In a a foreward to the book, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, by Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps, Melissa Harris-Perry writes…
“So, that’s my hair story. And it’s kind of funny that I would struggle to remember all the friends I’ve ever had and all the addresses where I’ve lived, but I can, at 40, recall all of my hairstyles over the years and the visceral emotions I had about each of them. It shows how important hair really is.”
When I read that quote, it occurred to me that I too have a razor sharp “hair memory”. Despite all the things I may have forgotten in my 30 years, I can remember every 7 hour braid sitting, every every burn, every compliment and every criticism. Sometimes my hair was political, other times it just was. Here’s my Hair-story.
Elementary School. The carefree but aware years.
I was the only black girl in my class for a few years. Then I was one of 2. Then I was of 6. Each day I’d come home with undone ribbons, unraveled braids, missing beads, incomplete sets of bubbles and the occasional twig or leaf. Even at my young age, I already figured out that my white friends didn’t have to have their scalps greased frequently or their hair pressed every Easter.
They would marvel at my conrows, updos, braids and beads. I would occasionally use them as my personal human Barbie Dolls, straining my tiny little fingers in my best attempt to recreate the intricate hair-dos which came courtesy of my grandmother or the nanny.
The Rite of Passage
It took approximately 2 years of inconsistent begging and whining to finally get my first perm. I remember the wind as it moved my hair. I walked into school that first day of school feeling like a twelve year-old super model. I was grown. I could wear lip tint and colored mascara, and have crushes on boys, because I had straight hair. I also remember cutting my own bangs and turning them into a complete disaster.
That First Weave
Pretty soon the honeymoon was over. I was halfway through high-school and sporting a head full of broken off locks, so naturally, then came my first weave. It was a deep, dark secret, that only a few other black girls knew. At this point there was about 30 of us out of a class of around 550. “Is that HER hair?” was a popular game to play when we knew no white people were within earshot. Since ‘Good Hair”, hadn’t come out yet, our secret was safe.
Wow, Your Hair Grew So Fast
I decided weaves didn’t quite suit my new punk rock and ska loving lifestyle. I wanted to skate and thrash about in mosh pits but still maintain a tiny hint of femininity, so braids it was.
Slowly Easing into The Not Caring Phase
I quickly grew tired of the braids and starting rocking a tight bun, which took me through SAT’s and college applications.
I’m So Hipster I Went Natural Before There Was a Natural Hair Movement also known as “When are You Going to Do Something With Your Hair”
I didn’t know what I was doing. This was before YouTube hair gurus and $30 bottles of Argan oil shampoo. There was a lot of trial and error. There was also the time I went blonde. My hair had a life of it’s own. It struck up conversations with other natural black ladies; it was constantly offered shea butter on sale from street vendors; it was always wished a Happy Kwanzaa every December.
Time To Get a Real Job
Back to perms, because no one hires people who don’t have straight hair, right? Of course, once that job is secure, it’s back to braids and natural hairstyles. But once I made my exit, it was back to straight hair and when I transitioned to being self-employed, it stayed that way for years. YEARS.
The Head Shaving, A.K.A. my bad Rihanna impression.
Seriously, “hey Rihanna” was probably the most common form of street harassment I experienced during this time period.
Natural Hair, The End of My Journey, for now.
I chopped off all my hair, freaked out, and then promptly called every braiding salon I could to get an appointment the next day. Ever since then it’s been smooth sailing. I call this the end of my journey because even though I’m not relaxed, I’m relaxed. I’m not anticipating anything or afraid of anything. My hair is pure fun to me. I look forward to spending 6-8 hours at the African hair braider’s salon uptown. I wear my sore fingers and sore neck from hours of trying to imitate Youtube hair gurus as a badge of honor. And best of all, this time, I have plenty of people to share war stories with online and offline. Maybe my hair will be straight again, may it won’t. Either way, I’m not my hair, but my hair is me.