Black hair: The Problem Isn’t with Curly It’s with Nappy!

Black hair
(Photo only for context. Woman in photo is NOT the author of the piece)

Black hair

Note from BBT: People who have kept up with this blog for at least a year know that the issue of hair texture is a common theme on this blog. And for good reason. Hair texture was and continues to be a huge issue in the black community. And the general rule seems to be, if black people live in countries in which the standard and accepted aesthetic is straight hair, chances are, they have experienced some sort of discriminatory treatment or comment about their hair at one point or another in their lives. 

This is one of things that became so fascinating to me when I started to learn about the situation of Afro-Brazilians. Reading about issues that deal with hair texture and skin tone in Brazil is almost identical as such issues that exist in black community of the United States. I’m sure many of you will identify with the memories of the young lady in post below, but first, I wanted to share some of my own memories as an African-American male growing up in the US. 

To tell you the truth, I was probably in my late teens when I discovered this question of “good hair” and “bad hair” among African-Americans. Up until my teen years, I thought that only my extended family talked about this thing of “good hair”. Exactly what is “good hair”?, I remember thinking. And why did people in my family think I had this “good hair”? As far as I knew, my hair wasn’t any different from the other black kids at the schools I attended or the neighborhood I lived in. So, when aunts would comment from time to time saying “that boy sho’ got some ‘good hair'” and my mother would say, “I don’t know where he got that hair from, cuz it sho’ ain’t mine!”, I just didn’t get it.  

How is it that I had such “good hair” if every time I went to that barber shop in northwest Detroit, at about the age of seven, the barber would snap through my hair with that pick until the tears were steady flowing? I remember my father would ask me as I was being tortured, “I thought you said you combed your hair,” to which I would always respond, “I DID!!”

In my school years, I had seen blacks kids with all sorts of hair textures and colors. Most of us had black hair, or medium to dark brown, as I would later realize was my true hair color. But there were those with red and sandy brown hair also. Then I remember there being a few mixed and Hispanic kids with much larger, looser curls. My own light-skinned mother’s hair was light brown in color and when I remember when she would ask me to help her color it, I remember seeing my mother’s curls before she would have them straightened out. 

Thanks to some of the friends and hair braiders I knew in my 20s, I would later re-visit and get a better understanding of this hair thing. A female friend of mine, originally from Houston, Texas, but who had been living in my birth state of Georgia for several years, broke it down using her own story. A short woman with very light skin and green eyes, she once told me that the aunts in her family would tease her by saying, “You lucky you got light skin and green eyes because that nappy hair ain’t gon’ get you nowhere!” 

This same friend explained to me a few of the determinants she remembered when it came to having “good hair” or “bad hair”. She once told me that if you could pick out your afro and it stayed high, you had “good hair”. This matched what a male friend told me back in Detroit. He asked me if I remembered the old “blow out” technique black people used to do in the 1970s. He said that his hair was so nappy that when his mother would try it on his hair, it would simply “nap” back up thus his ‘fro would never stand very high. 

The friend in Georgia also remembered her encounters with mixed girls in her school. Although she was light-skinned herself, she said that the mixed girls would always distinguish themselves as “mixed” while she was “just” black with light skin, with the looser curl being one of those marks they used as a means of separating “mixed” from light-skinned black. Amazing how the slavery era still marks our community by some of our people thinking they are somehow better than others because of certain features they had that denoted European ancestry. 

In the 90s and early 2000s, the “good hair” thing would come up again. Corn row braids had made a come back and I was getting my ‘fro braided every week. Somehow, I would always end up with a new pair of hands in my head every other month or so. Sistas in the ‘hood could get pretty creative with the type of patterns they would create with my hair. As the process would usually take about an hour, often conversations would start and, naturally, hair was a frequent topic. Again, the “good hair” thing.

