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I’m 8 years old. My baby sitter summons me into her mama’s kitchen, clicks on the stove, and fires up the hot comb. After slapping petroleum jelly on my “edges” and greasing my scalp with a copious amount of oil, she advises that I hold down my ears so the 200-degree metal comb won’t burn them as it thins and singes my thick mane. With almost every drag of the device, I feel the heat and hear its sizzle. “You’re burning my hair!” I scream.

“No, I’m not,” the baby sitter replies. “That’s just the steam. Now, turn back around and be still.”

Ssssss….

In the kitchens across America, the biweekly “press and curl” ritual is black girls’ unofficial rite of passage. The program could officially be dubbed: “No Nap: Straight Hair by Any Means Necessary.” With age—that is, in high school—the mode of straightening is tentatively scheduled to shift into the more permanent chemical-relaxer treatment, another sign of the march to adulthood.

But significant numbers of African-American women are recoiling at tradition and letting their hair go natural. Over the years, as women have tried to escape the tyranny of the hot comb, they have faced rebuke, firings, even lawsuits. If there’s any doubt that high style, low chemical content, and a job can coexist, Damita Coats’ Nywele Natural Hair Showcase this Sunday will lay it to rest once and for all.

Les Nubians’ “Makeda” blares from a portable boom box in the reading lounge of Howard University’s Blackburn Center. Espresso-colored Kymia Jones, who’s 5-foot-10, sashays down a makeshift runway of dingy beige carpet modeling a fitted black top and stretch pants. Under the gaze of Coats, who’s organizing the Nywele event for the fourth consecutive year, the prospective model strides toward the brick wall that, for tonight, represents an audience.

Neither woman has done time on a real catwalk, and Jones’ stride is only a secondary asset for tonight’s model call. Coats is more interested in Jones’ au naturel, 2-inch coif. Along with 82 others who have also decided to “go natural,” Jones makes the cut.

Unlike the fantasy-style black-hair competitions where 3-foot hairdos are hemmed with zippers and stacked high with lights, Nywele displays the natural curl patterns of black women’s hair in a variety of staged scenes—”Raindance of the Roots” and “Nywele Emancipation,” to name two. From locked-up ‘dos to zigzag-parted knots, and all manner of creativity in between, Nywele showcases the versatility of the natural textures and lengths of black women’s—and some men’s—hair.

“In the beginning, it was a selfish kind of thing,” says Coats. “If nobody else liked natural hair, well, obviously, I like it, and my friends like it, and there’s got to be five or six more people out there.” Under the banner of a campus organization called Ubiquity, Nywele started out as an unchoreographed event catering to the converted among Howard students. Coats saw fertile opportunity to change her own hairstyle on the college campus, a promised land for self-discovery. Coats, not a stylist herself, had never even been to a hair show.

“I was a business major,” says the software developer and Howard alumna, “which meant that I was supposed to get a job in corporate America—which said to me that I could never have natural hair. So the only time I would be able to find out what this hair was really like would be while I was in college. It’s like if you grew up and your mother always painted your nails blue and you never knew what your nails actually looked like. Then suddenly, one day, your blue nail polish came off.”

And though she’s only been to one industry show since, Nywele’s initial audience of 120 people has quadrupled—becoming more diverse, more corporate—and has reached outside Howard’s campus. “Now it’s to the point where [the production] has to be show-worthy,” says Coats. Nywele has grown much more polished, moving from the tiny campus auditorium to its cavernous ballroom. Moreover, Nywele bills itself as the District’s only natural hair show. “It has become a tradition,” says Coats. “There’s a need.”

At times, Nywele takes on a support-group dynamic—for good reason: The pressure against wearing natural hair can be tremendous. Some folks think that black women’s social, marital, and professional status can be gained or lost through hair. “A high school teacher told me I shouldn’t even go to college, that I should just get a job right out of high school because of my hair,” says Zenobia Spencer, a Howard student and Nywele model with cinnamon, shoulder-length locks.

When it comes to natural hair, many black women would rather go to their graves without remembering what their God-given coils look like. Despite the potential of scarring and balding associated with perms, black women have traditionally avoided their natural hair texture. Coats got her perm cut off 10 years ago and started from scratch. “Some people see natural hair as hard and not attractive, and I wanted to take that away,” she says. “It takes a certain amount of courage to do it.” Still, Coats got rapped for her decision: She remembers being labeled “butch” by people she didn’t even know.

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When Jones decided to go natural, everybody wanted a hand in her hair. Last winter, Jones visited her grandmother in Chicago on a break from school. “‘I’m not going to have nappy hair running wild in my house,’” Jones recalls Grandma scolding. “She wanted to press it really bad.”

A fellow student accused Jones of not “being real” about her hair. She even got a letter from an ex-boyfriend which read in part: “P.S.: I like the braids. I even like the ponytail. But the Afro has to go.” He said as much, Jones adds, even though he had just decided to grow his own Afro to approximately the same length.

