by by Doreen St. Félix

illustration by by Katy Windemuth

From follicles in the middle layer of skin, out sprouts the dead thing.

Hair begins in the bulb-shaped organ called the follicle. Once hair grows past the surface of the epidermis, it is dead. The length of hair outside of the skin is referred to as the shaft. Hair is primarily composed of protein, like keratin, and other biomaterials such as melanin, vitamins, and zinc. About 10 percent of hair is water.

When the shaft hits the outside air, it expresses itself in a multitude of shapes. The coils, the springs, the spirals curving around each other like a string of Zs. The strands diffuse from the scalp in all directions—the look is that of density but the feel, when the fingers sink into the mass, is that of sparseness. The individual strand of afro-textured hair is flat and fine, the strand tending to twist upon itself. When afro-textured hair is wet, it shrinks.

In the early fifteenth century, hair served as a carrier of messages in West African countries. The Yoruba, the Molof, the Mende, the Karamo, the mothers, the grandmothers, the daughters who looked like their mothers and grandmothers, used hair to communicate age, rank, wealth, marriage status, ethnic identity, and religion.

“The hair is the most elevated point of your body, which means it is the closest to the divine.”—Mohabed Mbodj, a historian

We are trying to say something.

“For instance, a braided style begun from the forehead and that ends at the back of the neck showed that the woman is married. On the other hand, maiden style always runs from the right side of the head to the left ear. The smaller, and the more strands a young lady carries, the more beautiful such a lady will look.”—Mbodj

Her scalp has already begun to burn. Although my sister is wailing, my mother blowing and spitting on the raw flesh, her hospital-gloved hands guiding the gush from the sink to wash off the pink chemical, my sister’s scalp has already begun to burn. I was four, she was fourteen and my mother was unfazed. The first time she chemically relaxed my sister’s hair, we were in our kitchen. There were tears in our kitchen. Blue-black, sickly snakes of hair sucked into the drain, in our kitchen. Some of the hair was still attached to pieces of her scalp. A couple of hours later, a blow dryer and dabs of burn ointment later, my sister beamed under the hat of California-straight hair, there in our kitchen.

The relaxer works by process of controlled damage. During its cooking time, it changes the coil by stripping the outer layers of protein. No-lye relaxer kits claim gentler processing. The caustic agents they use instead of lye—hydroxides including potassium, lithium, and guanidine—do the job just as well. The pH value of these agents ranges from 10 to 14. The pH of human skin is approximately 5.4.

Can you kill an already-dead thing?

“But, it should also be said that afro-textured hair is difficult to categorize because of the many different variations it has from person to person.”-Andre Walker, Stylist to the Stars

In 1834, Professor Calvin Stowe of the American Colonization Society said: “The woolly hair and dark skin are evidently adapted to warm climates; and those are the situations for the physical and intellectual development of the negro race. Where shall we find the most favorable exhibitions of the negro character? In the cold regions of the north? Or in Egypt and Ethiopia? In Carthage and Morocco? In the West Indies and Brazil?”

“His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are bushy, and black as a raven.”-Song of Solomon 5:11

Sandra owns Maribel’s, on Stephens Court and Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. The salon boasts an extensive list of services: weaves, wash-and-sets, braids, texturizers, trims, cuts, coloring. The $60 relaxer is the most popular service and Alana, another hair stylist, is the best at it. “Alana can hook anyone up. The girl could relax a damn sheep’s head,” says Sandra. Sandra snaps her fingers over the phone and I can hear it. “Shit, even white and Spanish girls come to see her.” People wait hours for Alana. On the burgundy awning of Maribel’s is a stock photo: Brown Woman with Wavy Black Hair.

“Dark and Lovely is the only No-Lye Relaxer featuring a moisture replenishing system! New moisturizing benefits added to the advanced no-lye conditioning formula using a combination of natural ingredients and body enhancing polymers. Dark and Lovely Moisture Seal No-Lye Relaxer System infuses and seals moisture into each and every hair strand providing a soft and full finish. Not only is your hair silky-straight, it has ultimate body & shine!”

And then I feel it: the girl’s teenage fingers crawling, digging a little to see if its false. She is disturbing the shape I made, the shape that made my chemistry teacher roll his eyes. I rushed in three minutes late. The girl getting closer to me, smelling it. Her hand, it circles around my twisted bun like a shark’s fin. My body, it tightens because the hand there is not its hand. Her hand pulling the hair down and her lip dropping when my hair did not spring back up because my hair does not spring back up. Her voice squeaking, inevitably, “why is your hair so fuzzy!” and it is not a question.

What was sent, what have I received?

“Dark and Lovely Moisture Seal No-Lye Relaxer System contains alkali. Please follow directions carefully to avoid skin and scalp burns, hair loss, hair breakage, and eye injury. Do not use if scalp is irritated or injured. Do not use Dark and Lovely Moisture Seal No-Lye Relaxer System on bleached hair or permanently colored hair that is breaking, splitting or otherwise damaged.”

Concerning black hair, Professor Ingrid Banks said: “For black women, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If you straighten your hair, you’re seen as selling out. But if you don’t straighten your hair, you’re seen as not practicing acceptable grooming practices.”

