Black women in Columbus journeying back to their natural roots

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 15, 2014 

Patrice Riley remembers the hot comb sizzling through her kinky strands. She remembers her first perm and braided hairstyles.

What Riley doesn't recall about her childhood, though, is what her hair actually looked and felt like when it was just in its plain, natural state.

"It's amazing. I'm in my 30s and I'm just starting to deal with my natural hair," said the 32-year-old who made the transition from relaxed to unprocessed hair two years ago.

And Riley is not alone. She represents a growing trend in Columbus, and across the nation, of black women journeying back to their natural roots and making self-discoveries along the way.

For many, it's a long, tedious process that requires shedding a Eurocentric perception of beauty and the long-held belief that Afro-textured hair is inferior.

Historians have traced such twisted notions back to slavery, where fairer-skin slaves with straighter hair were favored over those with more African features. "Good hair" and "bad hair" became household words in the black community. Mothers began straightening their daughters' tight coils at younger and younger ages to make their hair more "manageable" and acceptable to society.

Today, black hair care is a $10 billion industry. It started in the early 1900s when a black woman, Madame C.J. Walker, popularized the hot comb and became the first female self-made millionaire in America.

Since then, black women have journeyed from the pressing comb to perms, and now they have a variety of options, including weaves and wigs, which allow versatility in hairstyles.

But the natural hair movement, which includes dreadlocks, twists, braids and afros (a throwback to the 1960s), is gaining momentum, said Nikki Jones, who works as a natural hairstylist at the JCPenney at Peachtree Mall. Even women who aren't sporting the ethnic styles are choosing to go chemical-free. They're having their hair blown-out and flat-ironed instead.

Jones said many black women are going natural because of thinning hair and breakage from harsh hair products and medications for high blood pressure and other ailments. They're not only learning to take better care of their hair, she said, but also their bodies in general.

Laketia Lee, another stylist at the JCPenney salon, said most people don't realize that what they eat has an impact on the health of their hair. She said drinking lots of water and consuming fruits, vegetables and coconut oil provides the hair with nourishment.

"So we encourage eating a lot of natural foods," she said, "and staying away from genetically modified products."

Black hair enthusiasts said women are pressured by society to look a certain way, especially in corporate America, and some struggle with accepting the natural look. They see black women in the entertainment industry, with their long flowing tresses, and think that's the standard for beauty. But in many cases, the entertainers are wearing fake hair.

Riley, manager of the Big Dog Running Company store on Broadway, said she's still learning to love the hair she was born with -- and it isn't always easy.

"Some days it looks awesome, and other days it looks unruly, and not the way I want it to," she said.

But Riley enjoys the freedom that comes with wearing her hair natural -- such as walking in the rain, running and swimming, and not having to worry about ruining a perm or pressed hairdo. And she believes it sets a good example for her daughter.

"I love the fact that my 4-year-old plays in my hair," Riley said. "I do her hair in natural styles and I want her to be free with her hair and accepting of it."

Learning the process

At the Mildred L. Terry Library, a group of about 20 to 30 women meet the third Saturday of every month for Naturally "U" sessions to help women in the process called "transitioning."

Deborah Clark, 52, a children's associate at the library, said the meetings began after a local Facebook natural hair group, "Frolific," started having sessions at the library and other venues. The library staff then decided to create a space where women could meet monthly and utilize library resources for their transition.

Candace McBride, founder of Frolific, said the group, which has 150 members, started in 2010 after she and some friends went to Atlanta for an event called Fro Fashion.

"We just liked the atmosphere of being around people that were natural, getting advice from different people, and just bringing that feel back to Columbus," said McBride, who decided to go natural because of eczema.

Twanna Moore, 35, started another Facebook group called "Columbus GA Naturals -- It's a Lifestyle." It has about 80 members and some also attend the Naturally "U" meetings.

Moore was pregnant and living in Atlanta when she went natural five years ago. Her sister, a natural hairstylist, suggested she make it permanent.

"After I had my daughter, she said, 'You don't need to put a relaxer in your hair,' and I'm like, 'um, yes I do,'" Moore recalled. "At that time I was working (as an account manager) for Coca-Cola and you know working for corporate America then, it wasn't acceptable, at least I didn't think it was."

But Moore took her sister's advice and embraced her curls.

"I began researching different styles I could do and it just led me into an array of things," she said.

When she wore the styles to work, some colleagues asked her, "When are you going to comb your hair," she said. And they asked her to wear it differently for public presentations.

"If I wasn't the person that I am, I could have easily gone back to relaxing my hair," she said. "I don't think society is willing to accept it. Although a lot of people are going to natural hair, in the corporate culture it's still hard."

Yet, she doesn't regret making the decision.

"The journey has been great for me," she said. "I'll never, ever put a relaxer in my hair again, not only because I want to be natural, but also the information I found out about relaxers that contribute to a lot of health issues."

When Moore moved to Columbus, she joined Frolific, and then started her Facebook group. Now, she runs a business called Essential Oils Boutique at 3470 University Ave where she sells natural products for the mind, body and spirit.

Moore said black hair comes in different textures and what works for one person may not work for the next. So it's important to experiment with different products. She recently started a Healthy Hair Challenge to encourage women on the journey.

"Going natural is not just something to do because everybody else is doing it," she said. "You really have to understand it's a lifestyle. So once you make that decision not to relax your hair anymore, you're going to start thinking of other things, too. You're going to be conscious about what you eat and begin reading the ingredients on the products."

Getting the confidence

Clark, who wears her hair in two-strand twists, said she wouldn't have gone natural if her hair didn't begin thinning a few years ago. As a child, her mother straightened her and her sister's hair every Sunday, while the family listened to the New York Evangelist, the Rev. Ike, on the radio. She always liked having pretty, long black hair, even though it meant enduring burns from hot combs and perms.

"My hair was always relaxed and I loved it," Clark said. "But it was beginning to thin and I wore a wig for about three years. I was like, 'Natural? No not me, I cannot wear my hair twisted like that.'"

Then one day she had to wear African attire for an event at the library so she decided to twist her hair. She was concerned about how she would be perceived by her colleagues, but was pleasantly surprised.

"I got there, and everybody was saying, 'That looks nice on you,'" she said. "That gave me confidence to take my wig off and to wear my hair."

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