Curly Hair: When Race & Hair Collide

How did my curly hair journey begin? It all started with my mane!

Yup, that's the one. Well, not exactly. It looked a bit more like...

As an Afro-Caribbean woman I remember growing up with many pressures from society. Some of these pressures unknowingly came from family, other times from the media and many times from within.

My mother, a White Puerto Rican, married my father, a Black Dominican, much to the dismay of her family. “Mejorar la raza” or “improving the race” by marrying white or light-skinned folk is a reality in Puerto Rican, and Dominican, households. Whether those exact words are, or aren’t, said out loud- it’s inherently understood.

It’s no secret that whiteness is highly celebrated in the African Diaspora; and the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico are no exception. I was surrounded by straight hair, light skin, and Eurocentric features that were considered the epitome of beauty my entire life.  I’d dream of how I might appear with my mother's hazel eyes or my cousins blue eyes, rather than my father's big, brown eyes.

I am the Black child of a White mother and Black father, and naturally inherited features from both of my parents. I have a caramel skin tone that is much lighter than my fathers, but I also inherited beautiful mounds of thick, curly hair, and prominent facial features very different from my mothers. I like to think I have the best of both worlds. As Warsan Shiresays, “on my face they are still together.”

Even so the pressure to fit in, and my mothers lack of knowledge and skill styling curly hair vastly different from her own, lead her straight to the hair salon where my mothers hairstylist slathered copious amounts of relaxer to tame my “pelo malo” or “nappy hair.”

The first time my hair was relaxed I was ten and I continued to do so until the age of twenty-one. For years I struggled with maintaining straight hair and any growth, and boy did it grow, was a nightmare. Attending a college in Upsate, N.Y. where no one knew a thing about growth, relaxers, and curly hair was a battle in it of itself. But somehow I managed to maintain my hair as best I could, i.e. I discovered the flat iron; and of course recruited other Black girls to relax my hair with store-bought relaxers- huge mistake!

By February 2011 I was [almost] done with relaxing my curly hair. The comfort of my relaxed hair was ridiculously difficult to let go of, but the thought of dealing with one more relaxer, a burnt scalp or scorching hair dryers was more than enough motivation for me to quit my addiction! Believe me, I don’t use the word addiction lightly. If succumbing to societal pressures by applying pounds of toxic chemicals to my hair every 3- 6 months isn’t an addiction, I don’t know what is.

In July 2011, I decided to study abroad in Costa Rica which was such a blessing. Why you ask? Costa Ricans don't perm their curly hair! At least none of the Costa Ricans I encountered. They didn’t sell nor know how to use relaxer in Heredia, Costa Rica, and the Afro Costa Ricans I met flaunted their natural curls with pride. So much so that my host mother, whom I swear is an angel sent by the universe to guide lesser beings into the light, would help me practice protective hair styles when I had no clue what I was doing. Her positivity was such an inspiration that by the time I returned to NYC in November 2011, I was no longer interested in relaxing my curly hair.

I am proud to say that it has been about six years since my last relaxer, and my hair, with the help of protective styling, minimal heat, natural products and treatments, is long, thick and fabulously curly.

Want to know how I maintain a healthy Curly mane?

Stay tuned for next week’s blog on how my mane brings all the boys to yard!

Besos Bellas,

Jessica Jade