For special days my mom would do my hair pretty. My second grade school picture day was the occasion, and this process started the night before. My mom was on her way home and I knew to have all of the materials ready on standby. I rushed to the bathroom frantically in search of my favorite purple brush. It was the perfect softness with its many silky bristles and padded handle. This brush would glide through my hair so smoothly, gently caressing my kinky curls.
But with every nice thing, comes its foul opposite. My mom would have to force me to grab the rough brush. With its unbending bristles and dark wooden handle, this brush could forcefully rake its way through any tough situation. And that it did. This brush was used before I was born and was basically a family heirloom. It used to be soft years before when my grandma was still young. She would use it on herself and her children, especially my mom. My grandma and my mom have nice silky-smooth hair. The kind of hair that makes people question their race.
My mane is wild. I’m mixed with my dad’s bold features and take after his late mother. I am my mother’s only daughter, so I rightfully inherit such a groomer as the dark-handled brush. But I have always hated it. My mom would use that thing like a weapon every time she did my hair, assaulting my scalp and threatening any hair out of line. “Why do you have to be so rough?” I would ask in my head. Of course, I knew better than to say anything out loud, rather I would wince in pain as she pulled every curled hair straight in the direction she wanted with that brush.
Among other tools she used were elastic bands, wide-toothed combs, and rattail combs. I always thought it was interesting how tools were named by how they looked and how combs had teeth. I would think about all the other things or even people named and categorized by how they look. I was named for my teeth making me crooked smile, or I was named for my skin and persona, making me the dark shy girl. However, for special days like these, I was named for my pretty hair. I was excited for school picture day and for a new cute hairstyle to express myself. I liked to be vibrant. I liked to be different.
I carried an armful of greases and oils to the fold table in the living room of our small apartment. It only took a few steps from each room to the next, so I easily carried and stacked all of the tools onto the table while grabbing a pillow off of the couch to sit on. I donned my mother’s throw blanket with a smile as I sat cross legged between her thighs. I loved sitting there because I was swaddled in her personal smell that no perfume could mimic. I sat comfortably and snug, catching a glimpse of the TV until I was told to turn my head so she could see better. I felt the comb part through my hair and her finger spread the cool grease along my scalp. She pulled pieces by three and intertwined them so gracefully all over my head. As her fingers skated through my hair I felt chills down my neck that put me to sleep. Eventually she finished and I woke up to the tight sensation of freshly done braids. My head felt heavy with beads and barrettes as colorful as a carnival ride. I didn’t need a mirror to know I looked pretty. I could just feel it. I was ready for school picture day.
For a few years I asked my mom to do my hair another way. I was beginning middle school the next day and I wanted to get a relaxer. The night before, I didn’t do much preparation for this process except drag a chair into the bathroom. This bathroom was different since we had moved to a slightly bigger place. Of course, I still placed a pillow on the seat to comfort my bony structure which I also get from my dad’s side. The process started with cold petroleum jelly along my hairline and ears as I sat with an old towel draped around my neck and shoulders.
“What’s that for?”
“So it doesn’t burn.”
Feeling the frayed hems and loose strings of the towel between my fingers, I sat still and closed my eyes. I could hear the distant sound of my dad watching TV in the master bedroom just on the other side of the wall. I could trace the infrequent thumps from my brother’s room every time he tried learning a new break dance trick or fight move. I could feel the comforting silence of a family dwelling peacefully together but apart.
My mom took her time standing and working her way through my hair. She applied the cool relaxer cream to my roots and worked her way down only about an inch or two targeting the rougher aspects of my hair. Soon her sweet aroma was replaced with the putrid smell of ammonium thioglycolate. She had to wear plastic gloves for this operation, and the door had to be open for the chemicals to escape. She then left the bathroom and mingled with the family while the relaxer penetrated, but she kept a close eye on the clock. And I sat silently watching in the mirror as the white blanket of chemicals suffocated the curliest strands of hair. I counted the containers and bottles of products tightly crammed onto the small bathroom counter as the chemicals tamed my wild tresses. And I played games in the mirror, flicking my tongue around and tracing my face, jerking back into place every few minutes when my mom peeked in asking if it burned. “No, it’s okay,” I said even though it burned slightly, like the few steps before you actually get to the gates of hell. I knew I wasn’t supposed to lie but I wanted it to work.
