“You like your hair bone straight don’t you?”
“Yes” I whined.
“Then sit still.” I cringed as the hot comb sizzled a little too close to my temple. My scalp burned for days, but my hair glistened and flowed in the wind just like theirs, with a few exceptions of course. I couldn’t get it wet, which meant that I was scared of the rain. The other kids got to play and dance outside while it sprinkled. I had to perform the tedious hair wrapping ritual every night, learning how to place the clips just right so that there wouldn’t be any creases. The other kids talked about bedhead and barely combed their hair. I had to “sleep pretty” to avoid messing up whatever dazzling style my beautician had manipulated my hair into. My mother would often hear me snoring at impressive volumes in the next room and then open the door to see my silhouette turned on my stomach, with my hand propping up my perfectly styled head as if I was posing for a glamour shoot. However with one flick of the light switch she’d actually find me drooling in my pink onesie.
“Can I touch it?”
“But I don’t wanna get cornrows mom, they make me look like a boy” I said to my mother.
“You want braids don’t you?”
“Yeah but I want individuals.” I was becoming visibly frustrated now. “I want to be able to do all those different styles.”
It seemed as if my complaining only motivated my mother to do the opposite because a week later there I was, standing at the front door with a frown and my arms crossed. I shifted my weight to my right hip so that my posture also communicated my unhappiness to my mother. “Okay smile on three ready…. one, two, three! Say cheese!” I held my position. “You didn’t smile? Come one it’s your first day of high school!”
“Mom, I literally look like a man. I told you cornrows make me look like a boy.” I huffed, under my breath “I should’ve gotten weave”
“You got weave money?”
“Can we just go? We’re gonna be late.”
“You could’ve just worn your natural hair, I don’t know why you made such a fuss about getting it done.”
“So is it weaved? Is that your actual scalp? Or is it a wig? Oh my God are you actually bald?”
7:00 am: “We’re on our way.”
I looked at myself in the mirror and began to panic. I can’t go to school like this. My head was a dripping mess of curls and waves that would soon dry and weld into a thick woolen patch with ends that had forgotten their texture. I didn’t have time to straighten it, and I didn’t have those rich bouncy curls I saw in the commercials either.
7:10 am: “We’re around the corner.”
The bathroom was covered in hair products, bobby pins, and every other tool and product I could find as I desperately tried to normalize my hair.
7:15 am: “We’re waiting outside.”
Maybe if I blow-dry it and then slick it down with a bunch of gel I’ll be fine. I was panicking now. I was running from room to room blindly grabbing for clothes and shoes, shoveling goldfish and pretzels into my backpack and crumpling up my homework before throwing it in my bag. God I’m so late.
7:20am: “Hey are you okay?”
7:21am: “Are you awake?”
I looked at myself in mirror, this time I was panting lightly. My skin was glistening from the cold sweat and the few curls that were still dripping a thick and hazy product-tainted liquid.
7:25am: Missed Call
7:26am: We’re going to be late.
7:28am: Should we come inside?
I grabbed a couple of bobby pins, an elastic hair tie and a headband with every intention of working a miracle in the car.
7:30am: Missed Call
Shit, I forgot to brush my teeth.
“Ethnic hair care, Aisle 7”
We wear braids in the summer so we can get our hair wet. We can add color without using dye. We like to get our hair done every two weeks. We like trimming our baby hairs and having 32-inch weaves. We like Afros that come in every size, shape and curl pattern whether it’s big and curly or small and kinky. We like gel and grease that drips behind your ear in the sun sometimes. We like Bantu knots. We like curl activators and leave-in conditioners. We like rollers and flexi-rods. We like “wash-and-go’s.” We like twists and cornrows. We like oil sheen and heat protectant. We like purple lipstick, which matches our skin, which matches our eyes, which matches our hair, which all makes sense.
“I met God, she has a ‘fro.”
The first time I realized what a deep-seated desire for straight hair and a flat iron could do was also the first time I missed my grandmother’s curls. I had spent my entire life trying to straighten, brush, dry, and even wish them away. It wasn’t until I unwrapped the soaking wet towel covering my head, with both my blow dryer and my flat iron on standby that I realized what I had done. It was dull, broken, and lifeless. It stuck to my forehead and hung below my ears instead of standing tall and tossing proudly above my head.
“…Otherwise known as, the Natural Hair Movement”
“Hey girl! So you’re just getting a trim today?”
“Actually, I’m chopping it all off.” They all stopped and stared at me. The clients were scanning my face to determine whether or not I was telling the truth, the stylist trying to figure out if I had the face for it. She finally managed to let out a very long drawn out and skeptical “…Okay.”
“Well that’s brave,” one of the clients yelled out from underneath the dryer.
“Oh I miss being young,” another one chimed in as she sat legs crossed, drowning in her salon cape, and sifting through the newest edition of Black Hair.
