If the air grew thick with the heavy odor of burned hair, if mangled clumps of singed hair littered the kitchen floor, if children squirmed and screamed as the menacing hiss of a hot comb spat heat at unprotected ears, it was Saturday in the McKnight household.

Saturday was hair day for the three daughters of Clarence and Astrid McKnight, the time set aside to perfect those "Sunday-go-to-meeting" hairstyles for church. Between the laughter of "All in the Family" and the final tug of an ear on "The Carol Burnett Show," the ritual would proceed with nerves frayed, tears shed, tempers flared and ears fried.

But, most of all, thick, kinky hair would be transformed into willowy, bone-straight hair, "bad" hair made "good."

'Black girls can't be Breck girls without a little help.' Every time we cried, every time that comb fried some flesh, that's what my mother would tell us, and we believed it," said Beverly McKnight-Sheridan, 32, a legal assistant. "No one was going to pay any mind to a nappy-headed black child. So if I wanted to fit in, my hair had to be straight. I couldn't have bad hair.

"It took me 30 years to realize the only thing bad was the way black folks think about their hair and all the unnatural things we do to our natural hair."

Last year, Ms. McKnight-Sheridan abandoned her pressed and processed locks for a natural, a short, sculpted Afro. An increasing number of black women are opting for natural hairstyles -- close-cropped Afros, braids and dreadlocks, also called "locked hair" -- styles that celebrate the texture, flexibility and uniqueness of African hair. The change reflects not only fashion, but an acceptance of self and racial identification at a time when black nationalism and cultural pride are enjoying a revival unseen since the 1960s. (Not to mention it's easier and less expensive to care for.)

Vocalist and model Betty Entzminger, who modeled for the cover photograph, switched from a processed bob style to her current cropped cut about three years ago. "I was lifting weights and it was just more convenient to have it short," she said. "And since then, it's brought me nothing but positive things. With the Afrocentric look so unique right now in the fashion arena, it's helped make me more marketable in my modeling. Essence magazine also photographed me for their April issue on "short and sassy looks."

"At first I was worried about being the only one. But now, it' seem like every day I find someone with short hair and they're asking me, 'Who cuts your hair?' "

These days, when it comes to doin' hair, many African-American women are doin' what comes naturally.

"That which is natural is beautiful. That which is natural is good," said Maxine Hankins Cain, founder of Forever Natural International Network, a Detroit-based group for people with natural hair, which sponsored its third annual conference recently.

"Years ago we were taught that our hair wasn't beautiful. But women are realizing that natural hair is beautiful, convenient and less expensive," said Ms. Cain, who has worn her hair natural since the 1960s. "My hair is naturally kinky and curly. How can anything superficial beat something natural?"

For women in general, hair has always been an important part of their psyche. Just count the number of television advertisements with drop-dead gorgeous models with perfect skin and still more perfect smiles trying to coerce women into having silky and shiny, bouncing and behaving, manageable and magnificent hair.

But no one frets about their hair like black women. Get a group together to talk about hair, and they'll sound like battle-weary veterans of an unwinnable war recalling the methods and the madness:

Pressing. Perms. Weaves. Jheri curls. Texturizers.

The conversation will evolve into a litany of hair horrors. Terms such as "tender-headed" and "kitchen" tumble forth like so many loose braids. Few black girls grow to womanhood without hearing the phrases "bad hair" -- meaning "nappy," traditionally African-textured hair -- and "good hair" -- straight, easily combed hair -- in their own homes.

And for black women, the message that straight hair is great hair comes not only from the media, but from within their own communities as well.

"That we hear these messages from our mothers and grandmothers makes it more painful," said Evelynn Hammonds, an assistant professor of the history of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Stella Nkomo, an associate professor of management at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, recalls using a mop on her head as a child to "see what it would feel like to have this long hair to throw around like white women.

Suffering to be 'beautiful'

"It's about standards of beauty. If you're going to be beautiful you have to look as much like a white woman as possible, which means you have to have straight hair," said Ms. Nkomo, 45, who has worn her hair natural since she was 21. "It's psychological damage that you're not beautiful so long as you have kinky hair. In our own community we have ingrained that, and we're the ones who enforce it."

Ella Bell, an associate professor of organizational behavior at MIT, received her first straightening perm at age 9. In those days, hair relaxers contained lye, making the entire scalp feel like a flaming charcoal briquette. Ms. Bell, now 43, is still chilled by memories of those days at the hairdresser.

"I would sit there, in tears, crying, 'Please take this stuff outta my hair,' and the hairdresser would say, 'Just a little bit longer, honey, sit still, because it's not quite straight,' " she said. "We learned that in our community. That wasn't something that was pushed on us by white people. You couldn't change your features, you couldn't change your skin color, but you could change your hair."

