“Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? To such extent you bleach, to get like the white man. Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to so much so that you don't want to be around each other? No... Before you come asking Mr. Muhammad does he teach hate, you should ask yourself who taught you to hate being what God made you.” - Malcolm X
Every good story starts somewhere. For me, it's with my hair.
Eight years ago I went on a journey. I took a good hard look at the messages I was sending my children about Black women, our bodies, and our hair and I made a choice. I'd give up the creamy crack and embrace whatever grew from letting my hair be. I’d stop trying to fit myself into a box that was never designed for me. I’d be at home in the Black feminine body I was born into even if I had to break everything around me first.
But how did I get there, standing in my bathroom with freshly washed hair and a stack of Shea moisture products on the counter, staring at the shell of a woman who lost herself trying to be everything for everyone else?
My hair story starts when I was about 6. Sitting on a pillow between my mother's legs crying while she pulled a large tooth comb through my thick hair. My ass was numb from sitting and my scalp was screaming while she combed, greased, and pulled my kinks and coils into cute little braids. Every now and then a knocker or a comb would smack me upside the head. I hated this ritual. There was no joy in it. It was an act of resistance for my mother. The few memories I have of my mother swirl between her acts of rage, her moments of brokenness, and her unapologetic Blackness. My father, who still to this day hasn’t unpacked his bi-racial bullshit, hated how proud she was to be Black. She had a sweater that said “Black By Popular Demand” that she mostly wore around the house.
Unpacking my relationship with my father has helped me understand why I don’t recall her ever wearing it in public. When my father got custody of my brother and me I wore it religiously. I don’t remember how it came into my possession but I remember the last day I wore it. I was walking through the mall with my father and a brother passed us, he said “Right on” and threw up the Black Power fist. I didn’t know what the fist gesture meant then but I instinctively knew it meant we were connected by a bond greater than the bondage our people had endured. I walked with my head a little higher after that encounter. My chest poked out so the message of my proud Blackness was on full display in this southern mall.
My father was disgusted.
I can still see his face, the disapproval, and self-hatred oozed from every orifice. I can still hear the words he muttered. This man who he didn’t know, who had the audacity to reaffirm my Blackness, was a no-good n- who probably didn’t have a job or bring anything of value to the world. My sweater disappeared that evening and in its place was left a box with my own racial bullshit to unpack. The space between my father's marriages is a blur of random women and neglect. Somewhere in all of that was my first relaxer. I had beautiful natural hair, although I didn’t know it at the time, but my father saw it as a reminder that we were, and still are, Black. I remember him complaining to one of the women spinning in the revolving door of our lives about how unmanageable my hair was. She told him to relax it, that will make it easier and prettier. He didn’t want to deal with the salon so she did it. I remember laying on a kitchen counter as my identity was molded into what the world deemed acceptable. I hated relaxers. The smell. The burning sensations. The dread that feels your body as they rinse out your hair and you pray that your hair isn’t falling out in the bowl. While I hated the process I had begun to internalize the message they sent. The message was clear, I had to iron my kinks and coils out to be acceptable to society. I started idolizing Cher and her long dark hair. If I could get it like that then maybe, just maybe, my life would have value the way the little white girls and their messy buns and banana clips did.
I would endure chemical burns, doing my best to breathe through the pain so the relaxer could stay on my head as long as possible- the longer it was on the straighter the hair would be is what I told myself. I would pick the scabs off my scalp, my neck, and my ears as I got myself ready for school. I learned to sleep with my head propped up on my fist so I wouldn’t disturb the freshly done hair. My father never provided me with a bonnet. The summer before 8th grade I cut my hair to under my ears. I was so sick of it. Sick of the lack of freedom. Sick of being forced into an image I never asked for. My father was enraged but once hair is cut you can’t go back, all you can do is wait. I refused to relax my hair. I threw it back in a bun and rarely combed it. I was transitioning to natural hair but without the Youtube videos and Instagram, girlies to help me. There wasn’t a family member I could ring up. It was a mess. It smelled because I didn’t wash it nearly enough. There wasn’t guidance. Only judgment. My hair was as neglected as my spirit. Then one day my father offered me a deal, he’d spend the day with me -just the two of us- if I let him take me to a salon.
