The Big Chop

I realized that my hair was considered community property when I was five.

I write about this in The Beautiful Darkness – my mother’s love for long hair, how she believed it was a woman’s glory. My hair has always been a bit like me – hard to miss, stubborn, resilient. I was five when my mother burned me while straightening my hair. Whether it was accidental or intentional didn’t matter; I went to foster care for a year.

I took control of my hair after that, braiding my own extensions starting in third grade. My mother also decided I should get a weave that we couldn’t afford back then, which I hated. Left to my own devices, I tried box perms (terrible mistake) very long braids that I wore to my high school graduation, and eventually decided I wanted my own afro. But I went into a barber shop in the Village that is no longer there and woke up with an inch of hair.

At Camp Mariah Fresh Air Fund, 1997

The reception to the first big chop was not good. I was teaching writing to kids in the Bronx before going to college. When I reported to work the Monday after my run in with the barber, I was informed that I looked like Grace Jones. Eventually, I would take this as a compliment. At the time, I was insulted.

My mother sighed and said, “At least you have a pretty face.” Then she asked me if I was a lesbian. In retrospect, I wish I could have been brave enough to have a more nuanced conversation with her, to at least try.  But she was an old school woman, a woman who wore a wig and never her natural hair, someone who had internalized the notion as a kid in South Carolina and Philly that she would never be beautiful without the illusion of long, straight hair.

My hair was never straight, not all of it. But my locks grew long, down my back. I have always been an admirer of Solomon and believed in the spiritual significance of hair. That hair holds energy, and possibly strength. I was afraid to cut mine because I felt like I needed all the strength I could get.

My hair has also always been one of the sites of my comfort. Yet for years when I touched my hair my wandered to the free section of my hair in the back on that has resisted everything from Jheri Curls to braids. It was the reminder to me of what it would be like to have the whole of my head be a crown of freedom.

I thought about this when I moved back to Texas in 2005, particularly because I moved in the middle of a triple-digit summer. I never said this aloud but even though my locks were thick and a lot to manage, I secretly liked that I had friends who were attached to them, too. I got a lot of affirmation from people around my hair. The community property gaze: “I don’t usually like dreads, but yours are pretty. You know, not everyone keeps them up like that.” I lost count of the hands that reached out to touch without my permission.

After awhile, my locks were my only lasting bridge to the past. When I twisted them, staring back at my face becoming my mother’s with just a hint of my Dad, I still felt like I could climb my way back there somehow. Maybe there would be a day when I could make things different.

At Lady Bird Lake, Austin, 2012 

But the weight of locks, physically and spiritually, got heavier than I could have anticipated. I had always told myself that when my mother died, I would cut my hair. Start new, with hair that just mine to shape and love and judge. But I was too sad to care about my arbitrary aspirations in the service of meaningful transitions. Everything was changing.

I thought, often, of Audre Lorde’s poem, Stations. In part of it she writes:

Some women wait for something

to change and nothing does change

so they change themselves.

I wanted something to stay the same. It would be my hair if nothing else. I was not ready to change that part.

In the middle of a traumatic work situation, I had my locks cut into a short style, hoping to find a middle ground. I felt the impulse, many times, to just shave my head, even though there was stuff I didn’t know about my head shape, a bump at the base of my neck that seemed like it might look weird.


I watched as my fellow writers and friends and homegirls took the plunge with style. I was in awe and envious, but not yet ready.

What it would be like to wear a hat, or use a comb, or feel the pressure of a brush against my scalp? Or workout without worrying about the awkward, uncomfortable ponytail? These sounded like luxuries even though that’s ridiculous.

I just needed to give myself permission.

The thing that tipped me over the edge was a young friend who is not at all attached to her hair. She also had beautiful, long locks. But she just decided it was time for something new (ah, the 20s!) So she went for it. And my heart soared.

I thought, “Wow, I remember when I used to be courageous like that.”

I love courage. Cultivating bravery is the way God and the universe remind you that you don’t have all the time in the world to hesitate. Inspired by our conversation, fixated on changing this old story in my head about hanging on to weight in the service of strength or memory or nostalgia, I went about the work of shedding 20 years grief and heartbreak and heaviness. Even after I combed out my locks, there was more hair coming loose on its own, nosediving to the floor faster than I could get it all up. It felt like all of the transformation, growth, love, and healing was at the roots.

