In August of 2007 I walked into the bathroom and cut off all of my shoulder-length hair without leaving even 1/2 an inch, using scissors. Why? My naturally beautiful then ten year old daughter made a comment that I would never forget:
“How can I love my hair when you don’t even know what yours looks like?”
Emily was not being disrespectful but instead she was speaking from pain, great pain. She had felt pain when the little straight-haired Snow White-like girl in front of her ran her fingers through her hair and tossed it into a bun and she realized she could not do the same. Her lovely curls, which at the time she struggled to love, felt more tangled to her than cork-screwed. She felt pain when she was overlooked by the boys for the straight blond-haired Cinderella-like girl in class, at church, at the grocery store, in the parking lot, and on the moon…anywhere, anyone one, anything with hair that was not like hers. She resorted to pulling up her luscious curls into a nest of a bun and cutting bangs, which she would sometimes straighten with a flatiron for some semblance of straight hair.
Why am I writing about this? My daughter is known for being an advocate for naturally curly hair in the past twelve years (bobicurls.com website is under construction). Yes, since her mother went to the bathroom and decided to discover and embrace a part of her identity that eluded her, she grew to love her hair. I did not choose to relax my hair when I was four years old with the mums and who knows, maybe I would have in later years like many other girls with hair like mine growing up in the 70’s. I had a Caucasian stepmother who would say, “I don’t know what to do with this hair” and well-meaning, I hope, neighbors in the Bahamas with relaxed hair who would touch my hair and look on it with disdain while saying: “You need t’ do someting wit dis child’s hair!” Haitian hair was not much different than Bahamian hair, of course, and so a hairstylist sat me up on a lofty chair and gave me what even Farrah Fawcett would dream of: perfectly silky, straight, mid-back lengthed hair that had all the other Haitian and Bahamian girls at West End All Age School running to their manmans pleading for the same thing.
This hair came with a price. When there was no hot water to rinse out the relaxer on retouch days, something I had to do every two months, my scalp would burn, yes, literally burn and it felt like my scalp was on fire because guess what: it was! I remember running with my scalp burning to a neighbor’s house because they had boiled hot water for me to be able to rinse out my hair. At the age of nine my hair was cut to about a quarter of an inch because of so much scalp damage and again because someone didn’t know what to do with the hair. Ah Caribbean life! Soon I was sent to the United States of America, where if my hair could make it there it could make it anywhere…but alas, it did not! An aunt was confused by my hair texture – somewhat like hers and yet not. There was relaxer that survived the cut and although my hair had grown an entire twelve inches earning me the nickname Bondye Bay (God giveth) no one knew what to do with it. They were smart enough to realize that my hair type did not respond well to relaxers and I also developed an on again off again breakout of rashes on the nape of my neck after every retouch.
HOT COMB! That’s the thing! It’s 1982 and everyone knows that hot combs are safe and don’t do much damage to my kind of hair, besides aren’t all black or interracial hairs the same? Hmm… Needless to say, it took only a few comb-throughs and an increased smell of melted plastic to discover that my hair, which should have been like everyone else’s, was not responding like everyone else’s. In fact, it sizzled. The hair crumbled onto the hot comb, my shoulder, my lap, the ground, and then eventually where we always felt it belonged, oblivion. And then I was fifteen years old, and living with my teenage-siblings. I continued to believe the lie that my hair was not good enough, it had to lay down and obey the laws of beauty. I found the relaxer that was gentle...ah, only another lie. If I colored it, again, I had to cut it all off again which I did at the age of sixteen when hair was the only commodity. Then I became a wife. A mother. A responsible, secure adult. Another try at the hair color with the relaxer combo and I had to have it buzzed off as though I was headed out to the army.
And then I had one of my closest friends, Nicole Parham, tell me how to care for my daughter’s hair. Nicole and I were hair buddies. She had huge curly natural hair that she relaxed on occasion because she too had bit on the lie, the lie that tasted like a big bar of chocolate to everyone else but was really just a bark of crap…oh, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t say that. Hmm… Nicole, in truth, was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. She was also a Caribbean girl and every time she got her hair relaxed with me, I always hated it because I recognized how beautiful her natural hair was. But alas, there was no movement. Yes, we needed a movement. We needed a handful of people to declare that natural hair is not ugly. We don’t have to make excuses for natural hair anymore. We don’t have to feel embarrassed when we walk out into the streets with it. And this almost makes me want to cry but we can still be considered beautiful for leaving it the way it is…ah, yes, we are actually beautiful with natural hair. If my feelings seem exaggerated, watch the documentary Good Hair and then jump a few years into my time-zone and watch the Netflix movie Nappily Ever After.
Am I vain? No, but I am a pretty darn secure woman, except for the recent 20lbs I just put on from a winter from…well, hell doesn’t quite work here but, you know what I mean. I also believe in championing other women as I saw other Haitian women doing to one another growing up. I do regret that no one was championing me. That would have been nice and that would have let me know that maybe, just maybe, I was known and I didn’t have to keep relaxing, blow-drying, or hair-rolling my hair into acceptance. I’m just not good at lying since I’ve grew up. I have to speak the truth. I know this may make some people feel uncomfortable, but when I told my daughter that I’m so glad she would never put chemicals on her hair and she spoke that infamous line to me I suddenly felt liberated. The one whose opinion mattered most to me on this issue, at that time, gave me permission to drop off the shackles of bondage and to set this hair free. I didn’t know what it would look like but I was determined to love it. I didn’t know if it would remain an afro for another three years (the first 3 years were the hardest) but I knew that it was mine. I didn’t know if people would eventually stop looking at me as if I had three eyes or something but I did know that I recognized myself in the mirror. I didn’t know if it would be wavy, cork-screwed, or kinky but I knew that I didn’t ever need to go to a hair salon or should I say saloon, for the rest of my life! I didn’t even know if it would look like my daughter’s, or my mother’s, whom I never knew growing up anyway, or my son’s, but deep down I knew that I would love it! I loved it wet! I loved it dry! I loved it at 3 inches. I love it now on my back. I love it! That’s not prideful or arrogant. That’s good old healthy loving the me that God made and no one is currently able to reinvent.
So why is a woman who is determined to help people understand the importance of learning the kreyòl language to relate to a Haitian writing about hair? A Haitian child should be accepted for not only her skin color, her language, or her figure, but also her H A I R. No one should weave it into hiding. Bun it into obscurity. Relax it to death. Or press/flatiron it into oblivion. I know this will upset many people but maybe the same people who understand that a Haitian’s identity is greatly wrapped in their community, family, church, and LANGUAGE, can possibly understand the importance of them not feeling like there is this one part of them that is offensive, not good enough, must be ruled, and will never be good enough…possibly. This is just my feeble attempt to say that when a child is brought into a home where they are the one who stands out as looking different, it is so necessary that they feel everyday that every feature they possess is the fairest in the land.