“So what made you want to cut it all off?” my stylist asked. I ran my fingers through my dead, lifeless, heat-damaged hair and said,
“I want my curls back.”
“Check out this tutorial on how to do Marc Jacob mini buns”
I had just finished my side part; it was perfect and I was proud. I began twisting back the sides of my hair and picked up a bobby pin. “What’re you doing with those bobby pins?” my roommate asked. She stood in the middle of the doorway with her nose turned up and an expression that could’ve been interpreted as confusion or disgust, or both.
“I’m styling my hair,” I said.
“But why?” she asked.
“Because it looks nice and I like it,” I said almost defensively.
“But you don’t have any hair.”
“Well it’s growing from my head.”
“But you know there’s barely anything there.” These were two and a half inches of homegrown curls, I worked hard for them, I believed in them. I was seconds away from giving her a lecture on the importance of black hair care and natural hair positivity when I decided to play it off. As she turned the corner chuckling I quickly slipped the bobby pins out of my hair, packed up my hair products and joined everyone else in the kitchen.
“My hair grows towards the sun
White people’s hair grows towards the ground.
You know who to trust.”
You will be angry: at yourself, at your hair, at every natural hair YouTube blogger who’s been doing this for years, and at everyone else who doesn’t understand what it took, what it takes, to start again. You will regret all of it, but you will also be proud. You will cry because society will tell you that you’re ugly, but when you look in the mirror you’ll know it’s a lie. Your curls will grow healthier and stronger, and freer; and you wont notice it right away but you’ll grow with them, healthier and stronger, and freer.
“Okay so I have a job interview tomorrow and I’m conflicted,” I said.
“Well I just don’t know how I should wear my hair. I don’t know if they’re okay with my little Afro.”
“Just wear a head wrap.”
“You know I can’t just walk into anywhere with a head wrap.”
“Damn, braid it up?”
“I don’t have the time.” My best friend sat at the edge of the bed meticulously inspecting my outfit and her eyebrows furrowed as she thought of a solution to my third hair dilemma this week.
“You could flat iron it.” I exhaled out of frustration. I had just celebrated my eight-month ‘hairversary,’ eight whole months without heat or chemicals and I wasn’t about to throw it all away. I spent hours preparing my hair for an interview out of a fear that natural hair could cost me a job. But I also spent years hating my hair because of its difference and that cost me much more than shitty hours and moody supervisors.
“Okay how about I wear my really classy black shirt with those dark wash jeans, then I wear my pearl earrings right? So my clothes will look really expensive and professional, and I’ll keep the head wrap, but smooth down my edges. And if I do a really good job on my makeup I think it’ll work.”
“Yes! Oh and make sure you wear the black shoes.”
“That bitch got my haircut!” I couldn’t pay attention to the strangers turning around to give me dirty looks for yelling obscenities in public, because it felt as though the blood running through my veins was actually boiling. We were sitting on the edge of our seats shocked and confused, two black girls, who were told just a few months earlier that we were destructive human beings, unworthy of the places we held in our classroom, because of the color of our skin and texture of our hair. After a semester of encouraged silence, our presence was still disruptive. After earning our place in the classroom, our blackness was still taking away from their learning experiences. And, to top it all off, we were just pain rude, because we acted, talked, walked, spoke, and even sang—like black women.
So, quite publically, we swiveled in our chairs, flipped our long, distracting, ethnic braids over our shoulders, and left; but privately we spent days unable to get out of bed. We spent four months rebuilding, four months recovering, four months learning to love again and in those 30 seconds that our former classmate passed by, the world grew just as small as it had been four months ago. My best friend and I immediately packed up our belongings and retreated. We retreated within ourselves, silencing the deepest screams and frustrations. We retreated physically, slouching in posture and keeping our heads down and our eyes circling the ground. We retreated until the only thing left to do was run. So we hurried home, where no one could see us, approach us, or remind us. Before I climbed into my bed, clutched my body pillow and rocked myself to sleep in silence within the safety of four walls, I asked my friend why that girl couldn’t even respect me, but wanted to look like me.
“Never in a million years did I think that I would see a young black girl wanting to look like me”
I have this reoccurring daydream of a little girl standing on her tiptoes, barely able to see anything past her nose as she watches herself in the bathroom mirror. She tilts her head to the left, and then to the right. She reaches above her head and plunges a hand into the deep black mass of curls, twisting her fingers around and around each strand with a wild excitement. She pulls at the ends, and then follows the strands carefully as they recover their shape. Then, gazing into the mirror and leaning in slowly, she runs her fingers through this resistively birthed, painfully grown, gallantly towering, resiliently rooted, deep, black, God-given, glorious head of hair—and smiles.
“We don’t go natural, we return.”