When it was done, my hands in my hair felt like home was the touch of my fingers to my scalp. A simple, amazing, beautiful step back to myself. This hair belongs to me, and no one else. I’m proud to call it mine.





On Zadie Smith & The Missing Black American Woman Expert

Zadie Smith, New York City, June 2016

It is easy to be smitten with Zadie Smith, as I think I am. She has freckles and I love freckles. She can sing. She has a lovely accent. She is witty. She writes well.

Actually, she’s brilliant. I’m a fan of her nonfiction, and I was smitten more with Changing My Mind, her book of essays, than with On Beauty, which was fine but not my fave. Same with Swing Time, which I just finished before I happened upon this complicated essay, “Who Owns Black Pain?” in Harper’s Magazine.

It starts with a very interesting look and assessment of “Get Out”, which I have seen three times. I have yet to read (not saying it doesn’t exist but I’m busy and read a lot but also miss things) the take from a black woman that I want to read which is: That is exactly what black men who dismiss black women and our beauty GET. What is? Get Out is. Rose is.

Erika Alexander brought me all of the joy in the world in that movie. All of it. (The only other movie I have seen three times, by the way, is the Ten Commandments, but that’s because my mother had both tapes when I was a kid and I couldn’t help myself. [Charlton Heston was kind of fine as Moses.])

I’m burying the lede, here. My point is not to catch up on the critiques I didn’t share the first three times I watched “Get Out” but to elaborate on something I’ve said before. Something I deeply believe and am troubled by: We live in a culture that prefers to hear about the lived experience of black women from everyone but black American women.

I will not name check them all. But I will say from personal experience and observation that there seems to be a vested interest in hearing from well-known British, African and other “Exotic” women of the African Diaspora about the pain experienced by Black American women. The only thing our culture loves more is to hear from Black men about the ways in which we are undeserving of their love, affection, desire or attention.

The problem is that none of these people are experts in the black American experience because they cannot clearly, definitively or expertly explain the purview or perspective of Black American women. Let’s look at some data.

Years of Census data show that black women are a little over half of the black population in the U.S. and have been for a long time. A recent report released by the National Domestic Workers Alliance explains that 80 percent of us are the breadwinners in our families. We are the majority perspective in our communities, even though people would prefer that it was otherwise. We are the bellwether for what is experienced by our sisters — yes, especially our white sisters — even when folks would rather not hear it.

So it is understandable that some of us — and for the purposes of this blog, I mean me — had a visceral reaction to reading these words from Zadie Smith (italics mine):

“To be clear, the life of the black citizen in America is no more envied or desired today than it was back in 1963. Her schools are still avoided and her housing still substandard and her neighborhood still feared and her personal and professional outcomes disproportionately linked to her zip code. But her physical self is no longer reviled. If she is a child and comes up for adoption, many a white family will be delighted to have her, and if she is in your social class and social circle, she is very welcome to come to the party; indeed, it’s not really a party unless she does come. No one will call her the n-word on national television, least of all a black intellectual. (The Baldwin quote is from a television interview.) For liberals the word is interdicted and unsayable.”

To me, this paragraph simply means that Zadie has not been paying attention.

Yes to the lack of progress for the most part since 1963.

No to the fact that the physical bodies of black woman citizens are not reviled.

Hello, Serena Williams — apparently a naked black pregnant body means that the celebrity pregnancy photo shoot has jumped the shark. Hey, Kodak Black: This dark skinned black woman doesn’t want you, either. I could go on and on for days and days: Black women are most likely to be victimized by Intimate Partner Violence. In Seattle, a mentally ill black mother was shot by police in front of her children. Twitter has been ablaze with the justification of infidelity because Jay Z and Beyonce have wisely monetized the challenges of black love.

In any event, this is not what love looks like.

Also, a college professor who defended Black Lives Matter on Fox News was fired from her job simply because she expressed her personal opinion during her free time. This is not the same as someone calling her a nigger on air. But it is today’s equivalent. Let us not forget the government employees who called First Lady Michelle Obama an ape before she and Barack were even out of the White House yet.

