When I was surrounded by white people, knee-length plaid skirts, and crucifixes, I told my mom I wanted my hair to look like theirs—soft and brown and easy to manage. She always told me my hair was special because that was the way God made it. It sated my curiosity the first few times she gave me that answer, but the excuse lost its charm by the eighth or ninth time. I asked once more during the tail end of the exhausting, day-long, and bi-weekly process of Wash Day. I swore to myself that it was the day I would put my foot down and get a real answer from her.
I was seated on a pillow in our den, my mom on the couch behind me. She turned off the blowdryer and sent me to unplug and put it away. I stood and stretched, flexing my feet on the caramel hardwood before doing what she asked of me. When I sat back down, I began my mission.
“Why can’t I have hair like the girls in my class? My hair would look so much prettier.”
I tried to look up at her, but she forced my head forward and pulled the orange wide-tooth comb through my thick, dark, coily hair. Despite my distinct yelp of pain, she continued to comb away with unyielding tenacity.
“You need to keep your head still, Mookie. We talked about this. Remember how you’re supposed to hold your head?”
“Like a rock,” I replied, sighing and trying to keep my head where she left it. It had only been mere seconds since I sat on the pillow again, but my small body was beginning to cry out in exhaustion. My mother set to work on what felt like tearing my head wide open. One of the comb’s teeth dug into my tender crown, and she dragged it through my hair from my widow’s peak to the base of my neck. I winced but stomped down the whimper; I wouldn’t give up so easily.
“But really, Mom; I’m serious. How come my hair can’t be straight all the time? I don’t like it like this.” I reached up, pulled at a few wayward curls, and pouted.
My mother stopped combing and sighed. “Let me tell you something about your hair,” she said. “It may be harder to manage than those white girls’ hair, but guess what?”
“You can do whatever you want with it. Your friends can’t do that. They have to buy lots and lots of product in their hair to make sure it stays where they put it. You don’t have to worry about that, because your hair does whatever you tell it to do. See?” She braided a small section of my hair down to the tip and showed it to me for proof. When she unbraided it, the hair stood up like it had a life of its own.
“Your hair is so versatile,” she said. “I don’t need to work as hard to keep your hair in pretty curls like your friends do. Do you understand why your hair is so special now?”
When I gave her a nod instead of a verbal response, she leaned over to watch my face.
“I’m sorry?” she asked.
When I looked up at her, her eyebrow was raised in a smile, and I knew anything other than the answer she wanted would result in a pop or two.
“Yes,” I answered.
She continued combing through my hair, ignoring my yelps and tears as she did so. I understood what she was saying, but I didn’t want to sit in the same spot for over an hour just to make it look presentable. I wanted to be able to sit in front of a vanity for five minutes and make my hair look perfect.
Explaining haircare to white people goes about as well as you’d expect.
“You have to put oil on your hair?” Adriana, one of the girls in my class, asked me once just as recess began. The interrogation started when she asked about why my hair looked the same as it had yesterday when my mom did my hair.
“Yes, we get less moisture in our hair, and we can’t wash it as often as you do.”
“That’s so weird!” she laughed.
“What’s so weird?” another classmate, Brianna, asked when she walked toward the tetherball courts.
“Bryanne doesn’t wash her hair every day,” she answered, despite the pleading look I gave her. “She puts oil in her hair instead.”
“What?” Here she looked me dead in the face. “You put oil in your hair? Like, cooking oil?”
Before I could answer, the two girls I called friends laughed and pointed at me.
“That’s so nasty!” Adriana shouted, covering her braces as she laughed.
I said nothing and stood there as the game of tetherball began. Being friends with these girls was hard, but they were the only friends I had, and hanging out with the other girls in my class would be nothing but more of the same. So I stuck with the friends I had and took their microaggressions in silence. I didn’t think washing my hair twice a month was weird until they said something. The wash day process was so arduous, I couldn’t understand how people could wash their hair every day like my white counterparts. It seemed like a waste of time.
Before the first football game of my high school cheerleading career, my mother did my hair. We sat in her room this time, and even though the floor was carpeted, the discomfort settled in quickly. The pre-wash routine was pretty rudimentary—my mother would comb my hair out, then we’d go to the kitchen and she’d wash my hair. After she combed it out, though, she grabbed something that looked like a black paintbrush and a white jar.
“This is gonna burn, okay, Mookie? But I have to keep it on your hair for a long time, okay?”
I could hear echoes of my dad cheering on the Raiders in the den as I nodded. My heart rate accelerated, and I attempted to hide a smile. My mother was going to put a perm in my hair. I never thought she would, because she didn’t want to damage my hair follicles or change my hair texture, but here she was, preparing to spread chemical goop onto my hair.
