Click. Click. Click. Click.
Even the turn signal sounded ominous. I sank low into the heated leather seat of my aunt’s sedan. My heels bounced up and down, up and down, while my toes pressed into the bottoms of my furry snow boots. My jean-clad legs helplessly followed suit, rubbing against the passenger side door, polishing its plastic exterior.
My aunt Marsha turned the car into my grandmother’s driveway and gunned the gas to make it up the steep 150-foot drive. The weathered white house came into full view, its second-floor cobalt-blue plantation shutters flanking wide, squat windows.
Over the years, I’d spent hours sitting on the white-and-cornflower-blue sofa next to the first-floor bay window, reading and often ignoring my grandmother’s unquenchable need to give me advice on how to get a job, get a husband, get thin, and get happy.
Though curtains now covered the window, I could still make out the shimmer of holiday lights on my grandmother’s plastic Christmas tree. As we pulled up to the side door, I already knew what the topic of this holiday’s advice was going to be—not the men I wasn’t seeing, not the food I wasn’t eating, not the job and my latest big story. The topic would be my hair.
I pulled down the passenger-side visor to look in the mirror and fluffed my two slightly lopsided Afro puffs. I had changed my hairstyle two years earlier and knew that my grandmother probably wouldn’t like it. She preferred smooth, straight hair that could be tossed in the wind, neatly styled with little fanfare. So, I waited to tell her, each holiday season investing in braids or a new weave to mask the kinky curls. Though I was now twenty-nine years old and by all accounts an adult, when I visited her house, I seemed to fold myself into my self-conscious eleven-year-old body, complete with high-top sneakers and teased-out bangs. I was prepared for her response and held out little hope that her face would light up, pleased at the unexpected surprise. I wasn’t sure I could stop myself from trying to fix the situation, from once again trying to be the girl who’d do just about anything to please her.
I slowly untied the black-and-white patterned head scarf I’d put on early that morning back in Portland and used both hands to smooth back the tightly curled stray hairs, willing them into place. I gingerly opened the car door and stepped out onto the packed snow, holding tightly to the side of the car. Here in Cleveland, it was ten degrees and nearly midnight. The wind was blowing relentlessly, gaining momentum from nearby Lake Erie. I turned the key in the lock and pushed open the white door.
The breath I’d been holding whooshed out between my pursed lips.
The call came from the den, where my mother’s mother, petite and the tan hue of sweet butterscotch, had been watching The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
“Hi, Grandma. I’m here.” I elevated the pitch of my voice at the end of each sentence, hoping to convey enthusiasm. We replayed the same scenario, the same exact words every December.
The television went mute as I heard her push up from a squeaky recliner. I walked out of the kitchen into the living room, where we met eyes, brown staring into brown. She reached toward me and I bent down to give her a hug. I felt her looking at my legs, my stomach, then my arms, and, finally, my hair.
“Ooh, it’s good to see you, dear,” she said. She paused. I waited. She reached one hand up, barely brushing the tips of my Afro puffs. “What’s that you’ve done to your hair? Oh, Kim. You have such a pretty face. Why do you want to go and do that?”
I looked around, hoping my aunt would walk in right then but she was still getting the last of the luggage. Reluctantly, I glanced back at my grandmother and told her it was good to see her, that I’d had a long flight, a layover in Chicago. I thought maybe if I ignored the comment, she’d just let it go. But she’d never seen my hair like this. She had no idea my hairstyles changed with the seasons.
My hair has been red, golden-brown, and so short I couldn’t run my hands through it. I’ve worn cornrows like NBA players. I’ve had curly-Q weaves and ponytail hairpieces. I’ve worn my hair straight as a freshly pressed suit and layered so high I had to duck to get it all in my dad’s 1988 Jeep Cherokee. But Grandma had never seen most of them, because at Christmas I often stood in front of her with my hair crisply straightened, the ends tucked under by foam rollers. She walked with me back to the kitchen, served me a plate of chicken she’d bought at a store in a strip mall nearby.
“How long has your hair been like that?” she asked once I’d sat at the kitchen table and put one of her soft paper napkins in my lap.
“About a year.”
“You have such a pretty face,” she continued.
Please, stop while you’re ahead. That’s what I wanted to shout. But instead I said, “Do you have any lemonade?”
“That’s just not for a pretty young woman,” she continued, even as she moved to the fridge to pour me a drink. “It doesn’t bring out the best in you. You want to get married, don’t you?”
