When I was 5 or so, my mom put a relaxer in my hair because this 4C thickness with length was too much for her to handle. I didn't have a say. And my heavy-handed aunties who usually managed to wrangle my head full with beads, bristle brushes, bobbles, and pink rollers, were equally pleased. Meanwhile, I was starting school on Long Island, and my guardianship was being figured out too. I didn't have a say in staying with Mom, or Dad, or Nanny. The decision had been made for me. It was going to be Grandma's for a while.
By the time middle school rolled around, I'd been given some autonomy and started trying new styles and new boyfriends. The lifespan of each was never more than a week. Before graduating high school, Houston's heat and the heat of the curling iron had burned me out. My hair and my teenage heart had endured various exaggerated states of well-being.
Atlanta changed everything! I was incubating in the Atlanta University Center, absorbing and unlearning all the most poignant influences to my cultural identity. The AUC was like a pilgrimage and emersion into black mecca. Here's an excerpt from a poem I wrote during that time:
I float on cocoa satin as the communion fills my temple with the recognition of my own queendom.
I walk among goddesses whose heads are adorned with the music of coily roots -
Dancing out and upwards in time with the rhythm of the heart's djembe
I eventually "big chopped" all of relaxed hair, rocked a coif of curly, coily deliciousness, and then gave it permission to grow into the most glorious long afro it could. Ahh. The Atlanta effect. Neither I nor my hair had ever been more healthy, more full of life, more expressive or more confident.
I moved to Los Angeles still with the possibility of a fro, but a fro rarely seen. I had learned by then that I was ahead of the times -- TV and film-wise; and this natural hair had become a stumbling block more than a stepping stool. At the time, LA passively-aggressively required the illusion of perfection--which was most certainly not defined by the righteous indignation these frizzy ends represented. So I would allow my hair to find heat again. High heat. But I refused to relax it. Just add water and I am reminded of my old knowing, my own queendom... Though it does bear the evidence of a little damage, the price of compromise, I suppose.
LA has certainly caught up a bit. You can't see a commercial with a black woman without her hair being in her full natural glory. And the most successful among us--our A-Listers--have managed to link with hairdressers who seem to know exactly how to care for, and style the hair that naturally occurs from our heads. Revolutionary. But I have found little middle ground. These days, I experience a range of emotions in waiting rooms with other black women the moment I realize that I am the only one without curly, coily, or big, natural hair. It's almost become my advantage.
I have accepted the chameleon nature of my hair, and the transformative power of my self. But more importantly, I am the sum total of all of my parts: laid, twisted, big, full, added to, or cut off.
Closing remarks to follow by Deacon Solange of the Knowles House of Realness: