June 03, 1993|By Renee Graham | Renee Graham,Boston Globe Staff writer Sandra Crockett contributed to this article.

If the air grew thick with the heavy odor of burned hair, if mangled clumps of singed hair littered the kitchen floor, if children squirmed and screamed as the menacing hiss of a hot comb spat heat at unprotected ears, it was Saturday in the McKnight household.

Saturday was hair day for the three daughters of Clarence and Astrid McKnight, the time set aside to perfect those "Sunday-go-to-meeting" hairstyles for church. Between the laughter of "All in the Family" and the final tug of an ear on "The Carol Burnett Show," the ritual would proceed with nerves frayed, tears shed, tempers flared and ears fried.

But, most of all, thick, kinky hair would be transformed into willowy, bone-straight hair, "bad" hair made "good."

'Black girls can't be Breck girls without a little help.' Every time we cried, every time that comb fried some flesh, that's what my mother would tell us, and we believed it," said Beverly McKnight-Sheridan, 32, a legal assistant. "No one was going to pay any mind to a nappy-headed black child. So if I wanted to fit in, my hair had to be straight. I couldn't have bad hair.

"It took me 30 years to realize the only thing bad was the way black folks think about their hair and all the unnatural things we do to our natural hair."

Last year, Ms. McKnight-Sheridan abandoned her pressed and processed locks for a natural, a short, sculpted Afro. An increasing number of black women are opting for natural hairstyles -- close-cropped Afros, braids and dreadlocks, also called "locked hair" -- styles that celebrate the texture, flexibility and uniqueness of African hair. The change reflects not only fashion, but an acceptance of self and racial identification at a time when black nationalism and cultural pride are enjoying a revival unseen since the 1960s. (Not to mention it's easier and less expensive to care for.)

Vocalist and model Betty Entzminger, who modeled for the cover photograph, switched from a processed bob style to her current cropped cut about three years ago. "I was lifting weights and it was just more convenient to have it short," she said. "And since then, it's brought me nothing but positive things. With the Afrocentric look so unique right now in the fashion arena, it's helped make me more marketable in my modeling. Essence magazine also photographed me for their April issue on "short and sassy looks."

"At first I was worried about being the only one. But now, it' seem like every day I find someone with short hair and they're asking me, 'Who cuts your hair?' "

These days, when it comes to doin' hair, many African-American women are doin' what comes naturally.

"That which is natural is beautiful. That which is natural is good," said Maxine Hankins Cain, founder of Forever Natural International Network, a Detroit-based group for people with natural hair, which sponsored its third annual conference recently.

"Years ago we were taught that our hair wasn't beautiful. But women are realizing that natural hair is beautiful, convenient and less expensive," said Ms. Cain, who has worn her hair natural since the 1960s. "My hair is naturally kinky and curly. How can anything superficial beat something natural?"

For women in general, hair has always been an important part of their psyche. Just count the number of television advertisements with drop-dead gorgeous models with perfect skin and still more perfect smiles trying to coerce women into having silky and shiny, bouncing and behaving, manageable and magnificent hair.

But no one frets about their hair like black women. Get a group together to talk about hair, and they'll sound like battle-weary veterans of an unwinnable war recalling the methods and the madness:

Pressing. Perms. Weaves. Jheri curls. Texturizers.

The conversation will evolve into a litany of hair horrors. Terms such as "tender-headed" and "kitchen" tumble forth like so many loose braids. Few black girls grow to womanhood without hearing the phrases "bad hair" -- meaning "nappy," traditionally African-textured hair -- and "good hair" -- straight, easily combed hair -- in their own homes.

And for black women, the message that straight hair is great hair comes not only from the media, but from within their own communities as well.

"That we hear these messages from our mothers and grandmothers makes it more painful," said Evelynn Hammonds, an assistant professor of the history of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Stella Nkomo, an associate professor of management at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, recalls using a mop on her head as a child to "see what it would feel like to have this long hair to throw around like white women.

Suffering to be 'beautiful'

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