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.
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.
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.