The Re-Birth of Nap

Until last Christmas, my 85-year-old grandmother and I feuded for five years over whether black is beautiful. She is a short, dark woman, with kinky, gray hair who has been trying for seven decades to lighten her skin. When I wanted to hit below the belt, I would remind her that Michael Jackson had unlocked the secrets of skin whitening and suggest that she contact him for advice.

For four years, the gist of Grandma's argument was that I should straighten the nappy Afro I was growing. I had stopped straightening my hair when I went away to college because I was tired of trying to conform to white standards for female beauty.

Grandma's arguments were so patently racist she sounded like she had been possessed by the deceased founder of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Her mouth didn't froth or anything, but often she'd narrow her beady eyes and upchuck a loogie on me and my black pride. "Black people look like monkeys," she would say. "Everybody knows white women are the most beautiful women on the face of this planet."

My nappy Afro had dashed my hopes of ever watching TV in peace at her house. Then at Christmas 1999, I inadvertently cast a spell over her that forced Nathan Bedford Forest to retreat. I got dreadlocks.

I had started locking my Afro a few weeks after visiting her the previous Christmas. I could tell she loved my new look. "What's that called?" she asked, frowning.

"Locks," I said. "You like it?"

"Look all right," she mumbled and we watched the rest of the "Family Feud" in silence.

While the views my grandmother expressed dismayed me, they were reasonable for someone whose black features have been subjected to 85 years of white ridicule. Tell a person she's a monkey long enough and threaten to lynch her if she doesn't believe you. It's strange how she'll start to agree.

To mitigate white reproach and the reproach of brainwashed fellow blacks, African-Americans have been covering their kinky hair, gelling it straight with animal fat, or frying it straight with hot combs and chemical relaxers since the inception of slavery.

"Black women straightened their hair to survive," said stylist Michelle Robinson of Oakland, California, who now locks hair. "We had to work in white folks' houses. Who was going to let us do that with a nappy head of hair?"

Then, during the Black Power Movement of the 1960s, the unprocessed Afro became a common black hairstyle. When the movement dissipated, many black women returned to straightening their hair.

But in the past five years, particularly in urban areas, large numbers of black women and men have begun to embrace natural hair again. Chemical relaxer sales have been in a slump since 1997, according to market analyst Packaged Facts, who attribute the product's sluggish sales to "the popularity of low maintenance natural [unprocessed] looks." As it was during the Black Power Movement, it's now hip to be nappy. And dreadlocks, or more precisely -- their manicured cousins, twisted locks -- seem to be at the forefront of this development.

In black neighborhoods across America salons and stylists specializing in hair locking are cropping up every where. Go into a beauty supply store serving black communities and vying for shelf space with the hair straighteners, you will likely find any of five new pomades released within the past five years for locking black hair.

"Four years ago, there were two salons in Baltimore that locked hair," said Tyra Jackson, the maker of the pomade Princess Kayla's Natty Dreadlock. "Now there are over 20, all of which sell Princess Kayla." Jackson retails her product through 80 vendors, including the California-based, upscale health foods chain store, Whole Foods.

In addition to Baltimore, the upsurge in hair locking is apparent in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, where the salons and stylists who pioneered twisted locks originated the style. When I asked the founding mothers (most of the stylists are women) to disclose their business' sales, they all demurred. But they eagerly assured me business was booming. "We work hard every single day!" said Rosario Schuler-Ukpabi, the proprietor of the Oakland-based Oh! My Nappy Hair.

No doubt about it: twisted locks have arrived. But why and where are they going? The question gnawing at the souls of lock-wearers, the wallets of "locticians," and the minds of observers of popular culture is whether locks have staying power. Are locks just another fad, the Afrocentric equivalent of the now uber-passe Reagan-era Jheri Curl? Or do locks reflect a permanent, metaphysical shift in black consciousness?

