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Please, Do Not Pet the Negro
By Kimberly Clark

In the sixth grade I wanted a Jheri Curl and only the good Lord knows why, or for that matter why my own mother -- the one who is supposed to shield, protect, and guide my decisions -- would allow such an abomination to take place with my hair. I look back on the year and a half I spent with a Jheri Curl with deep regret and shame. I remember wanting to look like Nola Ray -- Michael Jackson's love interest from the "Thriller" video, but things didn't quite turn out that way with my hair-do. I looked more like Michael Evans, J.J.'s brother from Good Times. Not only was getting a Jheri Curl an extensive process to endure in the beauty shop; it was a pain in the neck to maintain. Squirting activator on my head every couple of hours or so to keep my "do" moist was taxing on me, and my mother's pillowcases. To this day you will never catch me in a clear plastic shower cap.

Through the decades my hair has undergone some pretty radical changes. Over twenty years of hot combs, DAX hair grease, Luster's Pink Lotion, ponytails, lye and no lye perms and relaxers, weaves, cornrows, activator, gel, sleeping in rollers, blow dryers with comb attachments, banana clips, finger waves, strawberry, and pineapple waves.

Approximately 10 years of my childhood were lost to spending marathon hours in a beauty shop under hooded dryers that temporarily made me deaf and forced me to read the lips of gossiping women. Although my hair was ever changing, the curiosities of white people have always remained a constant. No matter what my hair was doing, I could always count on someone asking me the ill-fated question, "Do you mind if I touch?"

Born in the 1970s, I came out of my mother's womb with my hair already styled. I was born with an afro. My mother told me the hospital workers walked by the nursery and when they spotted me they would say things like, "Check out the baby with the 'fro!" and "Right on!" A couple of years later my mom couldn't wait to make my fro more manageable by using a pressing comb on my head. I absolutely hated getting my hair pressed because no matter how careful mom was, she always managed to singe my scalp with the comb. Even though the stinging pain lasted for a couple of seconds, it was enough to send me into a crying fit and officially ruin the rest of my day. And of course my mother could never get my hair as straight as she wanted it. In grade school Jamie Reader and Lee Ann Billings thought my hair had some type of mystical powers because when everyone else's hair plopped back into place after swinging upside down on the monkey bars, my hair would still be sticking straight up in the air, like I put my finger into an electrical socket. It seemed like I was always holding counsel on the playground and lecturing to my white peers about my hair's physics and why if I washed my hair every day like they did, my hair would be as dry as a haystack and eventually fall out. These discussions would always provoke a classmate or two to want to go beyond their general curiosities and actually experience my hair by touching it. My mother made sure I learned that I was not to be treated like Exhibit A being passed around a courtroom, or some type of attraction at an interactive museum. Touching my hair was a big "no no."

I officially became aware of this big "no no" at Cathy Warren's sleepover. I was invited to this annual event all six years of elementary school but never allowed to actually "sleep over," because Cathy's house was dirty and she was notorious for having occasional bouts with head lice. But in the third grade it always seemed like the dirty kids who lived in the dirty houses had the most fun. When my mother picked me up from Cathy's party before everyone went to bed, Mrs. Warren raved about how well behaved I was and she planted her pale hand in the middle of my hair that was greased and parted with two ponytails on each side. Mrs. Warren's hand on my head felt like a stamp of approval, a gold seal of excellence for my good behavior, but my mother's face expressed a totally different sentiment. "I can't believe how Mrs. Warren put her hands in your hair like that, with that smirk on her face. She just wanted to know what nappy hair felt like," my mom complained all the way home. That night I learned that Mrs. Warren's affectionate pat on the head was heavy laden with an ulterior motive, and I had every right to have a chip on my shoulder when it came to people touching my hair.

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