If you’re a curly-haired black woman walking down 125th St in Harlem on any given day, you will inevitably stumble upon traditionally dressed West African women soliciting you with this dreaded question. Though innocent and for most of them a necessary question for survival, these words have become the bane of my existence. Let me clarify one important thing – this post is in no way, shape or form intended to bash or badmouth these hardworking women who are simply trying to feed their families in this promised land known as America. However, I’ve grown to develop strong feelings about the ideology and societal norms that have conditioned them to assume that this question is harmless and only for their monetary gain. On the contrary, while they may not understand it, it’s a daily reminder and a setback to many natural-haired gals who unlike most don’t want “hair braiding” or extensions. We simply want…to be.

It was June of 2010. I headed uptown to Harlem in the early evening to cover a book signing for one of my new favorite authors. Upon walking into the bookstore on 125th St, I scanned the crowd, and my eyes stopped on an all too familiar afro puff; signature style of my good friend Nicki. We make eye contact and I rush over to greet her. As I walk up, she greets another diva with beautiful natural hair in a tightly curled style framing her face. Nicki introduces us and says to her friend, “Your hair looks great! I commend any natural who can wear anything but a puff. It’s all I do!” Her friend responds, “Girl, I’m just satisfied if I can walk by the African ladies on 125th street without them screaming out ‘Hair braiding miss!'” They both laughed and sighed. Somehow I thought I missed the joke. At this point in time I was rocking a long Indian silky weave so I had no idea what these ladies were talking about. Yes, I had seen African ladies on the street before but never had I directly been yelled at or solicited to get my hair braided. After all, it was already braided. Under my long Indian silky weave. For the purpose of this story, the silky weave’s name shall remain anonymous. Let’s just say I had a nice full head of hair.

Fast forward about 5 months to November 2010. The day after I locked myself in a bathroom and tore my permed ends to shreds saying hello to the “new” me. I walked outside and headed to the train station, only to find I had a few new friends. The West African ladies. “Hair braiding, miss?!” they shouted at me from the steps as I rushed off to catch my downtown train. Confused, I proceeded thinking they must have mistaken me for someone else. Eight hours later I emerge from the train platform once again in Harlem to find them yelling at me once again.”Hair braiding miss? Hello miss? Hair braiding!”

No! I don’t want my hair braided. I want it to flow free in the wind. I want my curls to hang low and stick up high. I know eventually I’ll need a protective style but for now, right now, I just want my hair to be free. It bothers me that there’s an obsession in the African and African-American psyche with covering up what naturally grows out of our heads. If it’s flying free, clearly something is wrong. If I’m walking down the street with my natural curls, I MUST be on the way to the salon, or simply having a bad hair day. But I’m not! According to me, I’m having a great hair day. All until these African women look at me with eyes of disdain and tell me different.

Tell me my natural hair is ugly.

Tell me I need to go under disguise.

Tell me that my curls are not cute and extensions are inevitable.

I don’t mind braids or weaves or extensions. And this is not a proclamation against any of it because if you check the records ladies and gents, I’ve done it all before. All I’m saying is, can’t I have a choice? Can’t I choose to be naturally me, nappy and free without being verbally abused by West African ladies on the streets of Harlem? Can’t my hair be “done” without having extensions or being bone straight? Can’t I just be?

Am I overreacting or does anyone else feel me? It doesn’t have to be ladies on the street. It could be your neighbor, your best friend or a family member. Does anyone else wish they could just “be”? Free of judgment and free of societal pressure?

Curly Nikki says:

Every time I hit the mall I’m stopped by the infamous ‘flat iron girl’. Last week, I went with my friend Nadeira and Baby G. As we approached the flat iron island, I could see the girl gearing up to recruit us. So when she muttered what I thought was ‘would you like to try?’, I replied with a very quick, and rude ‘no’. Nadeira broke out in laughter and said, ‘Nikki, she just asked to see the baby’. True Story.

**Updated to add:

I love this response by Anonymous 9:03 am:

See, I think Nikki’s response to the flatiron girl who asked to see her baby totally demonstrates how much we project and blame on other people. We use so many excuses about how other people perceive us regarding curly or coily hair, that we take everything as an insult.
Answering no rudely just says a lot about what you are reading into their attempt to sell you something.
I’d like to ask people if they get mad at the perfume and makeup people who are probably the most aggressive salespeople in the department store. Do you get mad at them and assume that they are saying that you are ugly and smell bad when they attempt to spray you with perfume or sell their newest lipstick to you?
How we respond to things says a lot more about us in many cases then it does to the people who are frequently harmlessly offering us a good or service.
And yes, I’ve heard that perhaps the African community isn’t so accepting of natural hair, but again, that doesn’t mean that I need to project all of that onto everybody, b/c I frankly don’t care if they find my hair to be pretty anyway.