Interview with NPR winning essayist, dancer, and entrepreneur Toya Smith Marshall (Part 2 of 2): Natural Hair


toya smith marshall

The second half of my conversation with Toya Smith Marshall was strictly devoted her experience with natural hair.  Since I do dedicate a portion of my blog to natural hair, I wanted to publish this separately.  Below are additional places to read about Toya Smith Marshall.

here on

Toya Smith Marshall’s blogs-

Copy of winning essay and audio for NPR’s weekly “This I Believe” interview from Oct 16, 2008

Toya was also recently cited in The Washington Post on January 5, 2009 (quote about halfway down page)-

Again, thank you again Jacqueline Carter from NPR Media Relations for bringing Toya’s story to my attention.

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How old were you when you got your first relaxer?

“I always had really long, really thick hair, and my mother just did not know what to do with it.  My grandmother used to press it out every 2 weeks or so when I was a little girl, but then as she got older she just didn’t feel like doing that anymore so my mother had me get a relaxer when I was about 8 years old.”

After 18 years, Toya decided to abandon relaxers in favor of her natural hair.

Was there something in particular that sparked this transition?

“I really think that I’m blessed by my daughter because she was the impetus for many of the things that I’m doing in my life right now.”


It seems like you went through some type of renaissance of your own since she was born.

“After I gave birth to her, I did.  I really did because it made me think about my place as a black woman in this world when I gave birth to another one, and I thought to myself, ‘What am I saying to her?…I wanted her to see a mother that was fully actualized, who was a good and present mother but was a full woman outside of being her mom. I didn’t want her to think that she was all that was going on in my life. Not only that, I wanted her to see that who she is is beautiful.  Everything that she is is fine and right, and I couldn’t say that who you are is fine if I was continually, through my actions, showing that that was not the case…You know, when I looked at her hair when she was a baby and saw all these big fluffy curls, and I thought to myself, ‘She has my hair,’ but I have never seen that hair.  I don’t remember what my hair looks like when I was a little girl, and so I said ‘I have to get back to it.  I have to know it.  Besides the fact that I knew that I didn’t want to relax her hair, so I could never have cared for her hair if I’ve never done it.”

You don’t intend to ever to put a relaxer in her hair?

“Yes, that’s my intention.  I don’t intend ever plan to put a relaxer in.  Now, as she gets older and she gets old enough to make her own decisions for her hair, I won’t deter her from doing what she wants to do, but I want her to make a fully educated decision.  To know that her natural hair is fine, and that she would be able to care for it, if she wanted to.  Now, if she doesn’t want to do that then that’s fine as well, but I want it to be because she chose not to do it and not because she feels like she has to.”

Wow, I just wish there were so many more great mommies out there like you.  I just think we get lost from so many messages out there that we are told or indirectly told about how much weight how we wear our hair carries.

So how did you go about the process of transitioning to your natural hair?  Did you wear braids for a while?  What did you do?

“I actually did a transition for a while.  I went into my stylist after I made my decision and told her, ‘I’m going to go natural with my hair so I’m not going to be getting any more relaxers or chemical processes or anything,’ and she said ‘Ok, no problem’ and so for about 10 months she was doing transitional styles on me like straw sets or wet sets.  I did flat twists.  You know, braids.  Double strand twists.  Anything to make my hair presentable while it was growing out, and then, after about 10 months, I just got really tired of dealing with it.  I got really tired of dealing with the 2 textures and I found a natural hair salon in the area and I just had them chop it off.  I had my short afro, and I loved it! (laughs)”

Were there tears shed or how did you react to this change? I think it’s important to share because there are a lot of people out there who are in the position that you were and maybe have some reservations about chopping their hair off.  What was your experience like while you were at the salon?

“It was the most liberating thing ever.  I was so happy after I had done it.  My head never felt so light.  I could feel air on my neck.  It was the best thing I had ever done.  I felt so good about what I had done.  I went right out and bought some big hoop earrings (laughs).”

You were ready to rock the style!


“I was ready to rock it!…hoop earrings, different clothes.  I rocked that afro.  I was so happy with it.  So that’s kind of what I wanted to get out to women, that it’s not as scary as you think.  If you just do it, you will be surprised at how much you shed.  Not just hair, but you shed any of that attachment to that stuff, and you feel so liberated, and…you realize that you’re still beautiful with short hair, with nappy hair, with curly hair, however it turns out, it’s still you and you still look just as beautiful.  In fact I thought that I was more beautiful after I had done it.”

How did your family react? Let’s start with your husband.

“He didn’t seem to care one way or the other when I told him I was doing it, although I think he was perplexed by it, like why would I feel the need to do that?  I don’t think men understand the way women do because they don’t get the same kind of messages…However, after I had done it, he liked it…and he loved the sister locks.  I’ve had sister locks for about a year and a half and he loves them.”

I was going to ask you about how you’re wearing your hair now.  So you’re doing the sister locks.  What other styles did you try in the past?

“I wore my hair just [out and natural], I did double strand twists, and afro puffs and everything for about 3 years, and then after a while…it was getting long and I wanted to do something with it, but I didn’t know what to do…I thought about different options.  Did I want to cut it again and just have the afro again?  Do I want to get traditional dreadlocks…and after researching a lot of different options, I wound up with sister locks.”