But Jones, who came to natural hair through the back door—she didn’t have the money to keep getting her hair braided and pressed—declines to connect her choice with any political or cultural statement. “It wasn’t because I felt bad about straightening my hair or that I felt guilty about it and I wanted to ‘get back to my roots,’” says Jones. “It’s a hairstyle, plain and simple.”

Sociologist Jamila Kizuwanda says that Jones’ motivations don’t diminish the political meaning of her ‘do. “Whether black women think hair has a meaning or not, other people attach a meaning to it. Hair has a strong cultural and social meaning,” says Kizuwanda. “Hair straightening came out of a desire to de-Africanize ourselves. It was and still is a statement of inferiority.”

The mega ‘fro of the mid-’60s was the trailblazer. It marked perhaps the first time since slavery that African-American women felt comfortable in critical mass with their natural tendrils. The bush, catapulted into the spotlight as a rejection of Eurocentric standards of beauty within a political movement, proclaimed “Black Is Beautiful!” while demanding “Black Power!” But natural-hair buffs of the ’90s seem less resolute.

What are today’s twists, locks, cornrows,

and baby ‘fros really saying? It depends on whom you ask.

Denise Douglas has been on a strict natural-hair diet—not even braided extensions, just twists and “bushballs”—for four years. Douglas, 37, connects her decision to a spiritual rebirth. “When people wear their hair natural, they take on a different consciousness,” says Douglas, a local auditor who appears in Nywele’s “Episodes in Double Consciousness” scene. Douglas says she’s averse to anything unnatural—foods and fabrics included.

Coats herself is less of a fundamentalist. Though she hasn’t straightened her own hair in five years, she says she’s pro-choice. “I don’t think that we should not wear our hair straight, but I think that we shouldn’t say that we can’t wear it in a natural state.” Coats’ hair has grown to her shoulders since she flaunted her initial Grace Jones look. “I didn’t do it to be more Afrocentric. There was just no reason not to [wear my hair natural].”

Indeed, black women’s choices to go natural today may have more to do with aesthetic freedom than ever before. “The word is getting out again that there is nothing wrong with having African hair,” says Kizuwanda. “That the Creator didn’t make a mistake. That’s a heavy statement.”

Diane Bailey, stylist and author of Natural Hair Care and Braiding, asserts that the current roots revival will have more longevity as an expression of cultural aesthetics than the Afro of the ’60s did. Within a decade, the ’60s ‘fro had virtually vanished from view. The cadre of beauticians who would institutionalize natural hair styling and provide the stylistic innovation to carry the torch had yet to surface. “Political statements come and go,” declares Bailey, 44. “This is not a fad. This time [natural hair] is going to have more life, more vitality, more truth, because it’s not politically connected….I’d stake my career on it.”

Nowadays, with appearances everywhere, from soap operas to prime-time television to fashion magazines to hiphop artists, natural hairstyles are being showcased like never before. “Now you have teenage girls who go to the beauty salons saying, ‘I want my hair like Lauryn Hill,’” says Coats.

And now there’s an array of stylists who can help black women stay natural. For years, mothers had to spruce up their children’s naturals at home themselves, or with the help of grass-roots stylists who made house calls. Grooming natural hair can be a formidable task, and the relaxer is an escape.

In 1996, when Susan Peterkin-Bishop opened Jaha Hair Studio, a Silver Spring natural hair shop, she had 120 clients. Within just two years, her customer base grew to more than 1,000 people. “A lot of my customers who just started locks say to me, ‘I wish I had done this 10 years ago. Why couldn’t I see?’ Well, because there was no one around helping them to redefine their beauty,” says Peterkin-Bishop. “The reason why I have so much respect for Nywele is because Damita realized she needed information about her hair, and she decided to do something to help others.” That is, instead of producing a hair show for stylists to compete for the most dramatic ‘do, Coats is trying to move natural hairstyles into the boardroom and producing a show for everyday (and night) lifestyles.

In organizing her show, Coats is piggybacking on the District’s reputation for talented stylists while treading a road less traveled. “I had heard before I came here that D.C. was the black-hair capital of the world,” says Coats, an Atlanta native. “Hair trends start in D.C., and after doing this show, I see that’s not only for permed hairstyles, but also for natural hairstyles.”

Ten natural-hair-care specialists will display 77 innovative and sensible styles, and models will sport the gear of four local wearable-art designers. Hair Piece, a short animated film, will also screen. Peterkin-Bishop will be on hand to answer questions, along with other stylists.

“Hair is a medium just like clay or oil paint,” says Bailey. “All texture is a medium to design and create, and those designs are infinite. Straight is (just) straight.”

Still, for every Lauryn Hill or Roshumba, there are probably dozens of Lil’ Kim’s just aching to try on the next wig.

But then there’s, well, me: Just two years ago, I joined the ranks of my kinky kindred and I’m still getting to know this thick black mass atop my head that seems to speak even when I myself am silent. Whether I want it to be taken as a statement or not, people will choose to see it as one.CP

The Nywele Natural Hair Showcase starts at 4 p.m. Sunday, March 7, at Howard University’s Blackburn Center.