I got into the habit of asking why people said that and what it meant to the particular hair braider of the moment. One simply said that I indeed had black people hair, but what she and others meant by “good hair” was simply that my curl was a little looser, less coarse and thus more manageable and less difficult to braid. Another braider, who replaced one of the other girls when she wasn’t available, put her hands in my head for the first time and asked, “Are you mixed or something?” I was like, no more than most black people and asked why, as if I didn’t already know. She responded, “Your HAIR”! 

Also in Detroit, I used to frequently tease another female friend about the weaves, braids, and extensions she often used in her hair. One day I simply asked, “Why don’t just try rockin’ your own hair?”, and she immediately responded, “Well, if I had hair like yours, I would!” Hair like mine. 

So, as I look back at my own view of my hair as well as that of others, I realize that I didn’t see my own hair in the same manner that others did. Not seeing my hair being anything particularly special, there was a period when I wanted to get the infamous jheri curl that so many were rockin’ in the 1980s. Michael Jackson and so many other black entertainers were wearing the drippy look, so I wanted it too. I’m so glad my mother talked me out of it. “Mark, you don’t need a ‘curl’. Your hair is already curly. If you put some water and gel in it, people will think you already have a ‘curl’.

She was right. 

It’s funny. I remember almost getting into a fight with a guy in school who simply wouldn’t accept that I didn’t have a jheri curl. “Don’t be telling me you ain’t got no jheri curl. I know a jheri curl when I see one,” I remember him saying. I remember thinking to myself, “How is the guy trying to tell me what I have in my own hair? It’s MY hair!” Anyway, another reason I’m kinda glad I didn’t get the drippy look was because one day I was over at a friend of my father’s house one particular Saturday in the 80s. His friend’s wife was putting the jheri curl perm in their son’s hair. The smell was horrific! I remember leaving that house with a headache that day. 

Fast forward more than two decades later and by the late 90s and early 2000s, it was rare if impossible to see black folks rockin’ the dreaded curl. By then, we had moved on to fades, afros, braids, etc. On my first trip to Brazil in September of 2000, it hadn’t even occurred to me what type of hairstyles were common with Afro-Brazilians.

Most Afro-Brazilian men were wearing their hair short and occassionally, I would find a young black male with the designs cut into his head that I had seen in US black communities. Many black women, as a result of miscegenation, already had long, naturally, loosely curly hair.

Some of the women, mostly the darker-skinned ones, were wearing very obvious looking weaves and extensions. I talked about this in my writing about that first experience in Brazil. The girl who was showing me around the city of Salvador, Bahia, told me, “Marky (as Brazilians pronounced Mark), if you want to attract a man here in Bahia, you have to wear one of these.” That is, if you didn’t already have the naturally long, curly hair. 

Black hair
Singer Alexandre Pires (circa 1989) and two women of the group Som Mulheres

In that first week in Salvador, I hadn’t noticed any signs of the jheri curl….at first. Then, I met one pretty young lady named Rejane who had a curl. As we got to know each other, she took me to the office where she worked one day. As we sat and talked, every 5 minutes or so, she would rub curl activator cream in her hair. Yikes!

Singer Alexandre Pires with his band, Só Pra Contrariar, circa late 1980s

Then one late night, walking back to my motel room, I saw it. There was a brother walking about 10 feet ahead of me with a fresh, drippy, 1984 jheri curl. He was the first Afro-Brazilian male I remember seeing with a jheri curl in Salvador. I was shocked. I actually took out my camcorder and started recording his hair as I continued walking behind him. 

Black hair
Permanente Afro and a few products

As it turned out, black Brazilians DID have a period in which they experimented with the jheri curl look. In Brazil, it was/is called the afro permanente or permanente afro and it comes with its own arsenal of products, including creams and curl activator, or ativador de cachos, as they call it. Even today, you will still ocassionally see people, mostly women, wearing one. In Brazil, because so many women of African descent already have long, naturally curly hair, the social pressure to conform for those whose hair is very “crespo” is strong.

