While I’ve read countless tales of Black women and their coming of age hair stories that deconstruct weaves, celebrate ’locs and recount the many hours getting slathered with harsh chemicals beside their moms in the beauty parlor, rarely do I come across any accounts of men reminiscing about their own boyhood hair issues.
There might be the occasional GQ piece about premature graying and/or balding, in addition to narratives devoted to the various rites of passage experienced in barbershops (where men talk openly about various topics), but women tend to go more to the root when discussing their tresses. No pun intended. Of course, living in a society where little girls can get expelled for wearing natural hair and sportscaster Pam Oliver was persecuted for her Super Bowl look, no wonder women think about the subject more deeply.
But back in the day, I know I couldn’t have been the only curly haired Afro-wearing boy who was tender-headed, moving from side to side as Mom attempted to pick out my hair. Every morning before school, sitting on the corner of my bed, I ducked more than a boxer in the ring with Ali. Even the brush felt painful for some reason.
Occasionally, Mom would just tell the barber “cut it all off” just to get a break from our daily grooming ordeal. “You had a nice texture of hair,” my mother says today. “I could never understand why it hurt you so much.”
Thinking back, I know I couldn’t have been the only Black boy during the superfly ’70s watching television and wondering what life would be like if I had cool pop star hair like David Cassidy on The Partridge Family, or the ducktail Fonzie wore on Happy Days. Reminiscent of the little girl in The Bluest Eye, my other White hair heroes included Evel Knievel, Tom Selleck, John Travolta and Robert Plant.
Once, spending the weekend with a crew of straight-haired cousins (they weren’t really cousins, but you know how we do) at my godmother’s house, I noticed the difference between my unmovable naps and the smooth hair they could flick with the slight move of their necks.
One morning, while we ate steaming pancakes at the breakfast table, I slowly looked around the table and blurted, “How come everybody has straight hair but me?” I think my Aunt Bootsy (the godmother in this scenario) spit out her coffee. Struck silent, the room was quiet for a full minute until my mother finally said, “There is nothing wrong with your hair. Now eat your food and be quiet.”
At the height of Happy Days mania, my baby brother and I somehow convinced my mother to let us straighten our hair so we could have ducktails too. Although Daddy, who had once worked in a Sugar Hill barbershop called the Shalimar, used to come home with his hands raw from doing conks (the hair-straightening process Malcolm X wrote about in his famed autobiography) on the players and pimps that populated Harlem, I still wanted to put myself through the torture.
There was only one hairdresser in the parlor, and with my brother eager to go first, I was able to watch his hairy transformation and quickly decided that we’d made a mistake. Staring at my brother’s permed hair as though I’d seen a ghost, I told the beautician I had changed my mind. That same night, he too realized that his doo was a don’t and dunked his head in a bathtub filled with warm water.
Luckily for me, since it was the Black power, blaxpaoitation generation, my hair envy wasn’t limited merely to the pale faces seen in 16 magazine. I also fretted about how to get my tender-headed self to have a ’fro like child singer Foster Sylvers. Michael Jackson might’ve had a better voice, but Foster had a much better ’fro.
Peeping Soul Train every Saturday morning, I started fiendin’ to buy the Afro Sheen Blowout Kit that would make my hair a “natural explosion” that was “fuller and fluffier.” God bless the Johnson Products people for sponsoring one of my favorite shows, but why we needed so many chemicals to obtain natural hair I’ll never understand.
Moving to Baltimore in 1979, I was taken aback when a schoolmate at Northwestern High School told me I had “good hair.” Truthfully, I had never heard the expression before. “You’re going to have cute kids,” she added. As the bus passed through the Park Heights section of town, I pondered her words and reflected on all those times I thought I had “bad hair.”
By the end of the decade and the beginning of the 1980s, the Afro thang was fading, and brothers started getting into the Jheri curl look with a vengeance. And again, there was a hairstyle I wanted to have in the worst way. On the boob tube, The White Shadow actor Stoney Jackson played Jesse B. Mitchell, king of the Soul Glo curl activator nation.
Years before he’d be brilliantly parodied by Keenen Ivory Wayans in Hollywood Shuffle—and become the butt of countless stained pillowcases jokes—Stoney was the latest Black pop sensation to influence the hair decisions of many teenage Black boys. The young actor was a teenage heartthrob, and his greasy doo hadn’t yet become a don’t.
At school, more than a few boys followed in Stoney’s greasy footsteps. There was something about the curly sheen of a Jheri that convinced us that we, too, would have more swag as we walked the halls and, of course, be more popular with “the ladies.”
Passing a ’hood beauty shop on North Avenue every afternoon that advertised Jheri curls in the window, I went inside and talked to the hair stylist. “I’ll charge you $50,” she said, sending me away into the streets to earn the loot that would change my look. With the few bucks I made from an afterschool job, I reasoned I could have the money in no time.
Looking at my reflection in the bus window, I thought about how different I would look with shiny hair that would make me fine as a Right On! poster model. Would I buy a motorcycle and start wearing leather pants, or look like a complete idiot?
In retrospect, I must’ve had a hair angel looking out for me, because by the time I got home something in my mind whispered, “If you get a Jerri curl, all of your hair is going to fall out.” Like it was the voice of one of my happy to be nappy African ancestors, I decided to heed the advice.
Every now and then, after catching the ’80s icon on a rerun of The White Shadow or singing “I Can Dream About You” in Walter Hill’s wack Streets of Fire, over 30 years later I sometimes glace in the mirror at my thinning hair and wonder what I might’ve looked like with Stoney Jackson curls.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.