Growing up, I fondly remember spending countless days applying a fingertip of pomade to my head and brushing furiously. Those days also included some awkward conversations with my mother where I'd ask for an old pair of her pantyhose, so I could wear them — on my head. I'd cut them up and fit what used to be the calf section over my hair before bed. Then, each morning before school, I'd inspect my hair to see if there was any hint of waviness. In the school's hallways, a chorus of hairbrushes on black male scalps was the sound of virility, each stroke a bit of a mating dance to the young ladies that passed by.
My high school and college friends often joked that I had (*ahem*) "slave hair" — that is, hair so tightly curled that it could not be tamed even with repeated attempts to straighten it out. They were able to style their hair with waves, and my uncooperative hair was endlessly entertaining to them. I'm certain the opposite sex noticed the deficiency too; I neither made waves in my hair nor with the young ladies.
For the uninitiated, waves refer to a sinuous pattern that develops in the natural hair texture most common to black people when it's groomed in a particular manner. The incessant brushing, application of a greasy or waxy substance, and cloth covering cause the hair to look as though it harbors rolling waves preparing to crash along the hairline. Black men's hairstyles have come and gone, but this fashioning of one's hair persists.
In Come The Waves
It's not a style one can simply walk into a barbershop and get; waves requires long-term effort. The most important requirement is the hair brushing, which must be done so frequently that you will often see young men brushing almost continuously throughout the day. It is less grooming than it is training the hair.
Pomade was the most common dressing applied to the hair that facilitates its straightening when brushed. Newspapers ads from black publications in the first half of the 20th century leave no question as to its purpose:
"Amazing pomade works wonders with stubborn kinky hair. Makes unruly hair lay smoother and straighter."
Today, pomade has been mostly replaced by other products that are lighter and better for the hair. But in the black community, it's become synonymous with its use for getting waves.
The last ingredient is a piece of cloth to wear over the head that protects the hair during sleeping so the waves aren't ruined as one tosses and turns at night. For many black boys, this was a cutout of woman's pantyhose that was then fitted on the head. Now, the more common version are doo-rags and other tailored versions of nylon or silk caps. It's often seen as a fashion statement, but the head-wrapping is a part of the hair-care process.
Black Men And 'Good Hair'
The fascination with black people's hair, and the politics of beauty and acceptability that precede it, is well-worn territory and it is the hair of black women that has garnered the lion's share of attention.
But black men are not immune. We have desired "good" — or straight — hair, too.
Waves have essentially become an allegory for black masculinity, primarily because the short-cropped hair and texture necessary to attain them are most common to black men. More importantly, the required ritual is a treasured marker of black male adolescence. But at its root, this styling is a form of chemical-free hair straightening that more closely conforms to Eurocentric standards of attractiveness.
Like many black men, my friends and I simply considered waves as a way of making our natural hair more attractive, not as brushing the blackness out. But, on reflection, the way we talked about our hair indicates we were unknowingly well-versed in what attractive was supposed to look like — and it wasn't black hair in its natural state.
So we were never caught without our brushes, casually pulling the bristles through our hair so often that it became as natural, and nearly as frequent, as breathing. We loved to brag that our waves would get so deep they'd make you seasick. And, more than anything else, we lived for those moments when a young lady, on noticing the exquisite pattern in our hair, would ask us some variant of the question that black people usually hate: "Can I touch your hair?"
But all is not lost with this ol' slave hair of mine — current thinning aside. I used to think inheriting my hair would haunt my children, but it's actually quite a blessing. As it happens, my grade of hair quite easily twists and mats into dreadlocks. This means that though waves may be unattainable for my sons, the dreadlocks they sport will be the envy of their high school friends.
And they'll never have to ask Mom for her old pantyhose.
Theodore R. Johnson III is a writer, naval officer and former White House Fellow. His writing focuses on race, society and politics.