Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Natural Hair in the Public Eye

T'Keyah Crystal Keymah is a hair pioneer. From the time she first stepped foot on a sound stage for the pilot to what would become the Emmy Award-winning comedy In Living Color, T'Keyah has worn her hair natural.

“Fifteen years ago, no one in prime-time was wearing natural hair, unless they wore locs or a short afro,” T'Keyah says of African-American characters on television.  She knew she was on to something when she started getting fan mail specifically about her hair.

T'Keyah's road to natural hair began like many little girls of African descent: by straightening her curls to fit a beauty ideal that was unnatural for her hair type.

“Growing up, I had my hair pressed straight, and by college I was having it permed,” she says. “But when I realized that I would have to get touch-ups while away at school from a hairdresser I didn't know, I started cutting it out.”

T'Keyah (pronounced Ta-kee-ah) says her hair was just a few inches long and completely natural by Christmas of her first year away from home, but that she gave in and permed it again when she joined a sorority. It took a life-changing trip to Africa before T'Keyah says she began to think differently about her hair.

“While in West Africa, I had my hair wire wrapped and hand-twisted,” she says. “Even though the natural styles were foreign to me at the time, I realized that perming was also foreign to my natural hair type.”

T'Keyah had a newfound freedom in her natural styles and resisted the urge to straighten her hair even when Hollywood came calling.

“While shooting the In Living Color pilot, my hair was still damaged from previous chemical treatments,” she says, “so I could only wear it braided flat to my head.

“When the show was picked up, I started wearing my hair in twists. There were no natural hairstylists on the set, so other than the million wigs I wore, I usually did my hair myself,” she says.
Fans of the show loved T'Keyah's signature look and wanted to know how to get it for themselves.
“The letters kept coming,” she says, “so I began researching natural hair.”

After several years of researching and writing, all while working as a successful actress, T'Keyah self-published her book, Natural Woman/Natural Hair: A Hair Journey.

“I wanted to offer women something different by giving them step-by-step instructions on how to do the styles themselves, instead of assuming anything; even that they knew how to braid,” she says.
“I also wanted the book to be beautiful, with beautiful photos, and with my own hair stories and poetry. The response has been overwhelming.”

As Raven's mom on Disney's hit show, That's So Raven, T'Keyah has the opportunity to reach a whole new audience of young girls and teens.

“I want Black girls to know that their hair is beautiful, however it comes out of their heads,” she says. Judging by the response, the message seems to be getting through.

“I get letters that say things like, 'My daughter stopped pressing and perming her hair because of Raven's mom,' and 'Now my daughter feels good about going to school,'” she says.

T'Keyah is also out to dispel the myth that Black women's hair won't grow long.

“Of course Black hair grows,” T'Keyah says, “otherwise we'd all be bald when the hair reaches the end of its cycle. What's happening is that the hair is breaking off because of the way we treat it,” she says.
T'Keyah says that Black hair “is not as fragile as you think,” and that it can be made even stronger by avoiding things like cotton pillowcases, rubber bands, sponge rollers and wool caps.

Above all, T'Keyah says the book's goal is to show women that each one possesses her own innate beauty.

“No woman should believe that in order to be beautiful you have to be the opposite of what you are.”