When speaking of hair textures in Brazil, people use terms such as crespo (meaning somewhere between kinky and curly), pixaim (nappy), cacheado (curly), ondulado (wavy) and liso (straight). Depending how people use the terms, sometimes pixaim and crespo can mean the same thing, although generally, crespo is more commonly used and seems to denote a range from kinky/curly to to just kinky/nappy. 

Today, with so many women reporting of the damaging effects of hair straightening processes and chemicals many have gone for the “big chop” and then daring to rock their natural kinks and curls. For many who don’t want to fully natural, the permanente afro offers a happy medium. A lot of these women are documenting their hair journies. Check out the photos of Francielle Vitorino’s story here (article in Portuguese), for example. 

With all of this hair talk, regardless of whether you’re African-American, Afro-Brazilian, or an African descendant from another part of the world, you’ll probably identify with Gláucia Luciana Drumond Bispo’s story below. Tell me what you think in the comment section. 

(Photo only for context. Woman in photo is NOT the author of the piece)

The problem isn’t with curly, it’s with nappy!

By Gláucia Luciana Drumond Bispo

[…] the wear and tear in the relationship developed with oneself is tremendously affected by negative social pressure, both by the absence of one’s self-image as a positive reinforcement and dissatisfaction fed by the belief that they assimilate from the strategies of dominant, inferior and “natural” subaltern groups (Joice Berth)

My curls were never an issue for me and others. The problem was the texture of my hair, kinky. In my family, the curls have always been valued, nappy, not so much. I had to “tame” my voluminous, dry and spongy Black hair. Outside the family context, I heard: “corn cob hair”; “agouti hair”; “wow, what a bush!”; “tie that hair down”; “really, your hair isn’t bad, but … you have to find a way.” The “way” given by my mother, who also agreed with others, even unconsciously, was chemicals. “After all, I won’t allow my daughter go through what I have already gone through”, thought my mother, a user of henê (a chemical that straightens, colors, “moisturizes” and makes it acceptable).

At around six years of age, I started my saga with the famous permanente (a chemical that removes the volume of the hair and makes the hair curl with the use of miniature rollers): softened the volume, enhanced the curls and made my hair “ok” to live in society. It hurt to untangle; the smell was very sickening and sometimes caused scars on the head. With this, the kinky was disguised and the curls – the tolerable aspect of my hair – stood out.

After a while, I started to relax (a chemical product that softens the volume of the hair, makes the curls “loosen” and doesn’t use the little rollers). My Black hair was “nice”, it didn’t need a perm. It just needed to have the volume “controlled”. The relaxaxer was applied only to the root of my hair. The root was the problem, in fact: “it’s time to lower the root of this hair. It is getting full again.” The product smelled nauseating and it hurt too much to untangle my hair. If I complained it was worse: “a woman, to look beautiful, has to suffer”.

I listened to this maxim for years of my life (in fact, I still listen to it today). When I asked to take the product out, because it burned, I had to wait a little longer for it take effect. And for about twenty years, I used chemicals in my hair, even when the decision about what to do with it could already be made by me. After all, my hair was not good enough to be free from chemical slavery. I learned to reject my Black hair.

Around the age of twenty-six, I assumed my natural hair, which I didn’t know. It was so many years using chemicals and believing in the words of others, that when I was faced with the possibility of knowing it in its natural form, I simply denied it and ran away (from myself) for a long time. “How can I go without taking care of the root? My hair needs chemicals!”, that’s how I thought. However, with the encouragement of some co-workers, who had already gone through the transition, and with the tiredness of voluntary slavery to the use of chemicals, I allowed myself to proceed.

