So, I suppose it’s time to give an update on this post.
For those who are just joining us and who’d love a summary: I realized that my love of my hair, which I’d been chemically straightening since I was 12, was actually a deep-rooted, eurocentric…I dunno what to call it…self-racism?…that had come from growing up in a mostly White town where I’d been taught that I was only acceptable when I could be likened to European beauty and behavioral ideals.
Put even simpler: I’d been taught the best parts of me were the parts that were the most “White.”
So, in honor of my daughter and myself, I shaved my head last year. And I finished up the article talking about how beautiful I’d finally seen myself to be. I’d love to say that from that day on, I marched forward with a full understanding of who I was, a pride in my appearance, and an unshakable love for my hair. Unfortunately for me, lying isn’t really my thing.
Y’all, this last year has been a struggle-coaster of epic, yet interesting, proportions.
Right after getting my head shaved, I loved it. My husband loved it. My children loved it. But, strangely, every time I’d get new hair growth, I’d scrunch my nose and say that it looked awkward. Initially, I used the heat of summer as an excuse. After all, there’s nothing like a breeze kissing your bald head on a hot day. So I kept shaving it once a month, promising myself that I’d start growing my hair out once it cooled off.
It cooled off. I kept shaving it.
In all honesty, I won’t say that it was absolutely, positively, because I hated my natural curls. I’d never even really seen them, so hatred isn’t something I could feel, really. And I really did rock that bald head. When I really look hard at what kept me from growing in my hair, the answer without a doubt is fear. What if it grew in and I couldn’t bear the sight of it? What if it grew in in a way that I couldn’t reconcile? What if it drudged up even more internal bullshit that I’d learned? I really didn’t want to pay anymore therapy bills.
And it went like this — me growing it in for a month, telling myself I looked better with a shaved head, shaving it — for about a year.
Then, this past Spring, two Very Big Things happened. They were, as big things often are, very small things upon first glance. But they changed me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Those Very Big Things were thus:
- I watched the Disney + recording of Hamilton, and
- I decided to Google “Nigerian women.”
Number one’s effect took a day to sink in. Frankly, I’d never really been drawn to Hamilton, because I didn’t quite understand what it was even about. Alexander who? Laurens what? I barely know what year the US became independent from Britain; how am I supposed to care about any of these people (I actually spent a good portion of the first half wondering how they’d show Hamilton becoming President. Seriously. Like I didn’t remember until almost through the second half that Hamilton was never president of our country.)?
But, as many of us know by now, the play is damned near flawless. The music is incredible, the performances are complex, and the acting is next-level. Objectively, this play deserves all of the awards and prizes it’s received. But for me, there was one other thing.
It first hit me when the incomparable Renee Elise Goldsberry is singing “Satisfied” as Angelica Schuyler. Dancers are swooping past her as she releases note after powerful, brilliant note, belting at one point with such power and emotion that I actually felt my eyes close with the force of it. As my eyes slid closed, I still saw those dancers, I still saw the actors, all People of Color, like me. They weren’t playing slaves or drug dealers or sidekicks or comic relief. They were allowed to exist in their personal power, shining like jewels and dazzling like pure light. I realized this many times during the play, but it wasn’t until I woke up the following morning that I realized why.
We — People of Color, that is — have so rarely been allowed to exist in spellbinding ways. We’ve always been portrayed in various media as troublemakers or sufferers or, at best, anti heroes. We’re the sassy best friends, helping the main characters get together. We’re window dressings and props. We’re always the night sky, and never the stars. And it never occurred to me that that’s what I’d been watching until my head popped off the pillow the following day. That representation, that different view of people who had skin like mine, hair like mine, eyes like mine…it reminded me that we weren’t props in others’ productions. We could be power, and we could be magic, despite all that we’d been told over time to the contrary.
Item number two came a few months earlier. I was listening, actually, to Hamilton’‘s mixtape, specifically to the song “Immigrants, We Get the Job Done,” when I felt an incredible surge of pride in the immigrants who eventually made me. My paternal grandmother and grandfather were from Puerto Rico and Cuba, specifically. My great-great-grandmother was one of the last slaves, descended from a proud line out of…uh…out of…shit. Where were my descendants from?
I felt kind of like an asshole. How was I proud of where I’ve come from when I didn’t even know much about one half? Granted, i couldn’t know too much — it’s not like slaves were thrown birthday parties or given access to historians — but, I remembered, I did do a 23 and Me that told me where in Africa we were from. Checking that list, I saw that the African side of me was almost overwhelmingly from Nigeria.
I remember staring at that country’s name for a bit. What did I know about Nigeria, really? What was it like? Who came from there?
So I spent my time researching Nigeria — it’s size, it’s exports, a little of its history — and then I decided that I wanted to look up people from there, to see if I could see my face in anyone there. I typed in “Nigerian Women,” and waited to see what came up.
I immediately felt like an idiot. Of course everyone who came up looked different; Nigeria is a country of almost 200 million people; there’s no way that everyone there is going to have the same face. What an American thought it was, to assume that everyone from an African country would look identical.
So I scrolled through, and I did see my cheekbones. My eyes. My hair. I saw it in there, mixed amongst so much variety and beauty that it made my head spin. And I saw her.
Trust me when I say I cannot find this woman’s photo anymore, but I promise I didn’t make her up. She and I looked alike if you squinted really hard and maybe were a little drunk. But that wasn’t the point. It wasn’t that we looked alike; it was that she was gorgeous. Absolutely stunning. She was happy, with a glowing, beautiful smile that lit the picture almost on its own. And she had hair exactly like mine.
The effect of this was immediate. I remember putting my hand over my heart and feeling tears spring to my eyes a bit. You mean I could look like this woman? My hair could grow in, and I could be this pretty? Maybe? Possibly?
I realized then that the idea hadn’t occurred to me. The whole time, I’d been operating under assumptions that my hair would be “hard to take care of,” and “hard to adjust to,” and I realized in that moment that it was all rooted in more lies I’d been told growing up. My head was still not free of a lot of the shit I’d tried to empty out of it the day I’d shaved my head almost a year ago.
It was after her that I started just quietly avoiding asking for haircuts. After Hamilton was when I started making the effort to learn how to care for my natural hair. And since then, I’ve come to look at the curls sprouting on my head with excitement. I’m learning about curl mousse and curl definition and the importance of wide-toothed combs. I’m learning never to brush your hair while it’s dry, and that curly hair is expensive as fuck to take care of — partially because curly hair can be finicky, and partially because our system doesn’t see hair like mine as lucrative or important to learn about, so we’re treated as a “specialty.”
As I sit here writing this long-ass piece that you either will or won’t enjoy, I even find myself playing with my new curls, finding the tiny corkscrews and the larger, looser curls in between. This was the hair my ancestors had. This is passed down from my African side, who has dared to be outspoken and beautiful and strong despite being told for centuries, in a land that became our home after dehumanizing beginnings, that they weren’t good enough to be either of those things. It’s my reminder of who I am, who I come from, and who I should be proud to be.
It’s my reminder that we still have a long way to go, but that we’re worth the fight.
Funny, the lessons a little thing like hair can teach if you’re willing to grow into it.