosha Lynn Wright, a licensed cosmetology instructor in Cleveland who also produces and hosts the radio talk show, What They Don't Tell You at the Hair Salon. Wright teaches the study of scalp and hair properties, which help black women properly care for their hair.

Far too often black women have watched their hair thin, break off and stop growing because of the chemicals used to straighten it. Plus, with some straight styles, swimming was out of the question for fear of their hair "going back" to its natural state because of the moisture. U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin has said black women are reluctant to exercise for fear of ruining their hairstyles.

But even with all those negatives, many black women never overcame their fear of showing off their natural hair texture. What would their friends, family members, co-workers and male companions say?

There is a billion-dollar industry focused on black hair, including weaves, wigs and chemicals. The first black millionaire, Madame C.J. Walker, earned her money selling black hair products.

All my life I heard natural, kinky hair was "bad" hair, and straight hair was "good" hair. It takes a while to put those whispers aside. Comedian Chris Rock produced a documentary, Good Hair, because his daughter mentioned how disappointed she was in the texture of her hair.

But, after deciding to go natural, it takes a while to figure out how to work with natural hair. Most black women get their first perm in late elementary school, so working with natural hair becomes a lost art.

Academy Award nominee Viola Davis stepped out on the red carpet Sunday for the first time with a short natural style dyed red. She did so only after her husband told her to "Be who you are."

Majeed, a manicurist, knows that feeling. She has sported locs for several years. "If I permed my hair, they would say 'Ms. Deborah, what's wrong with you?' " But she realizes there needs to be a holistic approach when encouraging black women to go natural.

"That's what we are trying to do," she said. "Make people feel good about themselves. We're working on the inside and then on the outside."

Presenters at the event will discuss nutrition, explaining the nutrients that build stronger, healthier follicles. And she will give out recipes for homemade hair dressings that are natural.

Higgins-Day, a beautician and president of Hair Matters, said her hair has been chemically free since May 2005. But most cosmetology schools shy away from teaching students how to style textured hair and that needs to change.

"Having natural textured hair doesn't have to be boring," she said. "There is a need and a hunger for it in this city. The next generation is grabbing it and saying this is exciting."

And that's true. My 21-year-old niece has an appointment to go natural this weekend. My daughter has been natural for years.