I Was Supposed To Have Good Hair

Adapted from Wikimedia Commons
It took me a long time to see my hair as part of my self and my heritage, where before it had only been part of my oppression.

When I was 6, I saw an episode of Rainbow Brite where all the Color Kids went to bed wishing for long hair, and woke up with glorious, flowing tresses down to their waists. Even Indigo, the black Color Kid (black in skin, Indigo in clothing) had shampoo-commercial-worthy locks. I wished so hard right there and then, and every night for weeks later, for long, silky hair, that I can still vividly recall my feelings of envy, hope, and eventual despair 30 years later.

My mom adored my hair. She would lovingly braid my hair in two French braids every morning, with ribbons woven in to match my outfit. We would fight tangles and she would say “pull against me!” as I gritted my teeth against the ripping sound made as the comb burst free. I went to school every day with my hair on point. My edges when I wore a puff were sleek, my braids were neat, my ponytail holders and barrettes always matched my clothes. I always smelled of shampoo, hair grease, and Pink hair lotion.

And I hated it.

I hated my hair so much. I watched MTV and saw the wigs that Whitney Houston wore in her videos and, not knowing that they were in fact wigs because I was 6, cursed my hair that was fluffy and stiff and refused to grow past my shoulders. I was the only black girl in my grade, and at sleepovers my white friends and I would do each other’s hair and I would die inside of embarrassment as their flimsy barrettes burst under the strain of my frizz and as the brushes with ball ends would get hopelessly entangled in my coils.

I hated my hair so much.

By first grade I had convinced my mom to perm my hair. The relaxers she gave me allowed me to wear my hair down in a stiff facsimile of the hair that I wanted. I would beg her to hot comb my hair to get it even closer to the flat, shiny hair of my dreams, even as the back of my ears and neck were burned. My scalp would throb for days and weeks after each chemical relaxer. I would pick at the scabs that covered half of my scalp and would wake up in the morning with my hair cemented into the fluid that had oozed from my head and dried rock hard as my skin tried to heal from chemical burns.

In third grade I begged my mom to come up with a better solution. She took me to a fancy salon and spent her last dollar on a stylist who would give me a body wave. I remember sitting in the salon chair when the stylist turned to the white woman sitting in the chair next to me, pointed at my stiff hair, and said, “See this hair? I’m going to make it look like yours.” He piled those chemicals on top of my relaxer, and within days my hair started coming out in clumps. My mom was forced to shave my head and I spent the entire year feeling like the ugliest girl on earth.

When I was in fifth grade, a new girl moved to our school and I almost died of excitement. She was half-black, like me — I could tell instantly. But she had “good” hair. Her hair fell in long, loose, chestnut brown ringlets down her back. She told me that she didn’t believe I was half black; she was pretty sure that I was all black and my mom had adopted me. She asked me not to tell people that she was half black. With her lighter skin and loose curls, it was easy for her to fool the kids in class — all the kids but me. She quickly became one of the most popular girls in school and I remained invisible. I looked at her and knew, she was like me — or would have been if things had worked out for me the way that I thought they should have. I was so close — if I’d just been a shade lighter, if I’d gotten those hazel eyes, if I didn’t have this hair. I remained the only black girl at school.

I was regularly reminded that I was, as a mixed girl, supposed to have better hair than I had. “How is she mixed with this hair?” Black women would ask my mom half-jokingly. “Her dad is Nigerian,” my mom would explain, and the women would nod knowingly. That Nigerian hair is no joke.

When I was in high school I became friends with another black girl at school, Ivy. She was much darker than me, thin where I was chubby and beautiful where I was awkward — but we had the same hair. We were two black girls who didn’t have good hair and could not afford weaves — so we sat together. One day Ivy came to school in beautiful, long box braids. She looked like a model. She looked like Janet Jackson. I was entranced, then hopeful. Maybe if I got box braids, I’d look half as beautiful. She walked past the most popular guy in school, and he turned and looked — he actually looked at her. Maybe, if I had box braids a guy (not that guy — a guy less popular for sure, but still a guy) would look at me. I needed some confirmation of my theory. I mustered up all my courage, walked up to him and asked, “Doesn’t Ivy look beautiful?” He shrugged, slightly annoyed that I’d deigned to talk to him in public, and answered, “She won’t look like that when she takes that fake hair out, won’t she” and he turned back to his friends.

By the time I reached my mid-twenties, I stopped feeling like I’d missed out on my hazel-eyed/3a curled destiny. I started to notice how much vitriol the world really has for dark-skinned black women and what my privilege really cost those without it. I saw the way in which my darker-skinned friends were treated by men, by employers, and by authorities, and how those same people would use their relative comfort with my presence to prove that they didn’t actually have a problem with black women. And even when my darker-skinned girlfriends would help touch up my relaxer and laugh, “girl, why is all your blackness trapped in this hair” as I held my head over the sink, I knew that my experience of blackness in a white supremacist society was much easier than theirs.