“Yes,” I responded before my mom could say anything about my nonverbal answer. I heard my friend Erin laugh at the texts her boyfriend sent her from further behind me as I felt the thick, cold, white goop I knew the jar contained. Using the brush, my mom spread the relaxer into my hair, making sure to get every last strand of hair. My scalp started burning before she could get through my entire head of hair. I whimpered, and she continued brushing the relaxer into my hair.
“I know it hurts, Mookie. Just wait a little while longer for the relaxer to do its job, okay?”
Minutes later, she finally stopped and covered my hair with a plastic shower cap. I felt the heat coming from my scalp when I put my hand close to it. The burns intensified, and my scalp throbbed. Tears pricked at the corners of my eyes, and I could bear the pain no longer after only five minutes.
“Mom, it burns so much!” I shouted, slamming my legs on the carpeted floor to distract myself from the agony my head was enduring. Erin remained silent for a long while. My dad cheered faintly as the Raiders scored a touchdown. Judge Judy shouted at some dumbass plaintiff for not bringing any proper evidence to support their claim. I shed a tear and my mother rubbed my back as I sobbed.
When she washed out the relaxer, much to my relief, my curls looked much looser than they were before. I smiled; my hair was going to look so beautiful when my mom finished it. She draped a towel over my head and towel-dried my hair quickly before directing me back to her bedroom. Sitting down in our original spots, she combed my hair once again, then lathered in a leave-in conditioner. The comb slid through my hair easily this time around, and I could not have been more grateful for that.
“All right.” She sighed and pulled my hair into a bun. “Go put on your cheer uniform, bring your hair bow, and come back.”
I rose and did as she said, pulling the sparkly white and purple outfit from my closet. When I returned, she motioned for me to sit back down in my spot. She placed the bow in my hair and said, “I’m done.”
I pouted. The reason I was so disappointed was that it didn’t look like it did when my mom straightened my hair. I expected her to do more with it; it wasn’t even three in the afternoon, and I didn’t have to be at the football field until four-thirty. I didn’t understand why my mom couldn’t curl it or something. Staring in the mirror, it kind of looked like I was bald, or my hair was very short. There wasn’t anything to diminish my admittedly very large forehead. I wished I had bangs or something similar because, without them, I felt ugly. The letdown didn’t last for very long; my mom ushered my friend and me out of her bedroom to get our cheer bags.
One night, I lost my hair.
I came home from my cousin’s house in Fontana, and my mom told me to take my hair down so she could wash it. I obliged, but as I began to loose the cornrow braids in my hair, I realized more hair was coming out of the braids than was normal. I calmed some when I remembered that sometimes I lost a lot of hair when I took my hair down, so this might be normal.
“Are you finished taking your—did you cut your hair?” my mom asked, walking from her bedroom to mine. My back was facing her, blocking the only light source in my room.
“No, why?” I answered, continuing to the last braid.
“You can’t have lost that much hair over a weekend,” she said, moving to get a closer look at my hair. “How did this happen?”
“I-I don’t know,” I stammered. My heart raced, and my fingers shook as they dug into the last portion of the final cornrow, pulling it apart, more hair wrapped around them.
“Okay,” she said, “we can fix this.”
Her idea of fixing the dilemma was putting my hair in loose twists. The bottom half of my hair was extremely short, and it showed. I wished I could have hidden my hair underneath a hat, but unfortunately, those weren’t part of my school’s dress code. Every two weeks, my mom would wash my hair, oil it, and twist it up again. I asked her to do something different, but she told me it was too short.
“Would you rather I just cut all your hair off?” she asked in that tone that told me she wasn’t having any sass. I always told her no, but some days I wish I said yes. I thought about how nice it would be to start over often. But having shorter hair scared me; I wasn’t ready to make that commitment. So I lived in despondent embarrassment with my twists for months because of how terrible I thought I looked.
Then I got box braids.
The evening of Mother’s Day my freshman year, I begged my mom to let my cousin Ashya do my hair to help it grow back. She said that braiding it into human hair would make it grow fast. After some pleading from me and negotiating with my aunt, she agreed, and Ashya set to work. My hair wasn’t finished until well after midnight, and it felt like she was ripping the hair right from my skull, but it was worth it. My hair was hidden in long, braided tresses that didn’t end until the top of my lower back. I rejoiced in my new length, and I hoped I would finally start loving my hair. And I did. I could finally manage it the way I wanted to. I walked into my high school the next day with my head held high and my braids waterfalling past my shoulders and down my back. I woke up earlier than normal to show off my new hair.