What made you choose sister locks?

“For me the appeal behind it was it was less stuff to do.  My hair is exceedingly thick so when I had I had my huge afro, it would take a long time for detangling, conditioning, or if I wanted to do the double strand twists it would take me a couple of hours to do that…So, I just wanted more of a carefree, wash and go type of option which is why I thought about cutting it off again because that’s why I had loved my short afro, the wash and go thing.  So sister locks seemed like a really good wash and go option.  Also, because my hair was getting so long I wanted to be able to do different styles, and so it also seemed like an option that would allow me to do different styles without having to do anything chemical to my hair because going back to relaxers was not an option.”

So you’re not looking back?

“No, I have no intentions of going back.  That was not an option.  I had people say, ‘Well, why don’t you texturize it?’  Because it’s just a low key version of a relaxer, I’m not doing that.”

I agree.  After many years of going to stylists, I pretty much learned that effectiveness of a texturizer really depends on the texture of your hair.  For many black women with traditionally nappy hair, a texturizer really doesn’t make much of a difference.

“Right, right.  I just didn’t really want to because if something would have gone wrong I would have been so angry with myself for messing up my hair that I had worked 3 years to cultivate and take care of.  My hair was at the healthiest it had ever been.  I wasn’t willing to take a risk.”

What salon do you go to?  Do you mind mentioning the name?

“Actually, I don’t go to a salon.  The lady who does my hair is a certified sister lock technician but she actually does it out of her home…Now my husband does, because my husband, after seeing me for 3 years with natural hair and then locks decided to lock his hair.”

Oh, he did?

“Yes, so for the past 6 months or so, he has been locking and they’re so cute and I’m so glad he did it.”

Awww, y’all are like the little natural couple.

“Ya, we are now and our little natural baby because she rocks the cornrows or right now she has twists, so it’s the whole family.”

At this moment I was telling her about how she needs to get some nice Christmas family photos.

“I will!  I’ll have to put it up on the blog…In fact, I feel like I started a natural hair revolution in our family.”

Oh really?

“Out of the 8 grandchildren on my father’s side of the family, 6 of us have locks…and then one of my aunts just asked me about getting sister locks for her hair so we might be adding another one to the ranks soon.”

When I was asking how did your family react earlier, I recall from the NPR interview that your grandmother was not happy with your decision to go natural at first.

No, she was not open at all…My grandmother is from South Carolina.  She is very, very old school, and umm, she was raised as this was something that you just did.  You pressed your hair or you relaxed it. That’s the way it was, so when I stopped she was kind of horrified.  She literally said to me, ‘I didn’t raise you to be nappy,’ which I thought was the weirdest thing ever…I just couldn’t understand that.  Over the years, she’s kind of mellowed about it because she sees that I’m not changing my mind.”

This part of the conversation we were having now was the reason why I wanted to make this a separate post.  Our hair is attached to generations and generations of our nation’s history, emotion, opinion, and judgment.  I hope the growing trend to go a natural actually stays belong a faddish look so that we as African Americans let that part go once and for all.

I digress…

“My grandmother, my mother wasn’t in love with it.  My father, interestingly enough, has loved it from the beginning. He’s been an advocate from the beginning but my father has always been my advocate.  He’s always been on my side with whatever I wanted to do.”

So you’re a daddy’s little girl?

“Yes, I’m Daddy’s little girl so he’s always like ‘Whatever you choose to do must be great.’  My grandmother actually likes the sister locks a lot.  They’re kind of like braids to her.  It’s just more of a palatable hairstyle to her, I guess.  The whole afro thing was just not working for her.”

How about friends?  How did they react?

“None of my friends have given me any beef about it, although most of my friends are not natural. I’m one of the very few.  My best friend is, but my best friend has much looser curls.  It’s more of an acceptable option if you have loose curls than if you have nappy or kinky hair.”

What are some of your favorite products?

“Well, I love Carol’s Daughter a lot…Hair Milk…I love their spray leave in conditioners- the black vanilla.  I just love the way it smells and makes my hair feel.  That was before my sister locks…and since I’ve had the sister locks, I’ve really used products that are for women with curly hair…the Curl Rocks products…the Wen by Chaz Dean cleansing cremes ( , I love them…In fact, I found about [Wen] because I love QVC’s Saturday Night Beauty…and I decided to try them out.  They had a little sampler and I ordered one of each kind…There are different types of cleansing cremes for different types of hair.  [Among them] are for those with highly textured hair, like women of color…I think those are the lavender, the tea tree, and the fig…I just rotate between those 3.”

What do you need to do to maintain sister locks?

“I go about every 2 to 3 months to have the roots tightened.  That’s it.”

Are your coworkers supportive?

“Ya, they really are.  In fact, I had done the afro for 3 years before I did the sister locks, and I only had 1 person say something to me, and what I said to her in response is, ‘I really don’t think the Federal government wants to give me any grief about my hair.  I really don’t think they’re going to want a discrimination suit,’ and that was the last I ever heard about it…Any other woman is allowed to wear her hair exactly how it grows out of her head.  There’s no reason why I can’t, too.”

This ends the 2 part series interview with Toya Smith Marshall.  Thank you Toya for taking the time to share your story with myself and my readers.  I wish you continued success and can’t wait to see that family photo with you all rockin the natural styles!  😎

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