I began to realize that part of the loneliness of feeling like I was the only black girl in the room, while the other girls with “good hair” got to sit near the cool kids, was because I got to occupy the space of “ordinary girls to be ignored and eventually settled for” — while darker-skinned girls were denied entry to any space at all. Every compliment I received on my skin tone from white people marveling at how “unique” it was, every white friend who would sheepishly admit that they didn’t really see me as black, every white employer who would ask darker-skinned coworkers why they couldn’t be more “like me,” every black man who commented that I was just light enough for his tastes — burned through any desire I had for hair that would bring me any closer to those who would trap me above and apart from other black women. I stopped wishing I had better hair, stopped thinking anything about my hair much at all. I got my regular relaxers as usual, cut off the fried ends, and shrugged as my hair got shorter and shorter.

One day, when I was 33 and looking in the mirror to decide if it was time to touch up my relaxer, I realized something kind of shocking — outside of the half inch of fuzz peeking out at my scalp I didn’t know what my hair looked like. The real hair that grows out of my head — I had no idea what it looked or felt like. I had no idea if I had kinks or curls or how tight they would be. I didn’t know if my hair was soft or dry, fluffy or dense. I had not had my own hair on my head since I was 7. How absolutely sad and ridiculous is that?

And since I didn’t care about the scorched, stiff hair on my head anymore, I just cut it all off right then and there. It wasn’t an emotional decision. I took a pair of paper shears and chopped my hair down to about an inch and a half in length around my head. I knew that whatever my hair was going to look like, it wasn’t going to be like Chilli from TLC’s hair, and I knew that whatever it was, it wasn’t going to be any more disappointing than it had been the last 25 years. I just wanted to see what this “bad” hair actually was when it wasn’t trying to be something else.

The revolution came later. I cannot describe to those who have not experienced it, what it is like to see and touch your own hair for the first time in your mid-thirties. To have to relearn wash and style regimens. To learn to love and care for hair that you spent a lifetime despising. To see curls change. To go from patting your hair down in embarrassment when your roots get puffy, to carrying a pick in your purse to ensure that each strand of your hair is fluffed up in glory. I can’t describe what it’s like to look in the mirror and see your hair as part of your self and your heritage when it had before been only part of your oppression.

My hair is beautiful. Not beautiful in the way that could make me a YouTube natural hair icon. Beautiful in a way that I could never before imagine. It is looser coils in some areas, dense coils that you barely thread a needle through in others, and a few sections of tight z-shaped kinks that refuse to curl at all. All of it is dense enough to stand on end, which gives me immense joy. And all of it is mine. I love my hair, the hair that refused to play its part in my story of light-skinned privilege — the hair that refused to conform even when I desperately wanted to. It has been over three years now and I’m sure that friends are tired of hearing me say how much I love my hair, but I can’t help it — I have so many years of love in reserve.

I can’t describe what it’s like to look in the mirror and see your hair as part of your self and your heritage when it had before been only part of your oppression.

My teenage son is so pale that he can get a sunburn on a Seattle spring day. He’s tall and beautiful and what many would call “racially ambiguous.” He has the light skin and the hazel eyes that I thought would give me my ticket out of the worst of American racism, if only I’d been so lucky. And for a large part, it has. The privilege he enjoys at times embarrasses me as it reminds me of how desperately I yearned for the same. Perhaps, because I talk about privilege all the time, or perhaps because he lives in a time where black and brown kids are a little more visible as they exist in the world, he doesn’t seem to relish his privilege the way I dreamed I would. He’s aware of the difference in how teachers treat him compared to the darker-skinned boys, and he knows that cops only follow him when he’s with his black friends (or with me — as together we make a very small, but suddenly twice as black, street gang in these Seattle streets). It doesn’t fill him with relief to know he has this privilege; the relative ease with which he walks through life — raised as a black man by a black mother — while other black boys his age are being shot in the streets by cops who will only see them as a threat reminds him of how unjust our society can be.

But my son has kink-for-kink, coil-for-coil, my hair — only more of it. It is his favorite feature. I was amazed to see these Nigerian curls spring out of his pale scalp with such pride. That hair — as strong as the blackness that runs through our veins — refuses to stand down. It is not good hair. It’s our hair. And that is pretty damn beautiful.

Like what you read? Give Ijeoma Oluo a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.

The author has chosen not to show responses on this story. You can still respond by clicking the response bubble.