Tenderheaded: A Comb-Bending Collection of Hair Stories

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9780671047559: Tenderheaded: A Comb-Bending Collection of Hair Stories
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Presents an anthology of essays, poems, cartoons, photographs, drama, and fiction excerpts on the cultural implications of African American women and their hair.

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About the Author:

Juliette Harris (right) is the editor of International Review of African-American Art, published by Hampton University Museum in Virginia. She has also written award-winning television and film documentaries.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

From Tenderheaded: Pillow Talk

We try to create hair that is touchable -- like the commercials tell us we should -- while secretly hoping he won't touch it. Often our hair is an illusion -- a look achieved with gobs of gook, or an imported tress, stitched in like the hem of a dress. A guise we put on and take off. Intimacy is a high price to pay for it.

LOVE ADVICE FROM THE EBONY ADVISOR

In the September 1988 issue of Ebony magazine, a woman sought counsel from the publication's "Ebony Advisor." In her letter, "K.A.G." of Copperas Grove, Texas, said that she had a good marriage, but a problem threatened it: after nine years of having her hair chemically straightened, she wanted to let the perm grow out. But her man resisted. "My husband feels that I will become undesirable to him and has said that he might leave me if I do [let my perm grow out]. I'd hate to lose him or leave him because of this, but I dislike the trouble and illusion straightening my hair brings me. I long to be free of chemicals and I wish he would accept me 'naturally.'"

The "Ebony Advisor" conceded that the woman had the right to change her style but recommended that, since exercising her right would jeopardize her marriage, she should continue with the chemicals. The advisor reminded the reader that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and told her that if her husband said, "Don't go changing," she should mind him. It's not much to pay to "keep the gleam in his eye gleaming."

SPLITTING HAIRS

On the one hand brothers have made a transition [to natural styles], and yet they don't expect the same of their women. They still want their women to be Asian women dipped in chocolate.

-- Peggy Dillard Toone, Natural Hair Care Pioneer

IF YOU LET ME MAKE LOVE TO YOU, THEN WHY CAN'T I TOUCH YOUR HAIR?

Cherilyn "Liv" Wright

In 1970 Ronnie Dyson, the precocious black teenage star of the counterculture Broadway musical Hair, recorded the Top Forty hit "If You Let Me Make Love to You, Then Why Can't I Touch You?" While the irony and poignancy of the lyric might have been lost on some, at the time it struck this black college junior as profound.

It was from the dustbin of memory, then, that I heard the now-late Dyson singing in my ear as Angie, the twenty-something black receptionist at my client's office, told me that she had trained her boyfriend not to touch her hair while they were making love. I had complimented her on her freshly done, magazine-ready hairdo, which had been chemically straightened, tinted light brown, and augmented by straight, shoulder-length human hair that had been tightly woven to her scalp. Just brushing her forehead, and barely touching her eyebrow, was a flirtatious wisp of a curl.

"Can I touch it?" I asked.

"Sure," she said.

The wisp was as hard as a rock! "How did they get it to go like that?" I blurted.

"I dunno," she shrugged. "I guess they used gel or something, and then put me under the dryer to bake it in."

"Special occasion?"

"I'm going to see my boyfriend for the weekend."

"Well, what are you going to do about your hair when you and your boyfriend are doing 'the wild thing'?" I continued to probe. "Won't he think your hair is too stiff?"

"Oh, no, no, no, he knows he'd better not touch my hair!" she replied emphatically. "It costs me too much money. Oh, no, no, no, you have to train these men right away."

I couldn't believe my ears! Was it her tender age that caused her to place such a high priority on her hair? And didn't this hands-off-the-hair policy offend her boyfriend? Perplexed, I cornered an older black female associate for a sanity check.

"I'm worried about Angie," I said. "She's got a guy she's serious about, and she won't let him touch her hair when they make love! How does she expect to be really intimate with him?"

"Where have you been?" my colleague responded brutally. "There's nothing wrong with Angie. She's got a strategy that's working for her, and she's got plenty of company. You've obviously never talked to your girlfriends about what they do when they get together with their men. Black men do not expect to have their hands in our hair when we make love. Ask them."

She was right. I didn't have a clue. How many of my friends had given the hands-off message to their sex partners? And what did the menfolk have to say about all this? I picked up the phone and called one of my closest friends.

TRUDY'S EXTENSIONS

Trudy, a legal secretary, has been my friend since the fifth grade. We got our ears pierced about the same time, started menstruating about the same time, and debriefed one another after our "first time" with a boy. There isn't much we don't know about each other. Or so I thought.

