In 2017, I joined the Black community’s natural hair movement. This story documents my journey.
In July 2017, I had my last relaxer, although I did not know it at the time. A relaxer—or creamy crack, as it is known colloquially—is a white, creamy potion used to permanently alter the innate texture of one’s hair. Black women, or generally, anyone with curly, kinky, afro-ish hair have used creamy crack to make their hair straighter than God designed it to be.
I first encountered the substance in the first or second grade. My mom saturated my hair with this awful, thick stuff of a peculiar grey-green color made by a now-extinct brand called Rio. Then, I sat under her hooded hair dryer, a step, which at the time confused my young mind because in my limited knowledge of relaxers, they never required heat. I was supposed to sit there for about 15 minutes.
We soon learned that there was something very wrong with this product. It made my head itch fiercely. Mom hovered around the hair dryer, stooping to look at my marinating head under the dryer hood. She wanted to wash the product out, but I convinced her to let me suffer for a little while longer. I imagined myself with long hair that flowed about me, and if this was what it took to get straight hair, I could endure the insane itching.
But before time was up, Mom lifted the dryer’s hood and guided me to the bathroom. “We have got to take this stuff out,” she said.
Later, we learned later that my itching was a blessing. Other Rio users suffered temporary hair loss or permanent balding. And, it turned my Mom’s fingernails green.
Once I had sufficiently recovered from the Rio experience, Mom gave me a relaxer about once every two months. We bought staple creamy crack brands like Just for Kids and Dark & Lovely at the beauty supply store and whipped them up in the kitchen.
Relaxers didn’t make my hair bone straight, but they did dissolve a lot of its natural kinks and curls, making it significantly more manageable than it was without a relaxer. With relaxers, mom could braid my hair into two pigtails with ease—one on each side of my head, or one in the front and one in the back.
In third grade, I graduated to front bangs and a French braid. In middle school, I learned how to flat iron my hair to make it even straighter. I continued to straighten my hair once a week and get a relaxer every two months for years.
I never considered any other way of life until I was in college. Jillian, my roommate at the time, had a massive afro. On the days Jillian washed her hair, she sat at her desk for hours, creating two-strand twists all over her head while she studied organic chemistry. I wondered what my hair would look like if I said no to creamy crack.
I marveled at Jillian’s hair and asked her why she stopped getting a relaxer.
Jillian said she chopped off all her hair because the relaxers made her hair break off so badly that her hair was really short. I could see that Jillian didn’t have a problem with length retention now. She had a ton of hair, but the hours she spent styling her hair and studying orgo into the wee hours of the night looked absolutely miserable. I resolved never to take that path.
But sometime in 2015, I noticed that more and more black women were walking around with their natural hair floating about them. There were all of these beautiful waves, curls, and kinks everywhere, and I started to wonder once more about what lied beneath the years of chemicals and heat that had tortured my poor strands. I wondered if my hair would grow past my collar bone and stop breaking off in three-to-four-inch pieces. I wondered if my hair was as nappy as I thought it was, or if it was actually wavy or curly.
After some thinking, I eventually told Mom. “Mom,” I said with a moderate level of confidence. “I’m gonna go nautral.”
She looked at me with that skeptical look she gives me when she doesn’t think I’m going to follow through.
“Call me when you want a relaxer,” she said.
I lasted six months before I called Mom and scheduled a hair appointment. Later, I learned my strategy for weaning myself off creamy crack was fatal from the start. First, I started the process during Virginia’s fatally humid summers. Second, I didn’t know any of the strategies people transitioning from relaxed to natural hair use to navigate the two textures on their head—the straight, chemically treated hair and the all-natural hair. Some people do the big chop like Jillian.
Obviously, this is the dive-right-in option, but there was no way I was going to cut my hair off. Other people transition for a year or two before cutting their relaxed hair off. In the interim, they wear wigs and braids. The only time I’d worn a wig was that Christmas Mom and Dad gave Alana and me wigs, tutus, and hats so that we could play dress up. And the last time I’d worn braids was in elementary school. Neither are my style.
Others wore twist outs and braid outs, or some sort of updo that made their lives easier.
The later, I realized, I could do.
Equipped with some new hair products and a couple of go-to hair styles on my arsenal, I said goodbye to creamy crack and my flat iron in Fall 2017.
My hair and I established a good routine, and I counted down the months until Fall 2018, which was when I had decided to cut my hair. But in the end, I didn’t last that long. By May and June of that year, I was fed up with dealing with two textures of hair. I could barely put my hair in a pony tail because it was so thick. I kept breaking hair ties and stretching them out so much that they were too loose to hold my hair anymore. On wash days, it took forever to detangle my hair because the old hair was caught up in the new. My hair was also breaking off at the point where the natural and relaxed hair met. It was time.
I big chopped on July 1. To be accurate, I didn’t chop it, a professional did. After about two-and-a-half hours, I walked out of the salon with short-natural hair styled into finger twists. I didn’t like it.
When I got home, I looked at Alana’s long hair. I didn’t want a relaxer, but I did want my length back, and I knew it would take a long time for it to grow. I spent the next few hours wandering around the house feeling weird, wondering how my hair would look the next day and what people at work would say.
After a while, reality hit me. For the first time since elementary school, there was nothing but Rachel hair on my head. Did I like it? I wasn’t sure yet, partly because I knew there was a lot of work ahead of me. I knew that my hair was a beast that needed to be tamed. But, I also knew that it had a lot of potential.
It’s been about seven months since my hair was cut, and I love it. I’ve discovered that there are a lot of cute curls and waves under those decades of treatments that masked what lied beneath.
When I went natural, I didn’t expect to feel different on the inside, but I do. I feel more confident. If I am having a crazy hair day, I shape my hair the best I can, walk out the door, and do what I have to do. I stopped trying to hide how huge my hair can grow because I’m afraid people will stare at me. This is the hair I’ve got. Why should I be ashamed?
Something else happened that I did not expect. For the first time, I feel black. I never felt black because I am very light skinned, and I don’t talk or dress the way people typically expect black people to, so the years of feeling like an outsider and comments of “you’re not really black” or “your different than other blacks” impacted my perspective. But suddenly, with all of this undeniably textured hair growing wildly out of my head, I feel as if there’s no reason to question.
I am black, and you can tell because my hair is free.