For my 13th birthday I was subjected to what could be considered a rite of passage for African Guyanese females. Most of us looked forward to and welcomed taking part in this tradition. I had been looking forward to this event with great anticipation since some girls younger than I had already been initiated. This initiation could be painful and even traumatic depending on the skill of the person wielding the “pressing” comb. We had heard some of the horror stories and seen the evidence of incompetent “pressing” comb wielders. That evidence included burnt ears, foreheads, necks and scalps. In my case the “pressing” comb wielder was competent and in any case my 13 year old partly colonized mind probably would not have minded a singe or two to achieve the effect of having my naturally curly African hair “fried.” At that time we thought it was the height of fashion and sophistication to have our hair “fried” and lying flat to our scalps. Those who were “lucky” enough would get what was termed a “press and curl” which meant that the “fried” hair was not left to lie flat on the scalp but was curled with another heated contraption similar to today’s curling iron. My “lucky” and ecstatic 13 year old self was in seventh heaven because I was treated to a “press and curl.” There I was, 13 years old with a fabulous hairstyle, allowed to wear high heeled shoes for the first time (never mind I could hardly walk in the two inch heels) and wearing my first “grown up style” dress. To complete this rite of passage, with my new grown up hairstyle, dress and shoes, I sauntered off to the cinema accompanied by my cousin Joy who is 11 months younger than I. These many decades later I cannot remember anything about the movie but I will never forget the “press and curl.”
Almost 15 years ago I stopped straightening my hair. During my “press and curl” days there was always the fear that some dreadful medical calamity could befall if I was caught in the rain after a session. As an adult my friend Claire DeAbreu introduced me to another method of straightening African hair. As a Georgetown born and bred African Guyanese female she had advanced beyond the “pressing” comb and used a chemical solution to straighten her curls. Claire and I met when we both taught at St John’s School in Sparendaam on the East Coast, Demerara and soon became fast friends. She introduced me to Jaffrey’s Hair Straightener and that is when I experienced the first painful episode of straightening hair. In a do-it-yourself moment, probably not following the instructions to the letter I found that at the end of the experience along with dead straight hair there was also pain, pain and more pain! There was one difference from using the “pressing” comb, no more fear of catching pneumonia if I was caught in a downpour of rain.
I thought about those hair-raising experiences of my youth as I realised that Madam C.J. Walker’s 144th birthday was fast approaching. This African American woman who was born on December 23, 1867 just two years after her parents were freed from slavery, grew up to become the first African American woman millionaire. She was born Sarah Breedlove to Owen and Minerva Breedlove who both transitioned before she was 7 years old leaving her and her siblings orphans. The uncertainty of being shuttled between relatives after losing her parents is speculated as the reason Sarah Breedlove married Moses McWilliams in 1881 when she was only 14 years old. Four years later she gave birth to her only child, a daughter A’Lelia McWilliams and two years later at 20 Sarah Breedlove McWilliams was a widow and her two year old daughter fatherless. Many sources claim that Moses McWilliams was lynched by a white mob in 1887; however in the 2009 published book Harlem Renaissance lives from the African American national biography the authors Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham write: “Although some sources say he was lynched, there is no credible documentation to justify such a claim.” In her 2001 published book On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker author A’Lelia Bundles writes: “With no death certificate and no dependable oral history from Sarah Breedlove herself, it is unlikely that anyone will ever know whether Moses McWilliams was one of the ninety-five people whose lynchings were documented in 1888.” The fact that Breedlove was never recorded speaking about her husband being lynched does not mean he was not lynched. If she had witnessed the lynching she may have been so traumatized that she could not speak of the horror of witnessing such an event. No death certificate for an African American lynched by a white mob is hardly likely to have concerned the white supremacist government. Whatever tragedy led to Breedlove McWilliams being widowed in 1887 she and her two year old child were left without a husband and father and she had to provide clothing, food and shelter for herself and her child. She moved to St Louis, Missouri where she worked as a washerwoman to support her family of two. Following a second marriage (John Davis) where she was subjected to domestic violence she married her third husband Charles Joseph Walker on January 4, 1906 and changed her name to Madam C. J. Walker. She traveled across the USA, the Caribbean and Latin America marketing and promoting Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower eventually establishing Lelia College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which trained women to sell her products door-to-door and provide hair-care for African American women. By 1910 she had more than 1,000 sales agents and had moved to Indianapolis where she established the headquarters of Madame C. J. Walker Laboratories to manufacture cosmetics and opened another training school to train her salespeople. As a pioneer of the modern cosmetics industry and an advocate of women's economic independence she provided above average wages for thousands of African American women who otherwise would have been relegated to working as farm labourers and maids. Although she is known as the woman who made a fortune encouraging African American women to straighten their hair, Walker was a philanthropist who gave back to her community including $1,000 in 1911 to build a new YMCA in Indianapolis for African Americans. Shortly after moving to Harlem in 1916 she contributed $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement. As a political activist, in July 1917 when a white mob massacred African Americans in East St. Louis, Illinois, Walker joined a group of Harlem leaders who visited the White House to present a petition advocating federal anti-lynching legislation. At her Madam C. J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention in Philadelphia in 1917 considered one of the first national meetings of businesswomen Walker reportedly said to the gathering: “This is the greatest country under the sun, but we must not let our love of country, our patriotic loyalty cause us to abate one whit in our protest against wrong and injustice. We should protest until the American sense of justice is so aroused that such affairs as the East St. Louis riot be forever impossible.” The story of Madam C.J. Walker finding fame and fortune with a business plan encouraging African American women to straighten their hair began more than a hundred years ago when we felt compelled to confirm to a European standard of beauty. Not much about our hair has changed since then. In the 2001 published book Tenderheaded, bell hooks, one of the contributing writers reminds us: “Despite many changes in racial politics, black women continue to obsess about their hair, and straightening hair continues to be serious business. Individual preferences (whether rooted in self-hate or not) cannot negate the reality that our collective obsession with hair straightening reflects the psychology of oppression and the impact of racist colonization.”