Suppressed laughter drifted around the room, as I paused a little too long at what most knew was a good idea, but one that had been left on the cutting room floor a few planning sessions back, for our upcoming hair show, ‘Crowning Glory.’ The suggestion had come from a young friend whom I was pleased had recently decided to participate, but who clearly needed to be caught up on a few things. Raising a hand in her quiet way she had asked, “Could we have a booth where women can have their hair-type assessed?” The group of women who sat around the newcomer’s reception room, finishing off the leftover pastries, coffee and fruit had been wonderfully supportive of this first-time, bold step for which I was coordinator. The after-church meeting was to confirm final details of the event’s programme, scheduled for the following Saturday. Each activity seemed well-in-hand by the person assigned and, releasing a tentative sigh of relief, I had opened the floor for questions…
A year prior, our far-sighted pastor, as if sensing the tragic events which were about to erupt on America’s racial horizon, had launched what he dubbed the ‘Micah 6:8 Commission.’ Under the scriptural injunction to “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God,” his initiative had provided space and encouragement for us to organize and facilitate honest open dialogue, host informative discussions and conduct small group studies in search of biblical guardrails—even as the social dialogue heated up and boiled over. The activities and scheduled presentations were aimed at guiding our congregation towards paths of inner healing and outward expressions of forgiveness around the Lord’s Table and in our communities. The ‘Crowning Glory Hair Show’ was to be one such event—a morning of light-hearted interaction for the women of our culturally diverse congregation and community, and a space to build relationships and understanding over an everyday activity that touched us all more deeply than we realized—tending our hair.
The hair assessment idea was one that had been tabled since we estimated that we had neither time nor personnel to design, produce and service one more activity station for the event…especially not a week from showtime! The good-natured laughter in response had come from those who understood the situation: from idea to the present date, the event had been two years in the making, and had almost ‘cost me my salvation’ in bringing it to birth. But as women tend to do, we made it happen, and on the day many a discussion was generated over the photos and descriptions at the hair-assessment station. Structure of follicle, size of curl, length of strand, and tension of coil were assigned number and letter, from metrics supplied by the source of all expertise—the Internet. The event was an overall success with women appealing for a ‘part two.’
However, one of the event’s few dark moments had also centered around the hair-assessment station; an opinionated attendee had taken it upon herself to contradict a senior about the concluding result of her hair-type, occasioning mild but unnecessary upset. Knowing the senior involved, I understood some aspect of why the assigning of a certain hair type was so important. For her, penetrating memories that had shaped identity, personal histories and a lifetime of social and economic associations were tied up in the assessment of a single strand of her hair. She was an African American, with a semi-Native American grandmother, raised in the racially segregated Louisiana of her childhood. She had been confirmed in an African Methodist Episcopalian church, which had also helped to stabilize their family of seven, after her father died relatively young. She had advanced despite adversity, along with her siblings, to establish and maintain distinguished records of service mostly as educators all across the States of America. Yes, to her, physical appearance, including attire and hair type had mattered enormously in that journey, and still did.
As I considered her story, I realized we shared a few similarities. The One who determines the pre-appointed times and boundaries of nations had established similarly shaping confines in my life, though in the Caribbean versus the American South, a vital generation later. However, like her, my circumstances had achieved God’s primary desired aim—we were both ‘caused’ to seek for God and had found Him to be near and reaching out to us, as the Scriptures teach. 
Nonetheless the worlds we lived in demanded that we toed certain lines and maintained certain standards of appearance and conduct. The conduct we could deal with, the appearance took a little more work, with the help of our mothers and their hair stylists.
Hair dressing, grooming, styling, coiffing are undoubtedly areas of creativity that display the unusual breadth of human ingenuity, particularly so among African Americans, and can be rightly celebrated as such. One of the most significant biographies associated with the hair-industry serving African American hair-needs is that of Madam C.J. Walker who rose from share-cropping poverty in Delta, Louisiana to become a wealthy entrepreneur, philanthropist, and activist, mainly through her companies which employed tens of thousands in the manufacture of her own line of hair products and straighteners for African American hair. 
Madame Walker’s straighteners served her targeted demographic well, providing healthy and safe products whereby the African American woman could have greater ease in arranging her hair into the fashionable styles of her time. Straighteners, curly perms, texturizers and other texture adjusting products still serve those who choose that facility today; and as preferences rise and fall, no one gives a hoot whether a pencil slipped into one’s tresses stays firmly held by strong African roots or slides to the floor down silken locks (as was one test conceived to deny Black Africans or people of mixed race entry to segregated nightclubs of apartheid South Africa)! Today’s African American woman has become militantly comfortable in her own skin and crowned by her own coif—whether natural, processed, faded or extended—whatever she chooses. Increasingly, hairstyle has become determined by convenience, economics, individual fashion taste, according to generational trends, and ultimately personal preference. Accordingly, office and other institutional dress codes have fairly and sensibly yielded to this more inclusive aesthetic, as far as hairstyles.
This was why I found it quite surprising when a new acquaintance, WC, fresh from the West Coast expressed what I can only assume was a well-intended, but sadly misguided, expression of compassion, when she observed the facility with which I switched from wearing a cap weave on one church occasion to sporting my natural TWA (teeny weeny afro) on another. I had come down after dressing one morning, while visiting for the holidays in the home of a mutual friend and had a conversation that went somewhat like this:
My hostess had our new WC friend visiting, whose acquaintance I had made recently at a few church events.