"No, Mike doesn't touch my hair. I don't tell him not to in so many words, but I know he gets the point. The trick is to make your hair look touchable, but to make sure they don't actually touch it."

I was a maid of honor at Trudy's wedding ten years ago. Her husband, Mike, is a big lug of a guy who absolutely adores her. Long ago, I encouraged her to choose him over the other men she'd been dating. I told her that when they were both a hundred years old, and she forgot to take out her dentures before falling asleep, he would be the kind of guy to take them out for her and put them in a cup on the night table beside the bed.

"You have no idea what I went through to get a style that would work for me on our honeymoon," she said. "I wanted my hair to look free and playful when we were on the beach. But I wanted it to look elegant when we dressed for dinner on the ship. Remember how I had it done for the wedding?"

I confessed that I didn't. All I could remember was that the sweltering heat had ruined everyone's hairdo.

"I asked the beautician to give me some extensions because Mike and I were going on this honeymoon cruise and I didn't want to have to worry about my hair. I wanted to be able to use the pool and enjoy the beach when the ship stopped at one of the islands. I told her I wanted braids that would take me from the wedding ceremony to a sexy afternoon on the beach with my husband. She said she'd give me extensions that I could either pin up or wear long. For the wedding, she pinned the extensions way up on my head to give me height and a very regal look, remember?"

In the wedding pictures her hair is swept up into a Madame Pompadour-like tower, making Trudy, who normally stands five-foot-two, look almost as tall as her six-foot-four husband.

"The hairdresser also showed me how to remove the pins and wear it in a long style. I wanted to be able to fool around with Mike on the beach, make love with him in the water, and not have a problem. You know what I'm saying?"

I pictured Trudy as a bronze-toned cross between Bo Derek and Esther Williams, skipping across some Caribbean beach with Mike lumbering behind in hot pursuit.

"So the beautician braided extra hair into the extensions to make them a little thicker, and to hold them in place. If my hair got wet, no big deal, right? Well what she neglected to tell me was that when those extensions get wet, you're carrying another twenty pounds of weight on your head! And 100 percent human hair, when it's woven into heavy braids like that, doesn't dry for a real long time.

"So there I am that night dining with my husband at the captain's table, trying to sit up straight and keep my head from falling into my swordfish. It was a mess, girl!"

HARRIET'S WEAVE

I called Harriet next. Trudy and I used to hang out with her in high school. She was always one of our more glamorous friends. Harriet knows all the "in" places to get your hair done and always has the trendiest style.

She likes to think of herself as a seductress.

"I love the feel of a man's fingers massaging my scalp, but you can't let him do that when you have a weave," said Harriet when I put the question to her. "You want the intimacy, but you just can't. If the men like all this long hair, they need to be appreciative of what you've done to get it to look that way. But, don't get me wrong now, they don't need to know every little thing!"

"What do you mean when you say every little thing?" I ask.

"You know what I'm talking about. You have this fabulous weave, and he starts to run his fingers through it. But what it feels like to him, though, is that you have these tracks in your head! And then you hear him say, 'Oops.' And when you feel him slowly pulling his hands away, you know you've been found out! And you know what he's thinking. So then I start thinking about what he's thinking."

With all those imaginary voices in her head, I'm wondering if Harriet has ever had a real orgasm!

"When it comes to my hair," she says, pulling me back into the conversation, "I believe that some things are better left unsaid. My philosophy is to deal with the situation on a need-to-know basis only. If he's talking about marriage and giving me a ring, then okay, I'll take him backstage and show him how the hair routine was put together."

"You've really thought this whole thing out, haven't you?" I prompt her.

"Look, whatever it takes. My cousin Lossie's been married three years and still hasn't told her husband that that's not her real hair!"

MARK'S WIFE

It was time to get a male perspective on the situation, so I called Mark, a bona fide husband of more than twenty years. A suburban, Republican business owner, Mark is married to Jean, a public-sector administrator, who chemically relaxes her hair and never misses her semimonthly salon appointments. Mark and I have been friends for a long time and can talk about anything. I asked him about the hair rules in his household.

"The fellas always say that there are two things you can't get a black woman to do in bed: one is to perform oral sex and the other is to let you touch her hair. I'm very clear that I'm not supposed to touch my wife's hair."

"How do you feel about that?" I ask.

"I don't know, but I can tell you -- and don't hate me for this, Cherilyn -- that all black men basicall...

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