So I thought these things, or I felt them and let them sit with me. Then I read some more of Zadie’s piece:

(On Dana Schutz’ painting of Emmett Till): “Neither of us is American, but the author appears to speak confidently in defense of the African-American experience, so I, like her, will assume a transnational unity. I will assume that Emmett Till, if I could paint, could be my subject too….Now I want to inch a step further. I turn from the painting to my children. Their beloved father is white, I am biracial, so, by the old racial classifications of America, they are “quadroons.” Could they take black suffering as a subject of their art, should they ever make any? Their grandmother is as black as the ace of spades, as the British used to say; their mother is what the French still call café au lait. They themselves are sort of yellowy. When exactly does black suffering cease to be their concern?”

Listen. The definition of blackness in America is like everything else: It persists from slavery times. The persistence of hypodescent, better known as the “one drop rule”, means that actually whatever you are in America, whether you are pledging transnational unity to us or anything else, if you have a drop of black blood in you you are considered black. I don’t have kids. I don’t give parents parenting advice because who am I do to that? However, honey, blackness is not about complexion, it is about blood. Black suffering will always be the concern of your kids, at least on this side of the Atlantic. If you think this is a philosophical question, I invite you to actually talk to some Black American mothers about that.

Speaking of Black mothers:

“I stood in front of the painting and thought how cathartic it would be if this picture filled me with rage. But it never got that deep into me, as either representation or appropriation.”

It must be very nice to gaze upon an artistic representation of Emmett Till without experiencing rage or connection, especially in these times. Here is some data and anecdotal evidence compiled by African American women and scholars on the very real experience of Black women who exhibit symptoms associated with PTSD as a result of their exposure to the violence that has been waged against black children since before and after Emmett Till’s lynching. What is missing here, in this passage and in this piece overall, is a confrontation with the privilege that comes with viewing black pain from a cultural remove informed by geographical framing if not racial difference.

They might as well be the same.

“…I found I resented the implication that black pain is so raw and unprocessed—and black art practice so vulnerable and invisible—that a single painting by a white woman can radically influence it one way or another. Nor did I need to convince myself of my own authenticity by drawing a line between somebody else’s supposed fraudulence and the fears I have concerning my own (thus evincing an unfortunate tendency toward overcompensation that, it must be admitted, is not unknown among us biracial folks). No. The viewer is not a fraud. Neither is the painter. The truth is that this painting and I are simply not in profound communication.”

Again, this is a privilege that Zadie does not recognize in herself. The issue of Dana Schutz’ painting was covered with far more nuance in the New Yorker perhaps because Calvin Tompkins did not have the same penchant for overcompensation. Zadie is allowed to resent whatever she wants about black pain, but if she’s not in communication with a painting about a seminal Black American moment — politically, psychologically and emotionally — that is because it is not a moment that has any meaning for her. That moment or cultural reference point does not require her to feel authentically black. But it also doesn’t mean that she has expertise in how black pain should or should not be processed or how to define it.

Finally, let us discuss this:

“But in this moment of resurgent black consciousness, God knows it feels good—therapeutic!—to mark a clear separation from white America, the better to speak in a collective voice. We will not be moved. We can’t breathe. We will not be executed for traffic violations or for the wearing of hoodies. We will no longer tolerate substandard schools, housing, health care. Get Out—as evidenced by its huge box office—is the right movie for this moment. It is the opposite of post-black or postracial. It reveals race as the fundamental American lens through which everything is seen.”

Which collective voice is this, exactly? From where does it speak? Who agreed? Is this meant to be satirical, or is it real?

We have been moved. We are being moved. We are being suffocated. Not only are we being executed, but the police who are doing so are being acquitted. They walk and we continue to mourn, our black pain exposed and unprocessed. Over and over and over again.

I agree with Zadie on one thing: “Get Out” was cathartic, but not because it is the opposite of post-black or post-racial. Both terms were always fictive. It was cathartic because without its alternate ending, it provides relief from the reality in which we live. Its horrors were amusing to me because they are totally plausible and not at all inconceivable. I was reminded that black bodies, even black women’s bodies, are wanted for what they can offer in terms of plots or potential solutions, but they are never considered the meat of the story. In “Get Out,” as in Dana Shutz’ Emmett Till painting, as in Zadie’s assessment of black pain, there is a distance from the reality of black American women who are the beating heart of what it is to be a black American. That means that an entire core of expertise and authority go missing. Their absence is the real horror.

The answer to who owns black pain is always black women. It lives in us. We sing from it. We die from it. Our identities, our bodies are shaped by it. No one ever asks us what it feels like to never be free of this historical torment and heartbreak, but it might just be that that’s part of being an authority in your own agony.