Grandma was the only one of her siblings to go to college. She mostly raised herself on farms in Tennessee, sometimes living with her father, sometimes with a sister or a family friend. She’d gone from having no permanent home to living in the same house in a middle-class Cleveland suburb for fifty years. She took success—my success—very seriously.
She stared at me as I forced a forkful of carrots, peas, and roasted chicken into my mouth. I stared at my plate as I chewed. I had two choices: lie, or begin a five-day argument I wasn’t likely to win. Luckily, Aunt Marsha chose that moment to come in the side door. She was carrying a suitcase of mine. She put it on the kitchen floor and I saw an opportunity to escape.
“Grandma, I think I’ll take my stuff upstairs and change,” I said.
My grandmother declared she was going to bed anyway and puttered off toward her room.
All around the house there are pictures of my mom. She died not long after I started second grade. By the time I was in high school, I wondered whether my grandmother’s zealous hovering, advice-giving, and correcting was for me or for her, for the daughter she still mourned. My aunt reminded me of the money my grandma had sent me every month when I was in middle school and high school to get my hair done. It was her money that got me the first chemical treatment that straightened my hair for eight weeks. Her money paid for my twice-monthly wash and roller sets. When I wanted to buy my own car after I got my first job, my grandma matched the money I had for a down payment. And when I decided that seeing a nutritionist would help me better deal with my penchant for breads, macaroni and cheese, and sugar cookies, my grandmother jumped at the chance to help me pay for what insurance wouldn’t.
My hair—did I owe her this?
I spent summer breaks at my grandparents’ house in Cleveland every year for nearly a decade. My grandmother made me go on walks with her so I’d get skinny enough to play tennis. She also bought me my favorite snack but reprimanded me when I ate the salty cheese curls.
On Saturday nights, we’d go down the twenty vinyl-lined steps to the basement. Along one wall hung a ten-foot banner from my first birthday party. In that small concrete-floored room with a deep sink and a washer and dryer, we began preparations for Sunday church. Grandma plugged in a hot plate and put it atop the washing machine. After a few minutes, it began to glow red-hot. Then she took a curling iron, cast-iron and heavy as a five-pound weight, and placed it on top of the burner. Seconds later, Grandma picked up the iron and told me to lean in. As she lifted a patch of stubborn locks, she put the iron as close to my scalp as she could. Hiss. Pop. Pop. The iron took my fragile hair and burned it into submission, the hair sizzling and the oil on my hair crackling like fried chicken in hot peanut oil. I jerked away, hard, as the iron grazed my scalp, leaving a discolored mark in its wake. My scalp wasn’t the only casualty: sometimes she let the iron get too hot and it melted my hair onto the iron, leaving the room flooded with the smells of burned hair, oil, and sometimes flesh.
To me, it seemed a Black girl’s rite of passage, just like wearing rows of beads in my hair that constantly smacked me in the face when I turned my head. Or learning to sit still for ten hours while two to three women weaved synthetic hair into my own and braided it down to my butt.
Still, I loved that I could change my hair from day to day. Straight one day, tightly twisted the next. At my apartment in Portland, I had two shelves in my bathroom dedicated to my hair: two curling irons, a flat iron, two hair dryers, two hundred curlers, three cans of sheen, two leave-in conditioners, five hot oil treatments, and eight shampoos. Two squat jars of freezing gel: one goes on black, the other goes on clear. One do-rag or head scarf, one bonnet, and one silk pillowcase for sleeping.
Changing hairstyles was as natural to me as getting dressed each day. Still, my dad made me wait until I was fourteen (about five years after most of my friends) before using chemicals to straighten my hair.
I didn’t understand it then, but I think I was always destined for a natural hairstyle. Not long after I started using relaxers, my hair broke off, getting shorter and shorter. There are more than twenty brands of relaxers, but most include the same chemicals. Traditionally companies used sodium hydroxide (lye) relaxers, but after someone discovered it was the equivalent of using drain cleaner on human hair follicles, most people opted for the less toxic, no-lye guanidine hydroxide (no-lye) relaxers.
Since 2008, sales of chemical relaxers have dropped by more than 25 percent as an increasing number of Black women have sought natural hairstyles and products. The trend may be growing, but it doesn’t make the transition easy for us, for our hair, or for those around us. For years, straight hair has been equated with success, professionalism, and beauty—ever since the advent of straightening combs in the 1880s.
Rose Weitz, who writes about the importance of hair in the lives of women, says that we are sending a message with our locks; that hair—whether fine, kinky, purple, or cut close to the scalp—is “part of a broader language of appearance, which, whether or not we intend it, tells others about ourselves.”