Three Buppies and a Mercedes

Every loctician that I talked to said they were creating a permanent shift in black consciousness by locking people's hair. But when I asked Stanford historian Kennell Jackson whether the recent upsurge in hair locking reflected a permanent shift in black consciousness, he mocked my question by asking me to clarify the definition of "locks."

"What you talking about?" said Professor Jackson, a bald, distinguished black man who chronicles black popular culture. "You talking about buppy dreads? Because that's what I call them. It came to me when I was vacationing in Sea Ranch, California and saw a black family with manicured dreadlocks getting into their Mercedes." Twisted locks are an adaptation of the uncultivated dreadlock to the black urban professional's (buppy's) predominantly corporate work environment, Professor Jackson said.

Indeed, the adaptation seems necessary for the buppy's survival. When a 1981 New York court upheld American Airlines' dismissal of a black flight attendant who styled her hair in cornrows, it gave employers the green light to fire employees based on hairstyle.

"As long as a company's policy is evenhanded," Berkeley law professor Angela Harris explained "i.e., applies to all races and genders, a company can ban cornrows or dreadlocks." (Before you say, "But people of other races don't wear cornrows," think: Bo Derek. According to the New York court, the flight attendant's cornrows were little more than a Bo Derrick-inspired fad.)

Twisted locks are cultivated by parting an Afro into squares whose sides are roughly the length of a nickel. Pomade is applied to one square at a time to condition the hair and help it stick together. Then each square is combed into a Shirley Temple curl, or twist.

One month later the hair is washed, it reverts to an Afro, and the process must be repeated. Except this time, when a section of hair is twisted into a Shirley Temple curl, the tip of the curl will have become matted. These matted tips will not be disturbed and any loose hairs adjacent to a tip will be gelled to the tip with pomade. Whenever the hair is washed, it will be re-twisted in this fashion. Over time these tips bud and become mature locks.

Under the guidance of a stylist, developing mature twisted locks takes 6-12 months and $45-$75 dollars per wash and re-twisting. Contrast this elaborate, potentially costly process with the method for growing uncultivated dreadlocks and you'll understand why Professor Jackson calls twisted locks buppy dreadlocks. Uncultivated dreadlocks is a wash-and-go style whose development some wearers accelerate with beeswax. But curly hair dreads naturally so no maintenance is required. Bob Marley's directions for growing dreadlocks: "Trust the universe enough to respect your hair."

"I can't say that this is a shift in consciousness," Professor Jackson said about twisted locks. "There's no real uproar over it. You see people with locks on commercials for mainstream products," he noted, referring to ads for brands such as Gap, Kodak, and Lysol. "Keep in mind: advertising is risk averse."

"There are no new premises behind locking," Professor Jackson added. The Afro, on the other hand, was a backlash against whitewashed images of black beauty projected by the media, he said. "Locking is at most a continuation of the legacy of the Black Power Movement."

Blacker Than Thou

Quantitatively, it is difficult to gauge the Black Power Movement's imprint on blacks' aesthetic sensibilities. After the Movement dissipated, black women were running after relaxer kits like Marion Jones to the 400-meters finish line. During the '80s, sales of relaxers grew at a rate of 10 percent per year -- far outpacing the concomitant growth in black population -- according to marketing analyst Packaged Facts. Where, besides in the defiant fists of vintage Afro picks, was Black Power at that time?

"People got tired of the Afro and moved onto something else. You can't discount the influence of capricious fashion on hair styling," Professor Jackson said. "On the other hand, the Black Power Movement was the most important shift for blacks in the 20th century. It was a great moment of self-reflection, of introspection," he reiterated.

Cal-State Hayward sociology professor Maxine Craig substantiated the significance Professor Jackson attributed to the whims of fashion. "The Afro became so stylish people started making Afro wigs to emulate it. That drained it of its meaning. It passed from the realm of the subversive into the realm of personal style," said Craig, who studies the intersection of politics and hair.

Although the Afro's popularity faded, its influence on the politics of black identity did not, said Harold Thomas of New York's Locks and Chops, the shop that pioneered the twisted lock. "A generation of black people have become conscious of their identities, of the falseness that has been perpetrated on them. Those beauty myths have been demystified," Mr. Thomas said.

