human behavior

Baptism by fire

Posted in American Culture & Politics, Habits & Manners, Race & Ethnicity by humanb on October 15, 2010

Every culture has its ritual for young boys and girls. In black America, there was once a rite of initiation into the world of mainstream beauty. And it didn’t involve training bras or lipstick. It involved a red-hot stove and a cast-iron comb.

I found this little piece of my childhood in one of my memory boxes today.

This iron beauty once lived in my kitchen junk drawer and was put on top of a stove burner “on high in the mornings before school. A towel around the neck, a bit of vaseline on the top of the ears, and America’s little black girls were ready to get their do’s pressed into bone-straight submission. Hair grease was imperative to keep the hair from overdrying and breaking while being pressed. But hair loss wasn’t the only peril. There was always the feared “finishing touch” – a first degree burn across the forehead or rim of the ear. You knew it was gonna be a good day if you left for school without getting burnt.

The pressing comb is still being made and still being used in salons and kitchens across America. It’s a handy alternative to chemically (and permanently) straightening your hair. And I hear there are shiny, gold-plated electric versions now – safer and with better temperature control for the silky hair of our fair-skinned sisters whose hair still isn’t straight enough for our collective tastes.

The pressing comb has gone mainstream.

But there’s something about this comb that evokes bygone days. Not just the rust. And not just the way the top teeth have bent and come together from a blistering heat that had no business near a little girl’s scalp. There’s something comforting in holding this dirty iron comb by its solid wooden handle in my sunny, harbour-side apartment in Sydney. It grounds me. It warms me. It transplants me to a kitchen chair in front of a single mother, who woke early to make two little black girls pretty for school, before beginning a long day of three jobs to support them.

And it connects me to every black woman in America that can never forget that particular smell of burnt hair and bacon in the kitchen of her youth.

Still –

Sometimes I think that it’s long past time that America’s little black girls escape the indoctrination, and put away their mammas’ hot combs.

Sesame Street thinks so too.

For more on black hair, see this post.

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2 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on October 18, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Nice job! Hang on to that comb. I recently decided to love my hair and have been experimenting with how to work with it in the natural. Thanks for the inspiration and post.

  2. Touch2Touch said, on November 6, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    Thanks for this post. I learned something today.

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