Rituals & Realizations On Black Girl Hair

I was rushing that morning.

Same ritual, just faster. I grabbed my keys with one hand, and popped the last bit of my banana muffin into my mouth with the other hand. The last two sips of my ginger mint tea were swift; the rest of the morning is a hurried blur. Computer bag strap across my chest, lunch bag and keys in hand, I rushed through my front door, locked it, and head to my car to pray for good traffic and green lights.

Once I entered the long stretch of highway, I loosened my grip on the steering wheel and ran my fingers above my eyebrows. I noticed the absence of a familiar feeling. Bangs usually lined that area, but this time, there was nothing but air. The bangs that hung down from my professional wigs were absent that morning, and I experienced the feeling of Free.

I was rushing that morning, but if I’m honest, I did not forget my wig. I couldn’t find the one I wanted, so I mentally burned any fucks I had left, and I used that moment as an opportunity to change my morning ritual; to show up as myself. And to be okay with not matching up with someone else’s idea of me.

The traffic gods favored me that morning.

I reached work with time to spare. I waved to Judy, the downstairs receptionist with the long nails and the perfect top bun. She looked surprised, but we spoke every day. Ah yes, my almost-bald head was the likely cause of Judy’s look — a look I was now sure I would get repeatedly that day.

The usual fake-ass pleasantries on the elevator remained consistent; another ritual. But the walk to my cubicle came with a repeat of surprised looks and snide comments, like references to Demi Moore in G.I. Jane, and the ever-popular, “Is everything okay?” concern. Sometimes people don’t know what to say when they see a drastic change, so some just avoided me altogether; I appreciate those people immensely.

Working a military office job looks, on the outside, like a pretty place to be sitting. Benefits and stability. All the shit we believe we need in order to make something of ourselves. But it came at a cost. And that morning, I stopped willingly paying that cost.

I sat down in my cubicle, and breathed deep while I went through my routine. I felt the air from the vent above my desk for the first time. With no wig to block me, I was in direct communication with the air above me. That felt like a form of freedom for me. I felt so free. I wasn’t hiding my African hair under a European wig so that I could match their skewed standard of professionalism. I wasn’t allowing the fear of their opinion to cause me to change my appearance; to put my hair in hiding; to act ashamed of my in-the-air hair.

Hair is absolutely a thing for most black girls.

And by a thing, I mean that many of us learn about ourselves through our relationship with our hair. Many of us spent years carefully pasting toxic chemicals onto our unruly hair so that it would lie down and not alarm people. It made us somehow safer to be around, for white folks, if our hair didn’t stand up from its roots like trees. But somehow, many of us start feeling ourselves — understanding that we needed to value ourselves from the inside out. We began to acknowledge our participation in the systems that place no value on our beings. For some of us, that meant that we stopped feeling comfortable using chemicals to make our hair seem like something it wasn’t.

The kinks of our natural hair represented the differences between us and the rest of the world. Differences that didn’t separate us, but just gave us unique identifiers that are also a source of cultural pride.

Differences that are the roots of common experiences among many black people. Like wanting to travel to a new country, then immediately wondering how those people in that country tend to treat black people. Or whether you will move to that part of New England and risk not finding a single person who will know how to take care of your hair.

“Black people felt compelled to smoothen their hair and texture to fit in easier, and to move in society better and in camouflage almost,” says Aaryn Lynch, producer of Origins of the Afro Comb, a 2013 exhibit at University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum (England).

Lynch ain’t lying.

Black girls deal with hair shame, an aspect of overall self-confidence, from infancy into adulthood. As Black women, we’ve been taught that aspects of our physical self are unacceptable in their natural forms. As such, they should be relegated to the privacy of our bathrooms — or better yet, transformed into tamed, relaxed, and otherwise invisible alternatives.

As a result, we grow up not knowing much about how to care for our natural hair, and instead, vilify it with the help of marketing campaigns designed to self products that give African hair “manageability” and “beauty.”

In the military for example, their rigid ass rules about hair appearance means black girls with in-the-air hair are pressured into wearing wigs as a means of fitting into the required aesthetics. For me, that’s always felt shitty, contrived, fear-driven.

I didn’t want to keep having that experience.

I wanted to wear my hair the way it grew out of my head. Washed, brushed, and blessed with coconut oil. Just my natural hair. It didn’t feel unreasonable anymore, so I went for it. And that night when I slept, I felt like somebody my grandmother would consider old, would be proud of me.

Maybe a representative of the ancestors who got their hair chopped off when they were sold into slavery. There were rituals surrounding hair grooming and adornment, and often their specific and detailed hairstyles identified them among tribes or regions.

Chopping off their hair was a way of separating them from a shared identity and culture.

Or maybe the one who would be proud was the daughters of that ancestor. Those girls and women whose hair was seen as unruly and inconvenient for slave owners, and thereby chopped off without consent or care. I cared. And so I left my wig at home.

I was rushing that morning.

But I managed to rush right past something that had been stuck for a long time. I managed to rush toward a sense of ownership of my own freedom, and walking that talk by embracing my hair however I so desire. Consciously, self-lovingly, and based on my own whims and desires.

Which wig will you leave at home tomorrow morning?

Name a wig and leave it somewhere. Practice consent culture between your beliefs and your actions. Do what you can to show up as your out-of-hiding self. And to experience the feeling of Free.

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