It took the author decades to finally embrace her natural hair texture. (Photo: Kristin Booker)
When I was a little girl, one of my favorite things to do was play in the laundry basket. As an infant, my grandmother quit her job as a nurse to keep me full-time, and would place me among the clean clothes straight off the line in order to carry me around. As I grew, I discovered the magic of using a pillowcase to mimic the long, smooth, European-textured hair I saw on television. The women with this hair were desirable, privileged, and from my happy country seat as a small Black girl in West Virginia, that looked amazing. I wanted that life. I desperately wanted that hair.
Every week on Sunday (“Wash Day” in our house,) I buzzed with quiet expectation as my mother would blow my hair straight and set it on tiny, pink-foam rollers. I was so excited that my hair would mimic the texture of the girls I saw on television, in the magazines, on billboards, even in my own class. I would admire my reflection with glittering eyes the next morning, and would silently recite my own list of rules to hold onto this lovely style for as long as possible. No playing on the playground. No sitting near the humid window. No sitting next to Sweaty Michael. I would recite these rules as I practiced multiplication tables, but the lure of the playground was too great, and after rounds of kick ball and Double Dutch, my roots were coarse again. My dreams of smooth hair I could flip over my shoulder were dashed again until Sunday. Because suddenly my hair was visible again. Other children would point as the sides of my hair would stick out wildly from my temples, straining toward the sun. I wanted that straight hair life, but not badly enough to sit perfectly still.
Years later, I resolved to use relaxers after a junior high classmate shoved a pencil in my hair, and it stayed put. Racing out of the room in tears as the class called me “Brillo Pad” and “Pencil Holder,” I raced to the principal’s office and would not leave until my mother came to collect me. We went straight to the drugstore at my tearful urging, and in one shot I finally had hair that would not wilt or betray my wishes with sweat. My mother was sad, but I was elated: Victory was mine. No more sitting still. My hair would now obey my wishes.
As the years of relaxed hair stretched through high school and into college and beyond, those of us with coarsely-textured hair continued our battle to keep it under wraps. Our parents and superiors all grew up smoothing their various degrees of curls into a Western ideal of beauty, their standing in polite society and very livelihoods depended on an appearance that didn’t arouse question. We sought to move about society without people viewing anything about us as foreign and fearsome. The minute an inch of root was showing, we helped each other chemically smack it down. As the chemicals burned our scalps and we ground our teeth down to bear the pain, we held onto the dreams of the pillowcases, of a life that included being desired, privilege — unfeared and unquestioned.
It would take me forty-two years on this earth before my hair and I started to speak. In order to close my eyes to years of scalp burns and narrow escapes from chemical haircuts, I had thought of myself as a “wash-and-go” kind of person. I didn’t have time to try all those complicated styles. I wanted things to be easier. But finally, after the kind urgings of some friends who had gone natural, I started to look at my hair with a softer, kinder eye. I wanted to save my scalp. Despite my best efforts, a cap of waves continued to emerge from my head, stretching for the sun underneath lengths of processed, straight strands. Should I explore my natural texture? Would I know what to do? What would happen if I just stopped the processing?
And so I stopped.
I can tell you my first discovery was that, for the first time since childhood, my hair was in control. Suddenly, I was the one who needed to obey.
I don’t know how to describe the intense frustration with hair you don’t really understand. As the coils sprang from my scalp and I continued to cut processed lengths away (I couldn’t do the Big Chop as so many before me; it just wasn’t the decision I had made,) so many emotions from the past started to emerge. Every morning as my texture resisted my best efforts, I recalled the fears of my past: the scars from teasing, the expectations placed on my appearance from such an early age. As the lengths grew in, I had to face every hair fear I’ve ever had, particularly the frustration of appearing in public with rebellious roots. I twisted it, I pulled it back, I learned twist- and braid-outs. I took a deep dive into the Internet, where blogs, videos, and countless opinions awaited. As many problems as I thought I had, there were hundreds of answers. The tears flowed down my face as I remembered the kid who never fit in anywhere: too pale to be accepted by my own born community, but with Black heritage where I was shunned or accepted “just enough” by my Caucasian friends. The spirals growing from my head were a betrayal, a bright light shining where I’d been able to hide for so very long. Where would I go now? Who would protect me?
Where was my pillowcase now?
It was in this process, these years of hair growth that I found some much-needed soul expansion. As the corkscrew spirals sprouted from my head, I learned that there was no reason to hide, that my wildness within was about to emerge without. I would be free. There would be no more expectations upon me; I had a chance to set my own. The softness of my texture excited me, and every month a little more blessed length would grow, reaching toward the sunlight as it always had. With the passage of time, the fears were assuaged, the healing happened. And as the final processed lengths were chopped away and dismissed, so was the need for camouflage, for comfort in the shadows. My hair explodes from my scalp: it is wild, healthy, and free. It is the new dawn, and I forgive myself and everyone, as my curls and I walk into that sweet horizon.
As my hair grows unfettered from my head, I think of all the women who have made this journey into the light, who have put aside the scar tissue of the past to let their hair fly free to God. For in this moment and for all thereafter, our strands stretch to the sky, and I, like all of them, are free…free at last.