I love this story. It’s included in my book Sonic Memories . If you like what you read, check out the rest of my book.
I used to lust after white girl hair: bouncy and shiny, bone straight or lustrous curls. Anything long that could get wet and lay straight to the scalp would do. Until college, I was always the only black girl in my grade, a speck of pepper in a sea of salt. Surrounded by hair drastically different than my tightly coiled, vertically challenged locks, I longed for what I believed I could never have. I sat behind Jennifer — there was always a Jennifer — and watched her separate a lock of hair with her forefinger and begin to twirl it from root to tip. Sometimes she would insert her #2 pencil into her tresses and twist and then let go, the hair spinning in a silky ribbon. I stared at the back of her head until I saw myself with Punky Brewster’s ponytails or emerging from a pool, hair slicked back. The Jennifers had hair that obeyed, falling just right, back into place. In its natural state, mine is thick like a bramble bush. It has to be heated to straighten, will stick out if twirled, and never follows my orders to fall back into the fold. Attempts to wrap my hair around my finger left me smoothing and re-smoothing the same stubborn patch in vain.
In second grade I smuggled a black t-shirt, its front swathed in bands of the colors of the rainbow, to school in my book bag. In the coatroom I’d don the shirt, like a nun her habit, sleeves tucked in, the length of the shirt cascading down my back. I’d flip and toss my ‘hair’ like the other girls. I even tried to wear it to Thanksgiving lunch but my teacher pleaded with me,
“Cija, can you please leave it in the classroom, just this once?” Her eyebrows knit together in concern.
“No, this is my hair I can’t take it off.”
She promised I could wear it after lunch so I grudgingly acquiesced. Years later when I revealed this little gem to my mother, she looked at me for what felt like forever.
“I always wondered why everyone at that school looked at me strange,” said Dolores.
She was never obsessed with hair. My entire life she’s worn it one of two ways: smoothed back and tucked tightly with two combs or on date nights, loosely pulled curls in a floating halo. The proof is found while flipping through Mom-Mom’s weighty photo albums or sifting through decades of photos stashed in shoeboxes and plastic handled shopping bags on the floor of my parents’ closet. Dolores has never been a trend follower which is why none of her high school yearbook pictures include the aging styles of her peers: stiff up-dos or helmet-like flips with swooped bangs. So it was a bit much for her when her first two kids, my sister Aqua and me, were slaves to trends, badgered her about perming our hair straight, and fought over which model we wanted to be: Kim Alexis or Carol Alt. I was always Kim, with her piercing blue eyes and feathered blonde hair; Aqua was Carol, the tamer brunette. She had no choice but to be the brunette; blondes ruled the eighties and big sisters ruled their younger siblings.
Our behavior puzzled my mother who never put any chemicals in her hair, and who unlike me never dreamed of being white.
“When I was your age I never wanted to be white, what is wrong with you?”
She grew up during the civil rights/black power movements of the sixties and seventies in a household where Mom-Mom would protest racial injustices and participate in community organizing. My experience was different; I grew up in the light and wavy (light skinned, wavy hair) obsessed eighties where the collective hue of black folks was not well represented in pop-culture. My parents taught us about our ancestry but back then that majestic history didn’t eliminate the facts: we were poor and my hair was nappy. In high school, my acknowledgement of my heritage lay dormant until the annual black history month screening of Mississippi Burning or Roots would tease it out of me, building a fiery rage in my chest, forcing me to confront the moist-eyed sympathy of my classmates. For 24 hours after a screening my inner black panther would rear its head, but then like a cat readjusting its position I would be back to daydreaming about having white girl hair.
If I couldn’t have white girl hair, the next best thing was ‘good hair’. For me that meant naturally curly, take a dip in the pool, spray with some leave-in conditioner and go hair. I was always jealous of the black or bi-racial girls who could get theirs wet without it looking like a sponge holding water. I don’t know where the phrase originated, but I heard it from both my grandmothers. Dolores loathes this term. She’s just never been keen on folks elevating the status of a person’s value based solely on their ability to grow naturally straight hair. If she hears anyone refer to someone as having ‘good hair’ she will sound off,
“If you have hair, you have good hair. I hate that shit.”
It didn’t stop me, though, from once feeling a flush of pleasure when my stylist, while rinsing creamy chemicals out of my freshly permed hair said, “Girl, you have some good hair. It straightened just like that.”
My path to the perm was paved by many kitchen chair sessions next to the stove. Dolores heated the metal prongs of the hot comb over an open flame. Though she despised the term ‘good hair’ she was not opposed to straightening hers and ours. She followed in the footsteps of Mom-Mom who hot combed all four of her girls’ hair, doing so made for no tears combing and quick styling on school mornings. Dolores would begin by smearing a patch of blue or green Blue Magic hair grease on the back of her hand. She’d pull the comb out of the fire, grasping the wooden handle. Then tamp down the heat of the prongs on a kitchen towel bearing the browned stripes of previous heated exchanges. Aqua and I ducked from the heat on reflex and got swatted by her thick black plastic comb. “Sit still,” she would say, comb raised.
Starting at the scalp, she would swipe through freshly washed and dried hair, pressing the tight coils into a sleek curtain. Then part it down the middle, gathering it into two ponytails, plaiting and clipping the ends with brightly colored plastic barrettes. Any discomfort felt was brief; the reward of shiny straightened hair, made for a short memory.
There comes a time—actually many times—in a young girl’s life when she clicks the heels of her Converse together and makes a wish. One sweltering early summer day I accompanied a couple of frenemies (we were a two-faced lot) to Wild World, the local water park. I was thirteen and on the cusp of starting high school. The night before, Dolores had hot combed my hair straight, styling it into a single ponytail, with the tail end bent courtesy of a pink sponge roller.
