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Natural selection: More black women getting back to hair care basics

Talia Whyte | 10/7/2009, 5:27 a.m.

Black women’s hair has been a lightning rod in discussions about race, class and social conformity dating back to the days of slavery, when some black women wore scarves to hide their “naps.” Today, the debate still rages about what having “good hair” means in the black community, even serving as the subject of an upcoming documentary produced by comedian Chris Rock called, appropriately, “Good Hair.”

In the Boston area, more black women are getting reacquainted with their natural hair. Harvard alumna and author Chris-Tia Donaldson knows the process well.

Growing up in her native Detroit, Donaldson would experiment with pressing combs, wearing a wig and straightening her hair with relaxers. She went to predominantly white schools, which she said left a lasting impression on her self-confidence.

“Black women grew up aspiring to have nice hair like other white girls they see in school,” said Donaldson. “I started to straighten my hair to fit in and feel pretty.”

After graduating from Harvard Law School, Donaldson accepted a position at a top law firm in Chicago. She said didn’t feel that she had a hairstyle suited for the workplace. So she got a wig, she said, to make herself look like a younger version of Clair Huxtable.

However, the pressure to conform with her hair became too much, she said, and affected her job performance. Donaldson ended up leaving the law firm, feeling like she had to reevaluate her perspective on life.

“Our hair-grooming habits are reflective of our history, and it affects how we go about our daily lives,” she said. “Thankfully, I learned that I am much more than my hair, and I take better care of my hair now.”

Today, she lives in Chicago, works for a software company and said she gets her hair inspiration from singers Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. Donaldson recently wrote a book, “Thank God I’m Natural,” about her “hairstory.” Published in June, it includes tips for other black women who want to learn how to maintain natural hair.

In the book, Donaldson also debunks some of the myths about having natural hair, including the notion that it is unmanageable.

“Natural hair is as manageable as relaxed hair,” she said. “Once you learn proper grooming techniques and find suitable products for yourself, you will find that taking care of natural hair is very easy.”

Donaldson also noted the high costs and health risks that can come with relaxers. When her hair was straight, she said, she may have spent thousands to have stylists put potentially damaging creams in her hair.

Many other black women have had dangerous experiences with maintaining straightened hair. While she was a college student, Everett resident Romney Donald said, a friend put a bad relaxer in her hair that later caused all of her hair to fall out.

“I learned my lesson from that experience that day,” said Donald, 22, a manager at the shoe company Skechers. “From then on, I learned how to do my own natural hair.”