A three part series where I share excerpts from my memoir titled Unicorns are pretty but they also bite. This series will cover my relationship with my hair because black hair is often talked about and criticized.
Is it stinging?: My first relaxer (and the ones after that)
To be honest, I remember bits and pieces of my first relaxer experience. What I do remember is being dropped off by my mom at Ms. Angie’s house. She was boisterous, petite, rocked a gold front tooth, had three kids, and ran a daycare out of her house. She lived up the street from us but my mom dropped me off to get my hair done while she ran errands.
There were kids everywhere. Running in the house, out the house. I remember the torture of having to sit still while Ms. Angie combed my hair and piled white goop on top of it. After that, the waiting began. Ms. Angie told me in her quick, untraceable accent that I should, and I quote, ‘Let her know when my hair starts stinging.’ I remember thinking, what does that mean? My hair is going to sting. What will that feel like?
It felt like an eternity in kid time. Everyone else got to play but I couldn’t. I had to wait. Wait for what, I didn’t know.
Ms. Angie would yell at the kids and every now and then she punctuated her yelling with a ‘Is it stringin’?” in my direction. I would shake my head and continue to wait. This faint itching feeling started to grow. I didn’t think anything of it so I didn’t say anything.
After some time, perhaps 20 minutes later, Ms. Angie started to get worried.
‘Is it stingin’’ she asked again. I shook my head.
‘It’s not stingin’ but my head itches,’ I quietly told her.
She grabbed my arm so fast and it was off to the kitchen sink to get the white goop washed out. The whole time she chastised me for not telling her sooner. I remember at the time thinking, “my head wasn’t stinging. It was itchy.”
For whatever reason, I’m not really sure why, I walked home. This was the era of responsible, lack of parental supervision. Your parents gave you general rules like, telling them which friend’s house are you going to or coming home before the streetlights come on. Any kid will tell you though, things happen. You may start at so-and-so’s house but you didn’t always stay there. Like the time I briefly “went missing” because I made a new friend, a little blonde, white girl who’s parents had a trampoline. I mean, YES PLEASE! I was only 4 houses down from my house but my mom didn’t know that. She had some words for me when she found me.
I still remember the kids, young and old, and the adults reactions to seeing my freshly relaxed hair. I could be wrong but my hair at the time was dangerously hovering in the mid-back range
My life as I knew it changed.
Every couple of weeks, usually before some big event like Easter or Christmas, I had to spend my Saturday mornings in the beauty shop. I had graduated from Ms. Angie’s box relaxer that you could buy for $8-12 dollars to a professional styling. Not only that, I had to get up at an ungodly time of 8 a.m. to get to Benny’s hair salon. Why? My mom wanted to avoid the rush.
Sometimes she sat with me but most times she left me to wait. Now, before you go and shake your head at my mom’s parental skills, in her defense, Benny’s salon was a short gravel parking lot away from her job at a daycare. The daycare would occasionally be open on Saturdays and my mom would use those opportunities to schlep me along to get my hair relaxed.
At this point in my life, I must have been about 10-11 years old. I would flip through outdated hair magazines showing black hair models with fingerwaves, curls, dye jobs, you name it. I watched with ridiculous fascination as Benny chain-smoked, debated some soap opera tidbit, and flat-ironed a woman’s hair at. the same. time. Benny was a tall, choclolatey brown, black man with a medium build. He wore his hair in a small fro while he relaxed, washed, and dyed countless black women’s hair. His salon was in a shopping plaza, if that’s what you called it. In reality, it looked like any other non-descript, gray, cinderblock building with a painted red, white and blue sign above the door, easily seen from the street.
The one thing I didn’t like about Benny is that he loved to talk. And sometime, heaven forbid, he would try to coax me into conversation. I mean, I’m a kid. He’s an adult. In my quiet kid mind, I’m thinking what do we have to talk about and please, please, please don’t talk to me. I would breathe a silence sigh of relief when someone else would come into the salon.
When Benny moved his salon to a single-family house, our business went with him. I dreaded when my mom would say it was time for a relaxer. That meant I would spend 8 a.m. to noon (sometimes until 1 p.m.) at the hair salon.
Now you’re probably thinking, what the devil? Four to five hours in the salon?! If Benny had done my hair from start to finish the whole thing would probably have taken an hour and a half. But, that’s not how it went. Things I learned: my hair takes forever to dry, Benny likes to take a lot of smoke breaks, he loses track of time, but, to my extreme annoyance, he would work on other people’s hair.
The only downside, you know besides the whole four hour hair session, was that his clientele were older women. I’m talking 65+ easily. You know how I know? Because he would always style my hair as if I were an octogenarian. And, most of those ladies, liked their hair styled like the women you see in 1930s and 1940s. To some of you, you’re probably thinking that sounds lovely because that type of hairstyle is sooo in right now. Trust me. In the mid-1990s, southern Georgia, and a black girl to that, trust me. That was not cute.
Whether I liked to admit it or not, Benny was a big part of my childhood and my understanding of my hair. I still remember how women pointed when they saw my ‘good hair.’ It seemed like Benny got the proximity fame. He got to talk about my hair to other people. How good it was. How thick and healthy. It was something to be admired.
I’m not entirely sure of what happened to Benny. I don’t exactly go home anymore. I heard that business wasn’t going so well so he started working at Wal-Mart part-time. He still ran his hair salon on the side. Then, he either hit his head or had a stroke but he had to have emergency brain surgery. He recovered but I’m not sure to what extent. That’s the last I heard of him. On the off chance you read this, I love you Benny!