WC: “Oooh…!” (Staring up at me in an equally surprised tone), “I see what you do…!”
ME: “Hi! What…?”
WC: “Your hair…”
ME: “Oh, yep! This is me.”
WC: “But why do you…” (seeming to struggle for words)
ME: (Helping her out) “Oh, you mean my cap weaves?”
ME: “Oh yeah; I have several; I switch them out based on what suits the occasion or how I wish to present. Dressing up or down…Very convenient; very economical.”
WC: “Oh, but your natural hair looks so…You shouldn’t have to…”
ME: “Oh, don’t be mistaken; I love my natural hair. But as convenient as my TWA is, it can also be restricting; so, I accessorize with my pieces. Isn’t that what you do?”
WC: (Running her hand through her boyish pixie-cut hairstyle) “Oh, me? I just wake up and run my fingers through after I shower…” (Neglecting to mention the forty-five dollars or more which she no doubt pays every few weeks to keep it stylishly cropped to appear carelessly tussled.)
ME: “And then you accessorize yourself based on occasion or personal inclination, like that fashionable scarf around your neck… accessory! Your earrings, accessory! To me hair is hardly more than accessory.”
I moved on to the kitchen, leaving her to find words to relocate her misplaced empathy; and hopefully also to reroute or abandon her attempted self-esteem counseling session.
I realized suddenly that our church community needed that ‘Crowning Glory–Part ll’ hair show, to catch-up folks like our new friend from the ‘awakened’ West. Her assessment of me based on my application of accessories to my crown or my choice to sport my TWA (that I would never subject to segregated South Africa’s pencil tests!), was quite wrong. I suddenly felt even greater camaraderie with my senior friend at the hair-assessment station: My annoyance betrayed the sense I had that I was being misjudged based on an unreliable metric—my hair! She had arrogated to herself the role of helping me ‘feel good’ about my hair, having decided, seemingly, that I must be ashamed of it to don a cap weave on occasion.
Dr. MLK looked to the day, he said, when “[his] four little children (would) not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”. That statement was not predicated on whether people of African descent in America liked or disliked their physicality. It was directed at the racially tainted lenses which society had supplied for assessment of the African American character, en bloc.
In fact, the same has been done, to varying degrees, for every ethnic breakdown! I am sure there are misjudgments and false assessments applied to people of Irish, Italian, Mexican, Native American, Asian, Jewish and Middle Eastern descent etc. by simply looking at external features. How arrogant of us all!
I suddenly gained new insight on the importance of the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures, as a seemingly insignificant passage came to mind. Two Gospel writers, Matthew and Luke, record the words of Jesus in the New Testament where, in sending out the Apostles on their first mission, His consolation of them includes the assurance, “the very hairs on your head are numbered.” Previously, I might have labeled that verse as levicula—vain, extra empty Bible verbiage. But I see now that the only One who knows the count of those hairs on every head, is also the only One who knows the sorrow of every heart, that turns those strands grey or that makes them fall, due to worry, ill-health, or harsh ‘curative’ treatments.
He knows the glad “gifts of the Magi“—the Dellas who cut off their tresses or do the ‘big chop’ out of love, sacrificing for the family budget, for studies, or for a daughter’s ‘fitting in’ among peers at school. He understands the woman—the mother, the sister, the friend who wistfully recalls the days of past intimacy experienced in the tucking, the brushing, and the braiding of each other’s hair. He understands the daughter’s breaking heart who, left no choice but to place her invalid mother in a nursing home, wonders how to answer her simple question concerning her daily hair routine. And it is He who fashions the heart of the husband who lovingly kisses the now thinning scalp of the wife of his youth, in their sixtieth year of marriage, and tells her she is even more beautiful now than when they first met. The God of the Bible knows and cares about the hairs on our head; and He died with thorns piercing His own crown to redeem the stories that ours tell.
The Apostle John saw Him in a garment draped down to His fine brazen feet, girded about His chest in gold, and revealed with a head of hair comparable to white wool.  The Alpha and Omega with locks, it seems, that would fail the SA pencil test! It is He alone who knows the way we each take, rightly assesses our paths and crowns our years with His goodness. To Him alone belongs the Kingdom, the power and all the crowning glory!
 Acts 17:24-27 (NKJV)
 King, Martin Luther, “I Have a Dream” Speech; delivered August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.; https://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety
 Matt. 10:30; Luke 12:7 (NKJV)
 Rev. 1:14 (NKJV)
The featured image, “Kilns Roses,” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating.
I am Denise Stair Armstrong; born and raised Jamaican. I received all my formal academic education in the land of my birth at Shortwood Teachers’ College and the University of the West Indies, specializing in English Language & Literatures in English. The remainder I’ve gained home educating our three wonderful children – Joseph, Charis and Timothy, parenting them with my husband Claude, and in caring for my wheel-chair bound mother. I enjoy reading, cooking, gardening, theatre and ballroom dancing with Claude (only!) and digging into the Word of God.
My passion is worship expressed primarily through writing inspirational pieces that urge readers not to miss how much the Lord has “cramm’d earth with heaven”. My heart is to encourage them to traverse the gap between all our hearts and the cultures that shape them, via the Bridge that is Calvary’s cross.
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