An Ear to my Hair
I have never been good at listening to my hair.
It doesn’t help that it’s an absolute diva most days. Snarling and tangling as soon as I try to pull a comb through it, dropping white flakes of dandruff on my shoulders, laying limp when I want curls and shrinking when I want it straight. It is a cruel mistress, impossible to please.
When I was little, my mom used kiddie perms on my hair to keep the bramble bush on my head manageable, and that was just fine with me. As a girl who shared lunchtimes and class projects with white girls, straight hair made me feel less other. When my hair was straight, my friends could braid it at sleepovers, comb through it without sorting through tangles of coarse kinks.
My mom had straight hair, too. She was my ideal for hair: long, thick, straight, and tough as steel wire. She could do anything to it and it’d grow just as healthy as ever. My hair, on the other hand, was thin, wispy, grew slow and broke as often as a glass hammer. It was frustrating. It also wasn’t my problem, not back then.
Little kids don’t have to listen to their hair. At least, I didn’t, when I was little. My mom would tell me, “Here’s what you use on it,” and “here’s how you twist it”, and I’d clumsily follow her directions. I never paid attention to the creams and oils she put in my hair, or took note of how to flat-iron it correctly; I’d just close my eyes and try not to flinch at the heat on my scalp.
It was only after my mother lost her hair to chemo that I opened my ears to my own hair.
I am loath to say that anything “good” came from my mom’s breast cancer diagnosis and treatment: chemotherapy ripped every hair in my mom’s skin from its bed, exhausted and weakened her. But, after beating the disease, she was gifted a head of new, baby-soft, and completely differently textured hair. As the natural hair movement surged among black people across the nation, my mom had been given a chance to start over.
With new hair and a new commitment to her own blackness, my mom started her own “naturalista” journey. Truthfully, it’s a journey she’s still on, as she consults YouTube videos and Facebook articles looking for new ways to take care of her now shoulder-length hair.
Her own commitment to her natural hair, and all that came with it—the new hair products, the alternate washing methods, the protective styles—sharpened my ears to the needs of my own mane.
“My ends are splitting, you’ll need to trim them.”
“You can’t wait so long to wash me!”
“This shampoo really dries me out, so could you stop using it?”
It was through my new connection with my hair that I learned how damaged it was. As much as I loved its length, to the tops of my shoulder blades as I entered high school, I could no longer ignore its pained cries. I’d get out of the shower after washing it and look in the mirror, still dripping wet; half of my hair, near my roots, swollen and puffed like a mushroom cap: the half near my ends hanging like wet dog fur.
But I was still surrounded by white people at school, and the ideal of long, straight hair was high in my mind. I stubbornly held onto my damaged hair, hoping that time and regular trims would get rid of it all within a year or so.
It was only after entering college that I really understood my hair, though.
Nothing made me more self-conscious about my hair than seeing other black women with no problems taming their own, so what place could be more terrifying to me than an HBCU? A generous scholarship was the reason I attended Hampton University, and my fear of being seen as other for much more than my poorly-maintained hair raged deep into the first weeks of college.
But finding my niches as an actor and an anime fan—and seeing them filled with black people—helped me to get used to the campus. My feelings of isolation and alienation melted into interest and excitement. I finally got caught up on modern slang (with the help of Urban Dictionary, I have no shame in admitting). I went to an anime convention for the first time. I made black friends for the first time in a long time. And, with no reservations, I talked about hair.
I can’t explain how freeing it felt to walk into my dorm’s common room and see twenty girls wearing bonnets and scarves, or how it felt to complain about my lack of curl pattern and have people empathize. Hampton helped me embrace my own blackness, and to think more positively about my own hair.
I still love how my hair looks when it’s straight, but now it feels like one option of many instead of the standard. I’ve had my hair many ways, shoulder-length and pixie-cut, braided and cropped. I’m happy with all of them now, and I enjoy taking care of my hair.
Well, no. That’s a lie. My hair is still unpredictable, and I dread washing it with no idea how to make it look like more than a mass of black wire. And there’s still plenty I don’t know: To this day, I couldn’t tell you what hair type I have, and I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever be able to. But, at twenty years old, I’m finally ready to confront the questions that the beast on top of my head has been asking me, and to embrace a part of my identity that I have always neglected.
I am finally ready to listen.
The posture of my tongue has always
been perfect: in-line, every white tooth on
every white teacher who taught me to
talk upright. But my mama, my daddy,
my sista and my brotha and the
kitchen cabinet are all warm brown-lookin',
logs feedin' fire under rigid winter rulers.
nothing can be sacred, not god nor grandma’s deviled eggs. i’ll leave the cleaver and the raw cubes of every person i’ve loved on the cutting board instead of hiding them between my teeth; cover them in plastic wrap. grease soaking through the paper plates, drippings and trimmings dangling from fork tines and shiny lips. i’ll down macaroni and greens, coffee cake and cheese tarts, memory sitting heavy in the fat of my thighs; i’ll pillow heads with the softness of my past.
past myself i will lust for nothing, not the jewels of a woman’s eyes nor the diamond droplets from her pool-wet hair. traversing the plains of my arms and valleys of my face, i will map the topography of my years, sew the tears made by my tears. i will address my letters to each of my lovers in turn: to the swell of my cheek, to the crook of my elbow, to the sharp edge of my shin, to each pair of lips curled around my name.
names descend on each pretty era of my past: my babyhood now "paper lavender"; my childhood now "firesparked". i will know the odor of my coming age; i will relish it, the scent of burning flowers under a wide night sky. i will see myself in the stars and know my place among them, under them, all of us caught in an explosion too slow and too far for human eyes to see. my faith lies only in the celestial bombs—they consume just as well as i.
i have been given a beautiful name, and i will weave grace and garlands of it. crowned by my title, i will knight all who protect my cave kingdom: sir feathers-on-sidewalks, dame paint-on-skin, and the path of my own crooked hands, my royal adviser. robed in atoms and comet dust, i will walk the garden labyrinths of fingertips, pork rinds crumbling against my tongue, and survey all that i have built with pride: nothing, nothing.