If there’s one thing I know with all certainty, it’s that my scalp has always been a political battleground. You don’t need me to tell you that—my Instagram speaks for itself. The pictures I’ve posted with my hair straightened and burned into submission by the hot comb have far more hearts than my natural frizz and curl.
That doesn’t mean I hate the straight hair look. I’m keen on the way it lengthens my neckline, sharpens my cheekbones. The way boys look at me and probably wonder if I’m both brilliant and a great lay.
But Euro-centric ideals of what is and what isn’t beautiful have been delineated very clearly. And those ideologies have been carved into the psyches of black women everywhere. You see it all too clearly in the women who would break their own backs for a hair appointment and a track weave. These are achieved by sewing hair extensions into your French braided hair.
That was me. For years that was me.
I’ve been sporting weaves since I was in 9th grade. Enduring perms since I was in 4th grade. That, in and of itself, is its own sort of ritual. My momma always did mine in the den of our suburban, middle-class home. There was a built-in vanity and she’d sit me in one of our high-backed bar stool chairs, my baby-lotioned chicken legs swinging back and forth. An old towel wrapped around my shoulders, tucked into the back of my shirt. The feeling of my momma’s soft fingers swiping thick globs of Vaseline across my forehead, through the hair parted in four sections of my scalp.
“Don’t scratch, baby. Dammit, I said, don’t scratch.”
I was always ridiculously excited for the finished product but never for the process itself. I hated that acidic suntan lotion smell. The way my scalp always started to itch the moment the chemicals coated the inky black strands of my wild hair and wrestled them down into a more manageable sort of coarseness.
At age twenty-five, my hair is so happy and healthy now. What used to be a 30 minute detangling process is now an expedited 10. My hair is now that kid with all the courage—it shines on its own; no need for hair serums or sweet-smelling dry conditioners in excess; picture this: your mother’s expensive silk through a cheese grater. Your heart’s probably falling but your fingertips will appreciate the metaphor. You don’t realize how much you can feel your hair’s death until you run your fingers through it from root to tip with no involuntary pit stops along the way.
I’m supremely grateful to be nappy. Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy. I’ve been wearing my hair natural for about 13 months now. I’ve been nappy for probably 80% of that. America needs to know it takes confidence to go natural. And it’s not all easy, despite what some people will tell you. Girl, if only you knew how long a bantu knot-out takes! It’s an overnight ordeal. Prep alone takes maybe an hour, depending on the length and coarseness of your hair. Brush, oil, brush, twist, pin, and un-knot in the morning.
This America does not enjoy my ‘fro, my kinks, my naps, my curls. It asks me to be relaxed, pressed, permed, fried, dyed, and flat-ironed. I’ll never pick up a hot pressing comb ever again. I’m totally fucking against it. I loathe and abhor it. I will hate and bemoan it until I’m blue in the face. And I’m angry at whoever invented it.
You know what it took to get me here? A little white pill. “There’s good news! Twenty-eight hundred milligrams of this a day will effectively curb that painful numbness that’s settling into your hands and feet.” Side-effects may fucking include losing half the hair on your head as well as a rejection of the hormones your body needs to fight off the glottic stage 0.
The pill is meant to address the delayed effects of uncontrolled type 1 diabetes. This pill is a Band-Aid, to say the least, but it’s one I can’t afford to go without. The alternative would result in painful numbness—the juxtaposition is its own sort of strangeness. Five years later, I’d be diagnosed with a stage 0 cancer. The Endocrinologists never saw it coming. No way they could have known about the three tumors that would decorate my vocal cords like rainbow bulbs on a Christmas tree. Over the course of two years, the tumors would break open and fracture that peaceful agreement my body and I had with one another. The pill was meant to curb an issue, the cancer treatments render the pill ineffective. I hate the word “cancer,” because at stage zero it’s technically dormant and not going anywhere. Saying, I have cancer feels unfair to people who are really being put through the ringer. Hair loss and a spike in hormone levels, in comparison, might be considered a gift.
So at age 24, I was losing my hair, miserably sick, mood swinging like a motherfucker, and too ashamed to see the medical hair dresser “prescribed” to me.
It was one day while I was grocery shopping that Linda, my current hair guru, found me. She handed me her business card and said, “Baby, you’ve got the face for a natural tapered fro, and I want to give it to you. First go’s only $25.”
She took it all off in one fast chop.buzz.hack. and I’ve been wearing my hair natural ever since. But don’t let my dedication to the cause fool you—initially, I was horrified. I Tweeted and Instagramed photos of my tapered fro. Within an hour, a guy I thought I was almost-more-than-friends with commented that he wasn’t sure if the picture was of a guy or a girl. I deleted his comment and re-captioned my photo.
To me, even when I was victimizing my own hair by shackling it with weaves and killing it with $6 straight perms, a black woman’s hair has always seemed like a weird sort of shame and beauty—but also power. If I had braids—long and thin, hanging down my back—I was too Black, too radical. “Settle down, Badu.” If I had a weave, I didn’t love myself enough, I was trying to be too white, I wasn’t doing my people or my hair any favors.
The way I see it, that period was just me being human. All I wanted was acceptance. The braids were just me following a pre-determined path. They ran much deeper than me. Centuries before I even touched the earth, braids were a symbol, a ritual of their own, a rite
I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. The girls on my block wore high ponytails and headbands. My mama drove me to Compton once every two months and had my shit braided by one of our “cousins” for sixty bones. This trip almost always included a trip to the Africa Store where we bought enough Jamaica oil and Olive Oil shampoo to last the year. On Easter, Mama weaved flowers into my braids and at my birthday she let me add glitter spray. During Christmas, the style was curly or crinkled braids and all the little ashy black girls made a game of whose red and green bow held back their braids best.
If those rituals have told me anything, it’s that Blacks have long been paying an intricate sort of attention to their hair. Braids were a status symbol—the more complex, the higher the wearer’s status.
So my point is, it’s become important to me, that I claim my ‘fro. Because there’s value in it. In me. In my aesthetic. Black people have always had their artist hearts appropriated by other cultures (rock and roll, blues, jazz, dat ass). A long-standing conversation between my roommates and I is that I don’t wear loud colors or styles—not nail polishes, leopard print ballet flats, big gold hoop earrings, or any of that, because if I do, then I’m “ghetto.” It’s already been decided. If a white girl does it, she’s dope, she’s eclectic, goddamn she’s got her own thing going on. I’m sitting here now trying to convince you about how factual these statements are—that they’re not biases I’ve made up inside my head. It’s indicative of how “black things” are cool as hell as long as they’re not on black bodies. Twerking is trashy until Miley owns it and tells the world to fuck off. Kendrick is a thug but Macklemore is preaching hard truths. Iggy Azalea is Queen but Lil’ Kim has been all but forgotten. Zendaya’s dreads make you think of patchouli oil and weed, but Lady Gaga is killing the game? And if you want to examine this outside of pop culture, take a look at history. People have long denied the Blackness of ancient Egyptians (Egypt being the origin of the dreadlock), but there are melanin tests and physical, anthropological tests that state otherwise, tests that say ancient Egyptians—the founders of civilization—were Black.
Anyway, today I’m wearing a head wrap.