Changing my hair transformed my relationships and my identity. When I changed it, it almost felt like I was being reborn, being given another chance to recast, re-create who I was—sassy, obedient, sexy, demure. But around my grandmother, I often followed her lead, walking with the weight of her expectations and the benefits of her struggle. She bought me clothes, jewelry, and gym memberships and mailed me newspaper clippings about which fruits and veggies I should eat to lose weight faster.
I was living in Portland when I stopped putting chemicals in my hair, and my decision raised few eyebrows among friends. In fact, the dreadlocked, natural hair–wearing folks in town seemed to pause and look at me with a little more respect.
I drove around with my windows down, playing that India Arie R&B hit over and over and over. On my thirty-minute drive to work, I turned up the stereo to ear-ringing decibels. It wasn’t just one of those head-nodding types of songs but one in need of a full-body car dance. Torso gyrating, neck snappin’ with every hit of the drumbeat. Hand-waving in the air on every count.
I am not my hair.
I am not this skin.
I am the soul that lives within.
When India Arie came to Portland in 2007, her concert was sold out and I was there. I remember the moment we heard the piano chords and the distinct thump of the bass. The whole crowd howled as Arie ripped off her wig of braids and revealed a short Afro.
Good hair means curls and waves. Bad hair means you look like a slave. At the turn of the century, it’s time for us to redefine who we be.
Her song told my story.
Looking back, that Afro was one of the first decisions I made for me.
At my grandmother’s house, I woke dismayed the next morning. I’d forgotten to put my sleep cap on and my curls were matted to one side. I got up from the bed and squeezed a palmful of leave-in conditioner onto the top of my head and worked it in. I squeezed more in my hand and rubbed the back of my head, loosening the stubborn curls. I worked them for about fifteen minutes, stretching and pulling, loosening and massaging. Then I smelled bacon and left the room for breakfast with my grandmother.
In the kitchen, she stood at the stove, frying the meat hard in a skillet, eggs sitting on a plate nearby. I took the plate, kissed her cheek, and poured a glass of orange juice. She spooned the bacon onto a paper towel and sat at the glass kitchen table, watching me move between the sink, the refrigerator, and the counter, assembling my meal. The Price Is Right played on the small analog television with its two feet of antenna.
“Are you really going to wear your hair like that?” she asked.
I sighed and looked out the kitchen window at the blowing snow. She couldn’t even wait until I finished breakfast. I curled my lips into a forced smile.
“Yes, Grandma. I like it this way.”
“I’m just trying to help. I’ve been around a long time. I know what’s nice.”
I wondered if she’d ever changed her hairstyle. It always seemed the same to me whether I was five years old, fifteen, or twenty-five. She wore her wavy hair in wispy layers just above her ears. She had no need for hot irons or chemicals, but she liked to sculpt her tresses until the only curl was a slight bend at the tips. She had the lightest complexion of all her five sisters and brothers. The others had skin closer to the milk-chocolate color of my own skin. Among all her sisters, my grandmother always had the “good hair,” people said.
Still, my grandma fought—to fit in, to get her education, to be given respect. In college, she stayed on campus during holidays, having no way home. She worked in the cafeteria, on the campus switchboard, in the science lab, and at a local church office to earn enough money to buy a few dresses and an occasional train ticket home to Knoxville, Tennessee.
She moved to Cleveland in the early 1950s and got her first elementary-school teaching job. She did her best to fit in, dressed in a modest suit, her hair pulled back in a neat bun. Still, she was transferred multiple times until landing in a school community more friendly to African Americans. She dressed up nearly every day for thirty-three years of teaching, her hair pressed or neatly layered around her face. She said that helped her gain acceptance and respect from coworkers and parents.
Why would I change what had worked for her? Why would I do something that flew in the face of what my grandmother wanted, what she believed? I could have washed my hair and spent two hours blowing it out with a comb and hair dryer. Yet something held me back this time.
After I turned eighteen, the more Grandma clung to me, the more she called me (every two to three days), the more I began to pull away. I was angry, smothered by her behavior. But I reached for her as much as she reached for me, the way I would have reached for my mother. I reached for her words and the way that a mother’s words could uplift, scorn, and teach.
My hair was longer and stronger than it had been in nearly a decade. I wanted her to be proud of me, to see what I saw.
She looked up at me and said she would pray to God for me. I looked up in the air to God for backup. I stepped into the closet to pull out my coat and my furry boots. I told her that I didn’t think God really cared about my hair one way or the other and closed the door with a forceful click.
No comments yet.