Through the years, there have been occasional reports of black women fired from jobs for wearing braids or dreadlocks, which are still considered inappropriate in some business settings. Some people wrongly think locked hair is dirty and unkempt.

Short Afros are sometimes considered politically or sexually militant. These are attitudes shared by blacks as well as whites. Ms. Bell, while teaching at Yale University in 1986, was encouraged by black friends to straighten her hair again "so people wouldn't project I was a militant or angry black woman."

And lest anyone think hair straightening is merely a matter of community brainwashing and parental guilt, it's also about business.

The cost of chemicals

In the early 1900s, Sarah Breedlove, under the name "Madame C. J. Walker," became this nation's first black woman millionaire selling hot combs and straightening formulas. Noted black scholar James Weldon Johnson then extolled Walker for teaching black women "the secret enhancement of feminine beauty."

These days, black hair care is a $1 billion industry annually. Trips to hair shops for "touch-ups" or "retouches" for perms every six to eightweeks can cost between $40 and $100, whereas keeping a short 'fro clipped costs between $10 and $15 once a month.

Getting hair braided is a lengthy, expensive procedure, but it can last as long as three months; Braids can be as simple or elaborate as you wish. Dreadlocks simply require regular shampooing and conditioning.

Baltimore's 'braiders'

In Baltimore, women who wear their hair in short naturals usually go to barber shops, trim it themselves or have someone else at home do it.

"Braiders" often work out of their own homes or in hair salons where most of the business still comes from chemical permanents.

At Pegasus Beauty Studio in Woodlawn, permanents tend to be more popular than braiding, but whenever a request comes in for braids, Tanya Sherrod, is called in. A self-taught braider, Ms. Sherrod has been braiding for nearly a decade.

At the Africentrics Beauty and Barber Salon on Howard Street in Baltimore, permanents are available, but the majority of their clients wear hair in various natural styles without the use of chemicals.

"Natural hair care is our forte," says Somari Toure, co-owner of the 3-year-old salon.

Images belie reality

Natural hair is easier, but you wouldn't know it to read prominent black publications where every other advertisement seems to be for hair relaxers and soft-curl concoctions. There are even products geared specifically to black girls. Music videos tend to feature black women with long, straight hair. The message time and time again to black women is straight hair equals beauty.

her book, "Good Hair: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Weaves When the Chemicals Became Too Ruff," author Lonnice Brittenum Bonner urges black women to "get 'bad hair' out of your vocabulary."

Ms. Cain, of Forever Natural, began her group to encourage and support women with natural hairstyles. She has worn her hair naturally since 1968, when African Americans first widely embraced nonchemically treated hair as a symbol of cultural and racial pride.

Still, not all black folks view natural hair as a source of pride.

"I've had black men say, 'Why don't you wear your hair straight? Don't you have money to get your hair done? Why did you cut all your hair off? What were you thinking of? You had all this beautiful hair and you just cut it off?'" said Ms. Bell,who returned to her natural hair in 1988, has worn braids since December and is considering locked hair.

"It's too bad they feel that way," she said. "We have our own beauty. We have our own standards of what beauty is about that white women can't emulate."

Acceptance and celebration

Such standards are finally being celebrated. Julie Dash's much-praised film about a turn-of-the-century Gullah family in South Carolina, "Daughters of the Dust," featured a potpourri of African hairstyles. Television shows such as "A Different World" regularly have characters with natural do's. Singer Tracy Chapman's trademark has become her thick, full locked hair, as have Whoopi Goldberg's intricate braids and dreadlocks. And in groups like Arrested Development, a cerebral, socially conscious rap group, you won't find a perm in the posse.

Author Alice Walker and activist Angela Davis (always a natural hair advocate -- remember her mighty 'fro in the 1960s?) both wear dreadlocks. Author Toni Morrison has braids. Such natural styles on noted black women "give the hairstyles a kind of legitimacy" and acceptance in the public, Ms. Hammonds said.

Perhaps that acceptance can find its way to those kitchens where a hot iron comb awaits a defiant tuft upon a nervous child's head, and where the smell of burning hair still wafts through the lazy Saturday evening air.

"We have to understand our hair is beautiful. There's nothing devalued about our hair," Ms. Nkomo said. "You don't see white people trying to kink up their hair. They love their hair. Black women have to teach themselves and each other to do the same.

"I get black women who say to me, 'It's the shape of your face. You can wear your hair that way, I can't,' " she said. "I look at them and want to say, 'This is the way your hair naturally is, don't you get it?' "


Modeled by Betty Entzminger/T.H.E. Artist Agency.

Hair and makeup by Eric Spearman/T.H.E. Artist Agency.

All clothing and accessories courtesy of Nordstrom.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad