I come from the Dominican Republic, a country that has been plagued with the worst kind of self-hate and racism in the world. This is a big statement, but I say it because it is what I live and feel everyday since I returned there—I migrated when I was 4 years old and moved back 18 years later. I am trusting my experience, as James Baldwin, an African American writer once wrote, confiding in the fact that it is my own and relevant to me.
My mother relaxed my hair when I was 9 years old and I continued to do it every 2-3 months until the age of 23. I remember describing how I felt right after a relaxer was applied as feeling clean, more beautiful, and feeling like a huge weight was taken off of my shoulders. My entire life I was socialized to believe that the opposite of relaxed hair was dirty, ugly, and heavy. Finally after spending thousands of dollars on hair products (US$10 for relaxer every two months, an average of $25 for salon visits every two weeks and countless hair products), wasting endless hours at the salon, and enduring painful burns from the relaxer and blow dryers, I said, “No more!”
Deciding to go natural was not an easy process. I cried, I felt like a boy, I felt ugly, I felt less of a women. I realized that like any process, these were just a series of steps that I had to overcome. The feelings that arose gave me a slap in the face, allowing me to deconstruct the origins of these feelings of inferiority based on my natural hair and question their validity.
Many Dominicans who criticize me, see themselves in me and when they reject me they in turn reject themselves. They don’t want to be African, they don’t want to be black, and so when I embrace these things they become afraid because I am them. I am also considered a rebel and a revolutionary for not conforming to what has been determined as beautiful. No one asked my opinion when beauty norms were created. Why is fair skin and long silky straight hair beautiful when I wasn’t born like that and why is being natural revolutionary?
I wish that when we talked about hair, it would be just that, hair—an accessory to the body and nothing else. Pablo Freire, a Brazilian scholar once wrote, “Without a sense of identity, there can be no real struggle.” Until we recognize, love and value our history, our skin color, our hair, ourselves, this fight will be long and painful. Black is beautiful.