I went. They placed me in a chair and relaxed my hair. No one asked what I wanted. They did what he instructed. He left while they worked their magic to make me “presentable” again. He returned long enough to pay them and then drop me off at home to eat Chinese food alone while he took off with the woman who had been his mistress during his second marriage. I was never meant to have the daddy-daughter day. It was a ruse to get me to conform.
Sometime later, on the way to school it started to rain and by the time I got inside my hair was soaked. By the middle of the day, it was drying and the frizz was setting in. My hair was doing its best to reach out from the trauma it was being forced to endure while everyone stared. I still remember walking through the sea of teenage bodies and wishing I could die. The poking, prodding, and comments. I think I found a rubber band on a teacher’s desk or one was given to me. But either way, my hair found its familiar neglected bun and the rage demon inside of me grew. Looking back on the choices I made as a teen, especially in terms of the partner I picked, I was trying my damnedest to exercise my Blackness from my soul. I was a victim of possession and desperately wanted to be free. I picked a partner who fetishized certain features but still wanted me, as my father before him, to fit into the white woman box that was never designed to hold this beautiful Black body. For 13 years I chipped away at myself. I allowed myself to be petted when I came home with my hair freshly relaxed. To be ridiculed if I did anything that came across as “too Black”. I wasn't good enough but I would do as long as I continued to break myself for easier consumption.
Then one day something broke in me. I put Beyonce’s Pretty Hurts on repeat and cried from that broken place inside of me that was being snuffed out. I realized that I would never be enough for people committed to breaking Black women so I had to be enough for myself. I had to love myself as I was. Every single curve, drop of melanin, kink, and coil included. I canceled my relaxer appointment - by that point, I was going religiously - and started down the rabbit hole of natural hair videos and information. I once again cut my hair short but this time with intention and knowledge to ensure that what remained was cared for. In doing so, I found my voice. I found that little Black girl who had walked through the mall with her chest poked out and her head held high. I realized that the brother my father had dismissed was trying to give me a gift. It took me 20 years to find and unwrap it, but when I did I knew I could never go back. I couldn’t make myself small. My hair and hips simply wouldn’t allow it.
Over the last eight years, I’ve come to appreciate my hair for the crown that it is. I no longer run terrified at the sight of rain - in fact, I’ve danced in it a time or two allowing it to baptize me in the body this world gave me-. I’ve had braids, I’ve had it short, I’ve blown it out, I’ve had updos, side-dos, fauxhawks, and even debated locs. I’ve bleached it and dyed it, all things I was told Black hair couldn’t and shouldn’t do, and I’ve loved on it the way it deserves. I still deal with the pocking and prodding, the disrespectful fascination that white people have with touching us is a fucking plague upon this Earth. I know that now, so their behavior is met with the appropriate response I never had the courage to do when I was trying to fit myself into the box that had been presented to me as a child. Or I sic one of their fellow flour rangers on them because white-on-white violence is a joy to behold.
I take pride in my hair. The way it holds its shape and reaches for the heavens to get a taste of the goddess. The way it's soft even in the fiercest style. I saw my father three years after I had gone natural. I was rocking a fro and a short dress. I was at home in my body. Later that evening he tried to pick on me by calling me Angela Davis. I smiled and retorted “If you think calling me a strong Black woman is an insult that says more about you than it does about me” and then I sat in my pride. For decades I would let comments like that break me. They would chip away at all the possibilities of who I could be leaving behind only what others wanted me to be. I shed that baggage when I cut the last strands of relaxed her from my head.
Along this journey, I have learned that broken people will do their damnedest to break you as well because it’s easier than doing the work of healing themselves. Do your best to hold onto your crown because it is beautifully and wonderfully made, and if it wasn’t powerful they wouldn't shame you for it.
Shamelessly love yourself and name everyone who taught you to hate yourself. You were not made to hold their baggage.
Copyright(c) 2023 Rayven Holmes