Loctician Michelle Robinson, who has about 100 regular clients, agrees. "The Afro was important," she said of the vaunted symbol of Black Power. But Ms. Robinson insists that twisted locks are not a simple extension of the Afro's legacy. "The Afro didn't stick because it wasn't personal. This time, locking hair, just going natural period, is not political -- it's purely spiritual. It's about self-esteem, self-awareness, and self-respect," she said.

One of Michelle's clients, a male, described the psychological benefits of locking his hair in the testimonial he offered on her website: "I've gotten to grow from the inside out. The growing process has given me the true vision of myself. I wear my locks with the strength and the power that comes along with true knowledge of self."

Money Talks

While some lock their hair to elevate their consciousness, the largest impetus for the recent upsurge in hair locking is anything but spiritual. All of the stylists I met agreed that celebrities popularized locks. "After Eddie Murphy starred in the movie Metro with his hair twisted -- in 1995 -- everybody started asking to have their hair done like that," Ms. Robinson said. She rattled off the names of 15 black celebrities who have locks, including singers Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu. Despite Ms. Badu's revelation in the pages of Honey magazine that her locks are fake, black women (including me) revere her. At the 1999 World Natural Hair and Beauty Show in Atlanta, which 3500 attended, the show's sponsor, Taliah Waajid, presented Ms. Badu with an award for setting a good example for natural black women.

The second most common explanation locticians give for the recent upsurge in hair locking is not spiritual either. It's practical. Relaxers damage the hair and "women are sick and tired of the cycle," said Taliah Waajid.

"Straightened hair is not working," stylist Michelle Robinson said. "Women don't have time to blow dry it and curl it. We commute, work overtime, want to incorporate fitness, and get tired of saying not tonight honey."

Even men feel locking is more convenient than other styles, most of which require weekly visits to a barber's shop, the locticians say.

Such sure-footed pragmatism, when coupled with lofty idealism, creates the one-two punch that locticians say will unseat the relaxer as the champion of black hair styling aids. Though she estimates 70 percent of black women are still relaxing their hair, "I think things will flip flop," said Rosario Schuler-Ukpabi, the proprietor of Oh! My Nappy Hair. "The majority of black women will one day be natural."

But stylists, who have an economic stake in the longevity of hair locking, are not the most impartial observers of this trend, Professor Jackson notes. "Even during the heyday of the Afro, stylists were saying the relaxer is here to stay," he said. With their economic clout, they don't just predict the future and interpret history -- they create it, he said.

Locticians may not be the most objective observers of black culture, but one of their theories is so sound even Professor Jackson agrees with it. Locticians say this trend in hair locking signals improved race relations. "When you feel good about yourself you radiate that in your actions and response to people in general," said Harold Thomas of New York's Locks and Chops. "Race relations will improve because that pride repels negativity. It's not a big effect, but every little step helps."

Indeed, black aesthetic sensibilities have become so widespread that locking is even popular among non-blacks. The Japanese have pioneered a technique for locking even their bone straight hair. Knotty Boy, a Vancouver-based e-tailer of an eponymous hair locking pomade, fills 300 orders a week, almost exclusively from 13--18 year old whites, said proprietor Adrianna Hepper. "The majority of them lock because they think it's cool," she said. They are completely oblivious to the racial, political dimensions of locks, she said. Among non-blacks, "locks won't fade anytime soon," she predicted. "They'll become more acceptable." It remains to be seen whether Ms. Hepper is making a self-fulfilling prophecy like the ones Professor Jackson says her black counterparts have made.

Either way, I know one old lady who, because of locks, is a little prouder to be black today than she was five years ago. Last Christmas when I visited her, my grandmother slightly upgraded her approval of my locks. She thumbed through my hair with upturned mouth and nose, inspecting my now shoulder-length locks.

"Look pretty good," she said. "Look pretty good."


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