“You look so different!” my friend Natalie shouted when she saw me.
I preened, smiling shyly. “My cousin did my hair for me,” I said, curling a braid around my finger. “Do you like it?”
“I love it! It looks so good!” she grinned and gave me a hug.
I tried hiding behind presses and braids in order to fit in. My hair received a lot of damage because of it, but I thought it would keep my classmates from thinking she’s not one of us. I was sorely mistaken. If I left my hair in braids a little longer than appropriate, if a braid slipped out of my hair, leaving it sticking out in its wild state for all to see, they’d notice and point it out. They called my hair ghetto or messy, and I agreed with them. I thought making fun of myself would make me feel better, but it never did. It only reminded me how much of an outsider I was, and being the only nerdy Black girl in my class certainly didn’t help. That didn’t stop me from trying to fit in, however.
“What is your hair doing today?” a white classmate asked me once. Already our conversation was running like a script. “You look like Bonquisha, or Bonquiqui.”
“Excuse you,” I said, snapping my fingers in an arch with a hand on my hip. “I look like Watermelondrea, honey; don’t get it twisted.”
Cue the laughter, and the few moments where I pretend I don’t hate myself. I still remember the days when my hair was the butt of everyone’s jokes. I thought if I made fun of myself, no one else would do it for me. It worked, but my hair didn’t straighten. I didn’t feel like part of the group. Instead, I felt like a caged animal who forced herself to dance for the people who imprisoned her, hoping they’d let her out.
“All right,” my mom said as she put the curling iron on the paper towel settled on the stove. “You’re done. Go do something with your hair and put on your clothes.”
“But I don’t know what to do with it!” I cried, rising from the dining room chair in our kitchen.
“You could comb through the curls,” she said as I traveled to my closet to change.
“I can’t! I’ll comb the curls out!” I called back, sliding hangers along until I found the desired white lacy dress and red sweater.
My mom sighed, muttered something I couldn’t hear before speaking to me again. “Put on your clothes and come back here.”
I did as she asked, and when I came back into the kitchen in my outfit of choice, she pulled the oddly curvaceous purple comb from our hair bag.
“It’s not that hard,” she said. With that comment, my mood soured, despite today being a good day. ABC was giving me a scholarship for my Girl Scout Gold Award project, and today was the ceremony.
“Well, you never taught me how, so it’s hard for me.”
My mother didn’t answer, and continued gently coercing the curls into submission. We’ve had this conversation before. I was reprimanded every time I played with my hair when I was younger. I understand why though; my mom worked hard on my hair for picture days, and she didn’t want it to get messed up after five minutes. But she also didn’t show me the possibilities I had open to me. So I ended up feeling sort of stuck.
When I do my hair now, I get frustrated with my hands for not knowing what to do with the pile of tightly wound coils on my head. The parts aren’t clean, the twists don’t stay twisted, and my hair doesn’t listen to what my hands are saying. All I end up with are aching arms, cold fingers, and undefined tangles. I usually give up and throw it in a bun. My mom never taught me how to do my hair; she didn’t let me touch it unless it was bone straight or in braids. After I told her I wanted to do my own hair, she sent me hair tutorials. Some hairstyles looked like they wouldn’t work on my shorter hair, and others looked like they just plain wouldn’t work with my hair texture. With every twist I saw, the bitterness within me grew, along with the confused frown on my face. All of the twist-out variations I saw made me feel even more inadequate. I didn’t know which way to part my hair so it suited my face.
Every time I try something new, I change my mind before I finish the first section, and do the simple twist-out I know best. I don’t hide my twists under a scarf though. I put the awkward parts on display and show the world how terrible I am at doing my hair. But I am getting better. I give myself bangs and I try styling products I think my hair will like. I’m learning to listen to my hair, and now, it’s starting to listen to me too. My parts may not be perfect, and my edges are rarely ever laid, but my curls are defined, and my hair is happy.
I guess in some ways my hair is a lot like me—tangled and hard to manage. But it’s also constantly changing and always beautiful. Both have been damaged, and both have bounced back. I’m still grappling with my hair, and accepting it is a task that won’t ever be completed. But I realize that my hair is amazing just the way it is, even though I can’t handle it the way I want to just yet. I know that the hair that grows from my head can do things that other hair can’t do without being forced into a different state or matted into some atrocious approximation. I know that my hair can be braided and twisted to look like a work of pure art. I know that even if I don’t style it at all, it will still be a masterpiece.
I know that my mother was right all those years ago.
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