It always confused me why my hair needed to burn to be straight like the white girls at my school. I would be especially bewildered during sleepovers when I was the only one who went to bed with a scarf on my head. Or when I would play hard in gym class and choke on the strange fumes coming from my hair as I sweated away my press.
I would be embarrassed but it didn’t matter because my hair bounced like the other girls’. I could put it in a loose ponytail and feel it sway over my shoulders with a false sense of privilege I didn’t yet understand. I was pretty like the other girls. I fit in with the other girls. Never mind my dark complexion or crooked teeth, my hair was long and straight. I would sit in the bathroom with chemicals on my head as long as it took.
To this day I still don’t know why my mother never said no to relaxing my hair. Years of confusion were spent grinding away my curls and obliterating my frizz. I questioned my culture of protective styling not knowing that it was more than just hair. It wasn’t just about my kinky strands, it was deeper yet still surfaced at the skin —the color of my skin. My darkly pigmented skin. My abundant melanin that stood out in crowds and classrooms. My skin that showed without telling. I changed my habits and my thoughts. I wanted to be different from my own, but like the rest. My views were tainted by the yearning for conformity. The most toxic ones chemically altered more than my hair, they changed my personality and values. I deeply wanted, needed, that fix. I would abandon the history I was never taught, forced to create my own bitterly diluted taste of social acceptance.
I wanted to be a princess with that shiny crown of entitlement like the other girls—except it couldn’t fit over my kinks. So, I needed my hair to be straight. Each strand needed to be congruent. Every imperfection that reached up for the sky needed to be grounded. I would exhaust every method I could to remove my texture. Why didn’t my mother tell me how damaging it was, or how much I would lose trying to be like them? Why didn’t she make me understand that my hair does not constitute the unattainable privilege I longed for? Why didn’t she stop me from going down the dark path of comparison or keep me from altering my definition of beauty?
I now ask my mom to do my hair differently. I’m starting my freshman year in high school tomorrow and I’m different than I was before. I need a fresh start. I feel the cold tile floor of a new bathroom as I stand this time without a pillow. My mother’s comforting smell is below me because I am now slightly taller than her. I stand quietly, sliding my tongue across my braces as the smoke detector chirps, interrupting my thoughts.
There are no physical preparations for this process. Only mental ones that have developed over the short summer before my high school journey. I’m learning about myself and about my skin. I’m figuring out my importance and I am transforming my once toxic views. I don’t want to be like those girls anymore. I don’t want to understand them; I want them to understand me. I don’t need my hair to be straight; I want the kinks. I want my hair to ignore the existence of gravity. I want the strength of its imperfections to break the simple elastic bands that try to confine it. I need the springy resistance of weightless curls that let me know I can bounce back from anything. I need that confident body of hair, chest puffed in the face of adversity. I don’t want to be just a princess anymore; I want to be a queen. My hair is my crown and it fits me best.
For this I need a fresh start. A new beginning. I have to rid my head of this toxic buildup and allow my hair to grow back. Stronger. Limitless. Without weakening comparisons and without social constraints. Nurtured with love and appreciation.
“Are you ready?” she asks me carefully.
“Yep,” I whisper not out of hesitation; rather anticipation. I’m sure.
She firmly grasps the ponytail and slowly forces her office scissors through. Jagged ends brush against my shoulders, tumbling down and gently tickling my toes. The room is silent except for the chirping smoke detector and the struggling snips of the dull scissors. She turns on the clippers and I feel the deep vibrations against my skull as she buzzes her way through the mangled remains. I keep my gaze focused on myself in the mirror. I never look down at the heavy chunks of damaged hair.
About the Author:
Jazz Wright is a Nursing student at Langston University in Oklahoma, the state’s only HBCU. A native of Denver, Colorado, Jazz is a creative soul. She loves drawing and painting in her free time and has developed new interests in creative writing. This is her first published essay.
Feature image by BiancaVanDijk / Pixabay