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Writer. Storyteller. Chicago Tribune reporter. 2017 Harvard University Nieman Fellow.

How To Be a Plain Girl

Pro-Line

 

Lolly Bowean | Longreads | May 2018 | 17 minutes (4,414 words)

 

Prologue

Every black woman has a hair story. This is mine.

Good hair means curls and waves
Bad hair means you look like a slave
— India.Arie, “I Am Not My Hair”

1.

I had never even met John P., but there I was, on a bus in East Knoxville, riding to meet him where he lived in a troubled public housing complex called Lonsdale.

I should have been at school, sitting in homeroom with the rest of the freshmen. But instead, at 13, I had decided to cut class and take a journey across a town I wasn’t even vaguely familiar with, to meet a man I didn’t know.

John P. was my classmate Kayla’s uncle, and in the neighborhood and at our school, he was known to have “gifted hands.”

He didn’t have the proper credentials to work in a professional salon, so instead he would accept women into his ground level apartment. It was there that he would slather their scalps with white creams that smelled like drain cleaner and lye, then cut and curl their hair for about a third of the price at a real beauty parlor.

My family had only been living in this small southern town for a few months, but in that short time I had come to vividly understand that the way I wore my hair was not only “not cool”; for many, it was unacceptable.

And so, even though I wasn’t the rebellious type of teen who would normally skip school, I broke the rules for the very first time so that I could go get my hair done.

Without permission — in fact, in direct defiance of my family’s wishes — I headed to see John P. I was determined to get a Jheri curl — a slimy hairstyle popularized by Michael Jackson and Prince.
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