Wash Day

A reflection of my natural hair journey. This essay takes the reader through the process of learning to love myself and teaches about natural hair and history that isn't often taught.

Photo credit: Jon Tyson/Unsplash

Part I: Just For Me

I look forward to the tri-annual ritual. My mother prepares to sacrifice her firstborn to the white man’s god. The hair growing from my seven-year-old head is the physical offering; my self-esteem and self-love are the tributes beyond sight. Temporary satisfaction disguised as permanent beauty makes me feel like I’m living up to the standards never meant for me.

The hands of the unlicensed chemist open the box of Just For Me relaxer and put on the provided gloves for protection. She no longer needs to read the French instructions. My mother takes the liquid activator and pours it into the creme relaxer; the wooden spatula stirred. A concoction lethal to the natural coils of my hair lets out a pungent sigh. The promise of free-flowing, soft, smooth, tug-free, and “manageable” hair keeps me in my crossed-legged place between her thighs.

My mother, without my input, separates my hair like the United Nations did German-occupied Togoland during World War I. The wide-tooth comb names the parts in my hair: [French]Togo, [German]Benin, and [British] Ghana. Fitting it is that the relaxer which forces my kinky hair into straight submission is white in color. Ironic it is that it is called a relaxer, the process of chemically treating your hair is anything but. The signal that it is working is a slight burning of your scalp disguised as an itch you dare not scratch. The perfect moment to wash it out is found somewhere in between the muffled screams of follicles and a hissing scalp.

I am unaware of the dangerous possibilities of this ritual; naive, I risk scalp burns, permanent hair loss, and blindness. The unneeded and unread instructions read: Keep out of reach of children and in the same breath recommended it for children five and up.

Also recommended is an eight-minute wait time but my mother insists her tender-headed daughter wait a few more minutes to make sure the relaxer works. I squirm and count the stone bricks stacked in the dirt below me to distract myself from the calcium hydroxide and guanidine carbonate defeating my new growth. I want this chemical equation to result in my favor.

She uses these five excruciating minutes to retrieve water from the well in my grandparent’s front yard to wash my hair. When she sees fit, she laters my hair with water and applies a small amount of Neutralizing Shampoo. A pink liquid runs down my soon-to-be aching neck. Pink means the relaxer is still in my hair. When the shampoo is completely white, all the relaxer is rinsed.

Towel and air-dried. Moisturized. French-braided. Ready for tomorrow. Tomorrow, I will get feed-in braids. A protective style for permanently damaged hair.

In the morning I once again find myself in between the thighs of a Black woman, the stones waiting to be counted. She does my hair for free because my mother was her midwife and this is her thank you. When I move to the United States, different Black women do my hair but my mother always relaxes it; even across the ocean, my hair is to be “tamed.”

The Big Chop

On November 26, 2016, a melodic metallic edge
carved self-hate out of my scalp.
My guardian angel gave themselves a pat on the back,
and my ancestors gave me a standing ovation.
Compressed into coils
their lineage carries all of humanity.
Strands stretched across continents against their will and doused with chemicals.
On November 26, 2016
Those kinky strands emit coconut into nostrils,
Whose follicles remembers its roots,
Firmly planted into a soaked desert.
An unquestionable sense of belonging escapes from the Atlantic
and cleanses my hair with castor oil.
On November 26, 2016, the 18-year-old in the mirror believed me when I said “I love you.”
The best birthday present I could give her
The afro seen around the world.


Part II: Cantu

Such mundane human activity takes place in a hair salon; the one which left residue in my hair is a blurry kaleidoscope of a leather chair and black cape decorated with various sketched mustaches. It amuses me that one of my coming of age moments is a permanent instance in an unnamed Brooklyn Center hair salon. It further amuses me that the hands of the unlicensed chemist, who permanently vanished the natural coils of my hair for over a decade, were hesitant to cut the result of their horizontal violence and thus left me at the mercy of a stranger.

The hair salon is alive as expected on a Saturday morning. Women are getting their hair braided. Black boys feeling the joys of childhood and a new haircut; Black girls rocking their beads and barrettes. It feels like a daydream almost too good to be true.

For nearly a year, my Twitter feed has been over-saturated with resistance to oppressive beauty standards, and 16 days after my eighteenth birthday, on November 26, 2016, I too became deviant. To enter the internet and not be bombarded with remnants of colonialism was a key to returning to myself. Before I could hear those shears getting a little too close to my ears, my mind had to be decontaminated. Otherwise, the chemicals would continue to seep their way into the new growth no matter how often they were cut. To this day, the odor of relaxer whispers “Just for Me” and gives me the witch from Hansel and Gretel vibes and I find myself sitting crossed-legged in between my mother’s thighs as she separates my hair with a wide-tooth comb and paints my black curls with the white mixture. I don’t recall the last time my hair felt such agony and for that, I thank Black women on the internet I will never meet.

Could you imagine looking in the mirror and not being able to envision your head full of hair the way it grows naturally out of your head? I tried, really I did. My camera roll filled with short-hair inspirations and I didn’t even know what mine looked like. And so on a cliche November morning, metro transit bus 724 delivers my mother and me to a hair salon and I don’t think I ever left.

The barber asks me what I want and I say “cut the damage out of my skin and give me a sense of home within my own body.” The hair that slid off my cape onto the floor didn’t feel like it belonged to me; I watched it float down to the ground as feathers of a raven do.