“If you get your hair wet I’m not doing it again,” she said. Dolores washed and pressed our every two weeks. She might touch up the edges in-between but there was never a full session.
“I’m not going on any water rides, there are other rides too,” I said, knowing they were few. I wasn’t going to turn down an invite from Lisa and Jennifer, two of the popular girls in my eighth grade class. I was going.
All morning we ran around the park jumping on various rides. Each time one of the girls pointed out a water ride I’d redirect to a dry option. For a while my scheme worked. But then I began to wilt under the merciless rays of sun. I noticed their cheeks were flushed. We rounded a corner and there was the log ride.
“Let’s go stand on the bridge,” Lisa said, pointing to a group of people standing over a pool of water. We watched as they clustered at the railing waiting for the log flume to drop from the top of a hill into the lake below and splash them with a colossal wave. A bead of sweat trickled down my spine. I eyed that bridge like a cartoon character staring at a freshly baked cherry pie cooling on an open windowsill. Should I, shouldn’t I?
If I stand up there that wave will feel so good.
Yeah but if you stand up there that’s the end of your hair, you aren’t leaving for a while.
I know I know… Maybe my hair will stay straight. You know how it gets wet and then goes straight for a hot second?
Yeah and then it puffs up.
While I carried on a conversation with myself, the girls ran toward the wooden steps leading to the bridge. I faltered, glued to the spot. If I stood on that bridge my hair would be done, ruined. They waved me over.
I clicked my heels, doused my rational voice with a healthy dose of pixie dust, and bounded up the stairs. Slow motion: a log filled with screaming people, arms stretched to the sky, poised at the top of the hill; the log dipping down, sluicing through the rapids; at the bottom, the nose parting the pool of water creating a wave; me staring high above, the wave teetering on a moment; a false sense of hope rushing in and then, the crash of water. My hands flew to my hair, and, for a moment, my wish had come true, my hair slicked straight back. But then it began to turn, like Bruce Banner becoming the Incredible Hulk. Hair sprang through my fingers. It swelled around my shrunken ponytail. I snatched out my hair band, using my fingers as a crude comb. I tried to corral my thickening tresses but it was no use. A bushy halo framed my face. The hair band was useless.
I eyeballed the kiosks in the vicinity. None sold hats. A hat with a good pull-strap could serve as cover until I got home. So deep were my ruminations I hadn’t noticed the girls. I caught them gaping at my head, eyes mirthful, corners of their mouths crooked in barely suppressed grins.
“Oh my God, what happened to your hair,” asked Jennifer, a smirk on her face. My face warmed in humiliation. I may have coughed up some feeble excuse. As my hair dried it began to take on the look of a nest. I pretended not to notice their sneaked looks and furtive whisperings knowing the subject of my hair would burn up phone lines the rest of the weekend. I was forced to walk around the park for hours, my hair standing up like Don King’s.
After the disaster at Wild World, I complained to my older brother Mezei about the state of my hair. He was in cosmetology school and offered to perm it. Dolores strictly forbade me putting chemicals in my hair, but I did it anyway. Her anger would be worth having the straight hair I’d been dreaming about since second grade. The creamy white mixture felt cool when first applied. Then the chemicals began to slow cook my scalp. I was not deterred. I touched my hair and it was smooth at the roots. Kinky tangles had transformed into soft tendrils I vowed never to lose. Afterwards I took my hair out on a test drive. I coasted my bike downhill and felt the wind tickling my scalp. My hair lifted off my neck and settled in place when I braked. I was brand new.
That worked for about two months but then something called ‘new growth’ or virgin hair, reared its ugly head and my Mom’s fury at my openly disobeying her wishes combined with my brother’s nomadic lifestyle threatened to leave me with nappy roots. I started working at age fourteen so I had money to see a stylist when Mezei wasn’t around. Touch-ups around my edges, or hairline and ‘kitchen’, or base of my scalp maintenance were needed every two weeks to stay fresh. Through high school I could only afford a salon visit every two to three months versus the recommended four to six week re-up. I wish I’d understood what Dolores knew all along, that once you start perming your hair the only way to get rid of it is to cut it, which finally happened after one year of college.
When I headed up the New Jersey Turnpike to college, I was rocking a freshly permed early nineties version of Halle Berry’s signature short do. My school was a short 20 minutes north of Harlem, which is like the epicenter of hair salons so I should have been able to keep it up but short cash and fear of taking the subway solo rendered me action less. No longer the only speck of pepper, other black girls on our predominately white campus knew how to do hair and helped me out, perming it for me. We bonded over the familiarity of the styling chair and our stories of being the only black girl or one of the few in our schools. In sophomore year, I experimented with extensions, getting my hair braided down my back for the first time. Braids meant not having to worry about styling or perming my hair for two to three months. I loved braids but hated the four or five hours it could take to get them done and later to take them out. Thriftiness, rather than an appreciation of my virgin hair, led me to cut out my perm and go natural.
Seven years of wearing a low textured fro finally bored me enough to loc my hair. I didn’t want to perm it again and I didn’t have the patience to grow it out so locs felt like the right move. For some people I know, locing one’s hair is spiritual, like the shedding of one’s slave name for an African one. I just knew I was tired of wearing it the same way for years.
Nowadays I couldn’t care less about hair. I’m all about the ease with which I travel through life. One warm Saturday afternoon in 2006, I was posted at the now-defunct Midtown Yacht Club in Mount Vernon. A forty-something black woman sat beside me at the bar. She struck up conversation. Praising my hair, she said,
“Girl I love your hair! You can do what you want. You can dance the way you want, fuck the way you want, shoot you can get caught in the rain.”
She had it right, having natural hair means no more fear of summer humidity, water rides or sudden rainstorms.