When hair style and political self-image are intertwined, coif confusion ensues

HAIR OBSESSION MAY WELL BE THE CRUCIAL AND AS YET undiscovered measure of what's in a woman's head. How could it be otherwise? Almost every woman I know has a hair fetish, even those whose hair looks as if it hasn't been combed, brushed or washed in decades, and I'm not talking about sisters sporting dreadlocks.

Once I thought it was only me, that I was a victim of hair obsession because of my family. My grandfather was the general manager of the Madame C.J. Walker Co. of Indianapolis, founded in 1901, which produced "fine hair care products for women of color" guaranteed to "glorify our womanhood." My mother and most of her brothers worked for the company, and as a young woman I used nothing but Madame C.J. Walker products: Glossine to make the hair shiny, Hair Conditioning Cream to keep it healthy, Satin Tress Shampoo to clean it, Setting Gel to roll and tame it.

As I got older, I began to realize that not only was mine a hair-oriented family, but African Americans are a hair-obsessed people. In our obsession, we even went so far as to assign virtue and values to different textures of hair: Straight hair was called "good hair," nappy hair was called "bad." The hair at the base of the neck, usually the curliest part, was called the "kitchen." I'm not sure why, although some suggest the name derives from straightening hair with a hot comb, usually over the kitchen stove. The "kitchen" had to be burned straight.

With the advent of the Black Nationalist and Black Power movements in the late 1960s, hair obsession took new forms. The terms "good hair" and "bad hair" became unacceptable. A new hair style came into being, one that didn't involve a straightening comb or chemicals. Instead, hair was cut to frame the face and picked at with a tool resembling a giant, eight-pronged fork. With this new hair style -- the Afro -- came a new militant political attitude. Bad hair became good; good hair became a badge of miscegenating forebears, a difficult cross to bear in the nationalist 1960s and early 1970s.

In our house, hair remained an important issue. My sister cut her long, straightened tresses into a lovely, short Afro, temporarily breaking my mother's heart and giving rise to accusations of being a "traitor to the Walker Company."

My loose-curled hair had once been "good" but now was "bad." I yearned for an Afro: Getting one wasn't easy. I spent a whole hot weekend in the summer of 1968 dragging from hair salon to hair salon in Harlem, begging someone, anyone, to cut my hair into an Afro. The beauticians sneered. "You betta' forget it, girl," said one. "That hair ain't never gonna nap up!"

I was devastated, hot, tearing my hair. I had to have a natural, needed to make the political statement the hair style implied, couldn't face another minute of scorn from brothers in dashikis and sisters with gelees wrapped around their Afros. Finally, the barber at the Harlem YMCA on 135th Street had a suggestion: "Go home, cut your hair short and then wash it in Octagon laundry soap," he told me. "Maybe then it'll nap up," he said, though he sounded dubious.

It worked! The next day I had a three-inch 'fro -- no Angela Davis head of hair, but a respectable statement anyway. I was one of us, which meant a great deal more than being one of them, even at the risk of baldness from putting industrial-strength cleaner on my scalp.

Nationalism changed, broadened, became internationalism. Nixon became president, Fred Hampton was shot to death in Chicago, affirmative action became reverse discrimination. Today, the Afro has been de-politicized, has become commonplace, so much so that it's blandly defined by Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary as "hair that is shaped into a round bushy mass" and is illustrated with a picture that makes it look like a nappy bouffant.

My natural grew longer, flatter, grayer and straighter. I became too busy to have to nurture a recalcitrant hair style every day -- to meticulously pick it into a perfect halo each morning, spray it with Afro conditioner, make sure to get in out of the rain lest my beautiful 'fro deflate into a sodden pixie haircut.

For nearly 10 years, I wore a bun.

Around me, the natural forest also decreased. Afros were replaced by new hairdos -- Jheri curls, cornrows, Carefree curls, extensions and weaves; shelves were full of new hair care products -- light relaxers, mousses, styling gels. In the 1980s, "Do your own thing" became the dominant principle for hair in the African American community. Once again, it's hard to tell us from them.

I chose none of the new styles. For a while, I wore my hair piled on my head and pinned up in back with barrettes. Texturally, it looked middle-of-the-road: not good, not bad, not ugly. Politically, I was told, it looked conservative, with an antic touch. But, as hair will, it grew, demanding more attention. The last time I saw my mother, she told me, "Do something with your hair. You look like Don King."

A few months later, I cut it all off. Now, ease is the new wave: The only thing I do to my hair is wash it. The rest I leave up to Mother Nature. It demands neither thought, attention nor political affiliation -- for now. But I know it's there, growing, biding its time until it's ready to rise up again. ::