As he snipped away, he told me of his wife who also did the big chop and now has long, gorgeous locs that chase away the dread which accompanies deviance. My anxious daydreaming is interrupted by the swiveling of the chair and while I knew the mirror was now looking into me, it took several seconds to work up the nerve to meet her gaze. This man had introduced me to myself. I walk out with some of my hair in my pocket and winter greets my scalp with a post-hibernation yawn.

For the first time, it doesn’t take me 2-5 business days to feel comfortable with a new hairstyle. Taking care of my hair on the other hand is the challenge I now faced. Cantu shampoo and conditioner were my first go to and it wouldn’t be until later I would learn they’re not sufficient. The winter was filled with headaches from exposing my scalp to the dry Minnesota air and no amount of YouTube tutorials could teach me how to smoothly transition from a decade of relaxed hair to 4C.

Wash Day

On wash day my hair and I spend uninterrupted quality time together.
Her love language is physical touch
so I caress her for hours.
Trying to make up for the love she was denied for over a decade.
I shower her with leave-in conditioner and coconut oil
She wraps me up in her tight coils
And praises me for my consistency and commitment
to learning by trial and error.
When the teeth of the comb are broken, I admire her strength rather than scold her stubbornness.
I still find myself frustrated with her shrinkage and porosity on the occasion but on wash day,
We get a fresh, new, moisturized reset.


Part III: Shea Moisture

Hair that keeps secrets from me is what now thrives on my scalp. She shrinks with water and must be teased out of her tight coils with curl-stretch pudding. At first glance, she looks the same as she did three years ago on that November morning; an inch of gravitational defiance. After some prompting, she shows all six inches of progress she’s made on her journey to radical self-love.

Her travels from Twa (teeny-weeny afro) to 70s Afro were accompanied by her 70s baby of a mother. It is now the mother who sits in between crossed legs. Little did I know she would be the one following in my footsteps. To break a generational curse before the next generation has come into existence was not my intention, nevertheless, it was my accomplishment. I vow that my children will not know self-hate.

At 21 years of age in my Resident Assistant single dorm room, the days I wash my hair are just for me. My hair and I sit down and recommit to the journey that we’ve embarked on. A wide-tooth comb of my own detangles her knots and naps while she hydrates herself in the shower. Afterward, we strengthen and restore our relationship with the Shea Moisture Jamaican Black Castor Oil shampoo and masque. We face each other in the mirror and smile, ready to loc in our decision to love each other in our natural form.

Solange Knowles serenades me from across the room, my aloe plant, lucky bamboo, succulent, and cactus echo her voice, “Don’t touch my crown.” Beyoncé whispers to them, “I think tonight she might braid her braids” as I decide which products I’ll be using. I thank Grandmother Sofi Tucker for the Red Palm Oil and Cocoa Butter Curl Stretch Pudding she gifted me and Auntie Jackie for her Flaxseed and Monoi hair oil. Their mastery of the LCO method allows them to take over my hands and guide the product to my roots.

While I part my hair with a rat tail comb, oil my rubber bands, and separate my hair into small sections, Grandmother Tucker tells me of the village of Bonthe in Sierra Leone where her legacy of Shea Moisture was born. As she is talking I teleport to Lomé, Togo. Here I am tending to the roots of my hair yet I have not stepped foot on the continent that nourishes the roots of my family tree in 13 years.

5,988 miles from Saint Paul, Minnesota lies the land on which my soul will rest again. I often yearn to feel the sand beneath my feet and cleanse myself on the shore of the Atlantic ocean. To dry off under the palm tree and watch the sunset on the colonial indoctrination of my ancestry.

My mother and I share a dream of once again walking through the village market and setting eyes upon her parents. Just as I have taught her to love her natural hair, she continues to teach me about loving support each time she compliments my hair and commends me for my commitment to taking care of it. My suggestions land on receptive ears and she is proud to tell me when she’s tried something new. With each passing year, our nostalgia grows faster than our hair.

With each passing year, my roots dig deeper into the soil that was toiled by my ancestors who were stolen from West Africa to tend to stolen land. Land the United States has yet to return to its rightful owners as much as I have yet to be returned to my home. Nagged by nostalgia, each birthday marks a broken promise. Much Like how the US has never kept a treaty it had signed with the indigenous people of this land, I have yet to keep the promise of returning this body to the Ewe people.

They cheer me on when my arms begin to get sore from braiding; I’m only a fourth of the way done with my hair. My kinks and coils are patient with me, they know type 4C hair is the most delicate and must be dealt with gently for it’s prone to breakage. In return, I am patient with their growth.

¾ of my scalp waits to be braided and ¼ of my self-love journey is on its way to completion. Falling in love with my natural hair is just the beginning, my new growth isn’t limited to my hair. This is a journey of endless learning. Of returning to myself. Of returning those around me to themselves. This is radical self-love.


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Rose-Marie Athiley

Rose-Marie Athiley (she/her/hers) is a senior at Hamline University in Saint Paul, MN, where she studies English and Communication. Rose-Marie moved to the United States in 2006 and through learning her third language found the art of the pen and word. Her love for poetry has found itself in her academic essays and newspaper articles. Rose-Marie uses her poems and essays to foster empathy and understanding. Her most recent publication was in 22 Under 22: Young People Speak!, is an anthology of fiction, essay, and poetry by 22 people under the age of 22.