My hair grew and I lived with two textures for almost a year: one natural and the other with chemicals. I decided, after a few months, to do the grande corte (big cut). And finally, I got to know more of myself than before. My hair is fluffy, dry, voluminous and my curls are formed at the root. It’s kinky curly. I spent a few minutes looking at my natural hair: no creams, chemicals and oils. I liked it, I liked what I saw and assumed for myself and others my true roots, my blackness. I thought that by going through the hair transition process, I had solved the “drama” of the internal and external discussions around my Black hair. I had understood that my crespo is good and beautiful; I stopped performing the highly painful and sickening chemical processes. Finally, I felt free and happy with my self-image. Not so!

I left the salon and went to live life. The first group that saw me as I am – crespa – rejected me. I didn’t understand the reason for the rejection, but I understood that I was despised and for the change seen. Nobody greeted me or talked about my hair. Looks were averted. People were uncomfortable with my new appearance. Others laughed nervously. What bothered those people so much? There are three explanations that I find: first, a crespa woman with short hair, can she? I lost my femininity to some of these people.

I heard some comments and noticed looks that questioned my sexual orientation. Second hypothesis: showing and accepting the blackness that is in me and that sometimes goes unnoticed by my fair skin makes me less acceptable and liable to criticism. The accepted beauty is only one, any aesthetic aspect that deviates from the standard is not accepted, tolerated, nor respected. The chemistry I used on my crespo made us – my hair and I – more tolerable. The curls highlighted by the chemicals disguised the socially rejected texture.

The third hypothesis presents itself with the following question: how do you relate to those who accept the rejectable? This causes strangeness and the first reaction is of repulsion. For those people, my presence became uncomfortable because I accepted and showed love for what is rejected by the majority.

My Black hair has blossomed. Today, it is the way that for years it was prevented from being: kinky, very voluminous, dry and with curls. All these characteristics give the charm that is its own and his uniqueness among so many other types of hair. The look on my cabelo crespo today is one of admiration and a kind of “I’d like to, but I can’t” accept my natural hair or approve it, if it takes some kind of approval to be what I/we am/are kinky-hair and curly-haired. After all, we are talking about a natural beauty denied, aren’t we? That’s fine. It’s a process! Many times painful and strange.

My “new” aesthetics can and should be a source of discomfort and inspiration to many people, either to those who wish to take another step towards self-knowledge, or to those who question themselves about their discomforts in the face of diversity. And it must be said: the capillary transition is not a fashion, nor just a matter of self-love. The transition is an internal and external political revolution. To affirm and value what has always been denied is the sense of transformation and of rescue of the roots.

Looking in the mirror and finding oneself beautiful/pretty does not necessarily imply an acceptance based on self-love. If we don’t realize that we must understand beauty and love it because there have been political movements that have induced thought to the contrary, we will not advance in the process of empowerment (BERTH, 2019, p. 138).

In short, it is not the end of the line when we deliberate – after a long (painful) process – to assume our crespo. It’s only the beginning of much (re)existence and perseverance, for criticism will be “eternal” and acceptance, partial. The world still cultivates beleza branca (white beauty) and devalues black beauty, so the curls aren’t a problem. The question is the nappy. The problem is the evidence of blackness. The violence that presents itself is meticulous, almost imperceptible; many times we don’t understand it. The understanding and the work are slow, procedural.

The struggle is for total respect for my authenticity and for the other coexistents. Let’s keep on!


BETH, J. Empoderamento. São Paulo: Sueli Carneiro; Pólen, 2019. (Feminismos Plurais)

BELL HOOKS (trad. Nina Rizzi). Meu Crespo é de Rainha. –São Paulo: Boitatá, 2018.

FREIRE, P. Pedagogia do Oprimido. 69ª Ed. –Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo: Editora Paz e Terra, 2019. (Coleção Leitura)

NOGUEIRA, R. Por que amamos: o que os mitos e a filosofia têm a dizer sobre o amor. – Rio de Janeiro: HarperCollins Brasil, 2020.

RIBEIRO, D. Pequeno Manual Antirracista. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2019.

RIBEIRO, D. Lugar de Fala. São Paulo: Sueli Carneiro; Pólen, 2019. (Feminismos Plurais)

Source: Geledés

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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