“I tried going natural but it was hard…my hair started growing out like an Afro…”

Who changes you and are you changed?

“Pain differs from the classical senses (hearing, smell, taste, touch, vision), because it is both a discriminative sensation and a graded emotional experience. Pain is termed nociceptive (nocer – to injure or to hurt in Latin), and nociceptive means sensitive to noxious stimuli. Noxious stimuli are stimuli that elicit tissue damage and activate nociceptors.” Nociceptors, a complicated labyrinth of bare nerve endings, are found in the skin.

My mother decided she wanted to do an experiment on me. To her, my natural hair “wasn’t too bad,” so she never relaxed it. Every other Tuesday, up until I was in high school, my mother sat me on the floor and trapped my small body between her thighs. She did my hair. It hurt and I squirmed and sometimes she struck my back with the comb and sometimes she sang to me. Braids going back tightly up to the crown, and twists in the back so my hair swung. The style could last two weeks. For the first few days, when the style was still fresh, the skin on my nape stood taut from her pulling. My red scalp glittered bright with grease.

“The doll experiment involved an African-American child being presented with two dolls. One doll was white with yellow and the other was brown with black hair. The child was then asked questions inquiring as to which one they would play with, which one was the nice doll, which one looked bad. The experiment showed a clear preference for the white doll amongst all children in the study.”-The 1939 Clark Doll Experiment

Contessa Gayles, a journalist, noticed a bald spot on her hairline. “Some serious dandruff and an annoyingly itchy scalp were cramping my style following my latest relaxer.” But this isn’t the 20th century anymore: “It wasn’t because I heard a rallying cry, too revolutionary to ignore. No marches or riots led by rebels whose afros were accessorized with picks molded into the shape of the raised “black power” fist. She cut off her relaxed hair and is now growing out her natural hair. She has “never been comfortable being categorized, corralled into a group.” Particularly not, “when it comes to her ethnic identity.”

What of the meanings, what of the meanings we brought?

What I remember most is how pink it was. Against my father’s wishes, my mother outfitted the small kitchen in our new house with rose countertops and rose hand towels. Above the sink hung a plastic crucifix, painted in deep Rosa Mexicana. From up there, it “blessed us, O Lord, for these thy gifts which we were about to receive.” By the sink, there was a perpetually half-empty bottle of grapefruit soap. The stool cushions—not yet worn because we had not yet lived in that house—were generally green plaid. But even that polite design was striped with the color of carnations. Pinkness strikes you, the way it refuses to be red. All the while, it’s calming, neutralizing you so much that you barely notice the stink of burning scalp.


Years before he began signing his name “X,” Malcolm bought a can of Red Devil lye, two eggs, and two medium-sized potatoes. The supermarket trip couldn’t have cost him more than two dollars. Then he got a jar of Vaseline, a bar of soap, a wide-toothed plastic comb. An apron and a hose and gloves—these were made of rubber. The trip to the drugstore to buy these probably cost more. He met up with his friend Shorty, who rented a slip-shod room in his cousin’s apartment for six dollars a week.

“A jellylike, starchy-looking glop resulted from the lye and potatoes, and Shorty broke in the two eggs, stirring real fast—his own conked hair and dark face bent down close. The congolene turned pale yellowish. ‘Feel the jar,’ Shorty said. I cupped my hand against the outside and snatched it away. ‘Damn right, it’s hot, that’s the lye,’ he said. ‘So you know it’s going to burn when I comb it in—it burns bad. But the longer you can stand it, the straighter the hair.’-The Autobiography of Malcolm X

I remember that the hair on my sister’s nape is not as flat as my sister would like it. My mother bends down, smoothes a popsicle-stick’s worth of pink glop on the edge hair. The beady tufts go limp, almost immediately limp. Here, the kneeling mother.

Can you kill an already-dead thing?

Malcolm’s hair caught on fire. Once he steadied his trembling knees and sucked the mucus back up his nose, he dunked his head in the waiting washbasin. Then, using the mirror, Shorty shaped his silky sideburns all slick and Malcolm didn’t remember a thing.

“I always gotta tell them to keep still, these grown-ass women. You move, I get some of it on your ear, it’s gonna burn. And it’s not gonna be my problem.” Alana says that most of the time, though, they listen.

Of the botched relaxing attempt, Malcolm said, “This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair.”

My sister isn’t “trying to look white,” she’s just “trying to look good.” “Natural” doesn’t look “natural” on her.

“Okay. You already know that scientists can detect DNA in a person’s hair. Now, researchers can use hair samples to trace a person’s movements in time and space. This has to do with subtle chemical differences in the water they drink. Scientists can now use hair to tell where you have been.” —Steve Inskeep, host of NPR’s Morning Edition

“The personal is political.” What Carol Hanisch means, I think, is something like this: A young girl chooses to play with one doll because she thinks it’s nicer or prettier than the other. A mother chooses to straighten one daughter’s hair while she does nothing to the other. A woman decides she is part of a movement and the other doesn’t care. A man dunks his burning head into a washbasin.

Who can send, and who can receive?

Hands soaked in the juice of mucilaginous herbs, laps opened to receive the waiting head, Yoruba mothers braided messages into their daughters’ hair. Sometimes they plaited in Spanish Moss to give the message lift.