The Washington Post

Oprah’s natural ‘do: A salute to our culture

An article about Oprah sporting an Afro on the cover of her magazine reminded me of why I have long admired people who have the courage to grow dreadlocks, wear braids or rock short natural cuts. On the cover of her September magazine, Oprah’s “all natural” is teased out to the max. Check it out here.

Oprah Winfrey speaks at the annual Literature Festival in Jaipur, capital of India's desert state of Rajasthan, Jan. 22, 2012. (Altaf Hussain/Reuters)

“What happened?” I shrieked.

“What?” he asked innocently.

“You cut your hair! I loved the locks!”

“I can’t cover City Hall with locks. No one would take me seriously,” he said. “I’m going to have a hard enough time because I look so young.”

He was also a musician, a guitar player. He needed his hair for presence on stage, I thought. His hair, I thought, had spoken independence and strength. He knew who he was, what he liked, the times he was living in, and he appreciated his African American culture. We had plans for him. He would become assistant editor soon. He would represent our African American newspaper well sporting those locks.

“You’re covering a black City Hall,” I said, not revealing those other many thoughts running round my mind.

He flashed his charming smile, shrugged his shoulders, and that was the end of that conversation. When he was promoted, and would be in the office most days, he kept his hair cut short. No doubt, his father’s corporate sensibilities had prevailed.

In the 1970s when African Americans were black and proud, we wore Afros like crowns. The bigger and fluffier, the better. I was a Muslim girl wearing scarves, per our conservative Nation of Islam teachings, at the time. The men and boys wore conservative haircuts — very close to the scalp. Wearing natural hair picked out to the ends looked like freedom to me.

But, by the time I was old enough to wear an Afro, the style had changed. African Americans had gone mainstream. You cut your hair if you wanted any chance at getting a corporate job. You cut your children’s hair, too. Hampton University, one of our prized historically black colleges and universities, banned business students from wearing dreadlocks and cornrows. By now, civil-rights babies, men and women in their 50s, 60s and 70s, have come full circle. Back to their natural hair — or shaving their heads altogether.

I began getting perms in my teens because I was very tender-headed and perms made my hair manageable and less painful to comb. My scalp is not so tender these days. But now I perm to relax potential employers and business partners’ minds. My hair straightened and pulled back in a conservative bun is my way of saying, “Yes, I will fit in. You’ll get no trouble out of me. Yes-sir-ree boss. I’ve got it all straightened out.”

Away from work, I have lots of fun with weaves and clip-ons. My husband shakes his head saying, “You ain’t even trying to fool nobody,” because I’ll go from 6 inches — my natural hair length — to 14 overnight. My 8-year-old neighbor, who is not so familiar with African American hair changes, delighted in the long ponytail I grew overnight. I didn’t have the heart to tell her it wasn’t real. But I hoped her mother would explain so the child wouldn’t cut off her tresses expecting them to reappear the next day.

As discussed in Chris Rock’s movie, “Good Hair,” many people misunderstand what’s at the root of our hairstyles. Are we making a political statement? Are we being defiant, counter-cultural? Are we having too much fun? Are we being natural simply because it’s easier — and healthier (no chemicals or excessive heat)?

Many of my women friends have been wearing dreadlocks or short natural cuts many years. They’ve gone from braids and plaits and puff balls as little girls, to Afros in their teens, to perms in their 20s and 30s, to locks in their 40s and beyond. Of course, no one who has chosen to be natural needs the validation of Oprah wearing an Afro. But maybe non-African Americans need to see it. So, thank you, Oprah — for just being naturally you.

Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery is a contributing writer for The Root D.C. She is also author of “Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam” and “Do Me Twice: My Life After Islam.” Follow her on Twitter @Sonsyrea.

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