During our weekly ritual, I comb my daughter’s hair and repeatedly yell “I’ll be damned!” in the part of my brain I want no one to see. She has the hair I’ve always wanted—a Cree Summer fro that brings me face to face with a hair story I can’t seem to shake.
I made my first big chop at Howard, imagining a talk show reunion with the texture that got relaxed away when I was my daughter’s age.
“Why did you leave me?” my Janet-Jackson "If" curls would ask with tendrils full of abandonment issues.
“I had no choice,” I’d say, looking for resemblances to my mother’s side of the family.
“How do you know your mother was a Native American?” I once asked my maternal grandmother.
“Because she said that was why her hair was so pretty.” she’d said matter-of-factly.
When the stylist turned me toward the mirror, I looked more like ‘72 Michael than ‘93 Janet.
An older stylist said, “Somebody’s going to have some fun in the sun!” I still don’t understand that.
When my father saw me for the first time post-chop, he danced around me and my 'fro. “Woowee! My daughter got nappy hair!” he beamed, as if I’d meant to look like Cassius Clay.
“These aren’t naps, Daddy. These are curls.”
“I see about three curls in the back, and it looks like you twisted those with your finger,” he said. “The rest of these is naps.” He was sweet like that.
In the days before curl puddings, soufflés, gels, or stretch creams, most of the “natural” girls on campus had loose curl patterns. The curly girl I most despised walked the yard in designer clothes and heels. She had the unmitigated gall to publicly pin up her blond hair as if heat only bothered half her neck. That style would have taken me an hour and a whole jar of Ampro Pro-Styl! I could look at her and tell she’d never had to have sex while wearing a satin bonnet.
I gave in. A texturizer finally put me on the Different World scale, somewhere between Freddy’s fro and Kim’s curl. My new hair dumbfounded my older brother. “I don’t understand,” he said, looking at curls he didn’t remember from childhood. “Are you trying to find yourself?” He is sweet like our father.
Wigs were less harmful than chemicals. I was especially fond of one curly, synthetic wig. My gynecologist complimented me on my gorgeous (scalp) hair during one annual exam. I thanked her. Had she told me my ears were next, I would have told the truth. She was kind. “All clear,” she said, gently replacing the edge of the lace-front as she disposed of the Otoscope attachment.
I consider my current sister-locs an investment in my future confidence. By the time my daughter is a teenager as pretty as Prince, I will look like her queen. I’ll wear my long locs in a regal chignon like the mothers of the Disney princesses she will love behind my back. My bank account will look like the Ira Berlin classic, Many Thousands Gone, but my hair and I will finally be at peace. Or will we?
I’ve spent too much time in a marketplace where I am bought and sold to myself time and again. Hair products are but part of the costly prescription for tragic Black femaleness. When my daughter is old enough to realize her own embodiment of disdain, will I still be imagining faults in my own mirror? Will I be pinching at my lines, chiding myself for a life of laughter? Will I be accusing my naked body of its submission to gravity? Will my bleached teeth glow in the dark? Will mice-blinding mascara finally turn my eyes Pecola-blue? Will I risk my life under the knife that has made so many wealthy?
A rich, mahogany rinse almost ruined my senior year in high school. When my stylist finished, I was more Barney than Brandy. She suggested “Rinse away.” It would take a few months, she said. I bought a packet of bleach instead. My hair turned engine red in a matter of seconds, then fell out in clumps as years of growth literally went down the drain. It was Black girl/White world trauma– a week before summer camp.
I spent the Whitest summer of my life reveling in the ignorant freedom of being the token Black friend who belted Ani DiFranco’s “I Am Not a Pretty Girl.” My camp friends didn’t notice the broken hair that inspired my choice in song, and I intentionally avoided the Black girls who styled each others’ hair and eyed me (and my hair, I thought) suspiciously. At summer’s end, I wondered how I would face the darker realities of an ugly senior year.
The day my mother picked me up, something was off. Earlier that summer, her glossy hair had rested at the collarbone mark to which Black girls esteem. Through its many permutations, the fullness and length had been an enviable constant. The rolled-down window showed a scalp barely covered by shorn hair. “It was hot,” she said, laughing at my open mouth. “And I wanted you to show you that it’s just hair.”
I remind myself of this, finishing up the last twist in my daughter’s style. She runs to the mirror, shaking her long twists and jumping up and down. She turns to me, her face suddenly serious. “Mommy, why you hair don’t move? My hair move! You hair don’t move!” She is sweet like her grandfather, I am wise like her grandmother, and we’ll make it through this world as whole as we can be. Or I’ll be damned.
Asha French is a mother and writer in Atlanta.