Fried and Scared Straight

Fried and Scared Straight

"Discover the era when the hot iron comb ruled in Black communities. A tool for taming curls, it often left its mark—burns as unwelcome rites of passage in haircare. Curious? Dive deeper."

From the ages of thirteen to sixteen, taming my wild hair became the weekly mission for my mother and sister. "Why is he so careless about his hair?" my sister would exclaim. "Can't he keep his hair neat like Anthony's?" Their treatment of my hair was sometimes ruthless, using various tools and methods without thinking of the discomfort they caused me.

The hot iron comb was ubiquitous in households of that era. Older women and girls would wield this tool, accompanied by heaps of hair grease, to transform curly hair into a more manageable state. But, this method had its drawbacks: the comb would often scorch the user, marking them with burns as though they were rites of passage in the world of haircare.

Saturday evenings, I'd be summoned by my sister into the kitchen. Without ever having requested it, this would be my unscheduled hair appointment. She'd set up her makeshift salon with a simple dining chair placed next to the electric stove where the iron comb sat heating up.

My sister, being three years older and the eldest of four, seemed distant to me. Except for our hair straightening sessions, my memories of her are few. She was taller, slender, and always dressed stylishly.

As for the hair ritual, I'd take my seat, an eleven-year-old boy draped in a white sheet, nervously anticipating the procedure. Essential items were lined up: hair grease, a wet cloth, a pink comb, and a radio belting out our favorite R&B hits. As Sister Sledge's iconic "We Are Family" echoed in the room, my sister would gleefully mime, "We are family. All my sisters and me!"

The menacing sight of smoke wafting from the hot comb never failed to unnerve me. “Stay still and shield your ears,” my sister would command, grasping the red-hot comb. The sweltering heat could be felt even before it touched my hair, and instinctively, I’d want to pull away.

Every time she approached my ears with the comb, I'd silently plead to not get burned. Often, my involuntary flinching would lead her to exert her older sibling authority, pulling me back into position.

With a firm grip, she'd start at the roots, and I'd hear the distinct sizzle of grease melting. An acrid scent of singed hair would soon pervade the room. My once buoyant curls would lay defeated, hanging limply down the sides.

Despite all precautions, I invariably ended up with burns. Whenever I'd yelp in pain, she'd counter with, "Stay still, and it won't happen!"

The tradition of the iron comb endures, albeit in modified forms like gold-plated versions that heat up independently. One fact remains: they continue to instill fear and occasionally inflict burns on unsuspecting young ones.

Throughout my adolescent years, my hair remained a central theme, from my mother's pink comb to innovative devices like the hot pick. There was a continuous, almost obsessive need to manage and control my curly locks. Yet, amid all this, I never truly articulated my feelings or indifference towards these hair rituals. After all, in the grand scheme of things, there seemed to be more pressing concerns than this natural part of being human.

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