There were no Murri hairdressers in Cairns in the 1970s and 80s. Mum always got our hair cut at Caravella, an Italian salon, famous for brown stelegnites dangling from the roof.
Mum had curly hair too, but it was softer than mine. Plus, she liked her fluffy fro. It was the 80s. But when the heat hit the curls, they turned mine into a gigantic, gravity defying frizz ball.
“Lovely, thank you,” I said and raced out the door praying nobody from high school would see me, tears streaming down my face, promising never to return and vowing to cut my own hair.
When I was a little girl - Every. Doll. Had. Straight. (mostly blonde) Hair. Not a kink in sight. Porcelain white skin. Not the slightest melanin hue. My dolls didn’t look like me, a little brown girl, with masses of curls. I’d cry myself to sleep praying to wake up with beautiful straight locks like my precious dollies.
The sight of her little girl playing with white dolls tormented mum. She searched without luck for a brown doll with black curly hair. She was never going to find one in Cairns in the 1970s. There weren’t even Aboriginal people on television.
I became obsessed with Elvis movies, wide eyed at the brown women and girls with their luscious long straight hair. I convinced myself I was Hawaiian.
I’d wet my hair and brush it down flat with a curry comb, one of those round brushes with little teeth that you slide your middle finger through. As the comb passed over my scalp it made a loud crunching sound from hitting all my knots.
It took some grit to move the comb freely from bumpy and lumpy to one smooth motion. But I wanted to be Hawaiian, so no pain, no gain! I’d go from ear length curly hair when dry to touching shoulders when wet! EEEEK! Just like the dreamy women Elvis would chase. The problem was, it didn’t blow in the wind. Plus, the excitement never lasted long. Once my hair dried, it puffed up into a curly ball, shorter than when I started.
There was also the afro comb. So much pain! To soften the blow, I’d hold a tuft of hair in my left hand close to the scalp and brace it tight as the comb approached a knot. In a rage I’d comb fast and furiously and CLINK, (that sound is etched in my head) a broken tooth would go flying across the room. Our bathroom was a graveyard of afro combs.
And then something incredible happened, Whitney Houston’s ringlets in 'I want to dance with somebody’, and The Cosby Show. I was 14 and for the first time I saw brown teenagers and women with curly locks celebrating their hair. It was a turning point for me.
My first job was working as a journalist for a commercial television station. I was told I couldn’t have my unruly mess out on Australian TV (um, like why not?).
While the other presenters got to wear their hair out and style it, I slicked my hair back, Sade style with heaps of gel. I really hated that gunk in my hair, so on weekends I’d let it run wild and free.
“I’ll cancel the booking,” my husband Arthur said, as he learned of my hair history; after gifting me a salon visit as a wedding present.
“Nope. I have to do this. Besides, surely hairdressers have come a long way in 17 years. Plus, I’m an adult. I’ll tell them what I want,” I nervously reassured myself.
I was 30 years old and now had the possibility of having what I’d cried myself to sleep at night for as a child. Straight hair, that I could comb and run my fingers through without getting caught in a knot. Straight hair that would blow in the breeze like Olivia Newton John in Xanadu!
As the stylist began straightening, I watched myself in bewilderment. Who the heck is this person? Nobody I know, that’s for sure! Don’t get me wrong. I combed and ran my fingers through my hair so much that night I gave myself RSI!
But now that I finally had it, and after a lifetime of struggling with it - I realised my original crazy ringlet Afro was me. It’s my identity, as a proud Aboriginal woman. Handed down to me by the most beautiful brown woman, my mum, who made me realise that my hair is a gift from our ancestors. I love that my hair has a mind of its own from frizzy to fro and ringlets to dreadlocks.
At 48, I have only been back to the hairdresser twice. I’m no longer scared or scarred. I love my hair. Every day I get to embody the beauty and strength of blakness.
Kerry Klimm is a Gugu Yalanji and Koko Lamalama woman from Far North Queensland and runs creative agency Flashblak, with a Murri twist of blak politics, sovereignty and humour. You can follow Kerry on Twitter @flashblak, Instagram @flashblak or her website flashblak.com.au.
This article is part of the First Nations Writers’ collection, a specially curated series chosen from the 2020 SBS Emerging Writers’ Competition submission.
National NAIDOC Week (4 – 11 July 2021) celebrates the history, cultures and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Join SBS and NITV for a full slate of NAIDOC Week programming and content, and follow NITV on Facebook and Instagram to be part of the conversation. For more information about NAIDOC Week or this year’s theme, head to the official NAIDOC website.