The Girl and the Nappy Halo
As I settle into my pregnancy, I fantasize about the human I’m going to bring into the world. I picture a girl. Beautiful. Black. Freckled like her father. Myopic like me. Some nights, I think I hear her calling me mama and telling me that she loves me. I also fantasize about my daughter asking a phrase etched into the genetic code of Black women everywhere: How much hair is left?
I visualize myself sitting at the edge of a dilapidated couch, with my knees spread, cocked and cornered out. I have my twenty-dollar glasses on. My headscarf struggles to stay wrapped as headphones kiss my eardrums. I listen to a true crime podcast. My daughter will have a novel in front of her. Or maybe a notebook. Or a crochet hook and yarn. Empty hands are yet another possibility.
I tell her to recline as I pull her shoulders back towards me. Taking the peak of a rat-tail comb, I shuffle it down the middle of her scalp to the nape of her neck. I reach for the Pink lotion, frail black elastics, and hair bobbles that can crack a nail when snapped back too fast. By the time I’m done, she rocks two even and twisted ponytails. She smells of hair grease, shea butter, and pink lemonade.
Admittedly, I’ll have to teach myself how to do her hair. I’ll have to remember to be patient as I comb through her curls. Start from the bottom and slowly work the comb through and through and through as I make my way closer to the scalp. Like my mother did with me, I’ll have to ask any woman I know to braid her hair when it gets long enough and she gets old enough. Eventually, I will put the fate of her hair in her hands, as we find a hairdresser she feels she can gossip to, with, and about.
I’ll be eager to experiment with the hot comb. Maybe even knick the tip of her ears like my stepmother did to me the night before picture day or Easter or my birthday. I want to present her with a silk scarf, origins unknown. I’ll tell her it’s my backup scarf, because it is. She may only borrow it, because I might need it for a trip. I might also lose mine. Still, she will never return it or be asked to do so. This too, mimics what my stepmother did to me and I’ll show her the slow, methodical rhythm of brushing hair around the crown of your head to preserve the press.
I’ll cry the night she doesn’t need me to wrap her head anymore.
When she is thirteen we will sit down and have the talk. Not about periods. Or boys. Or girls. Or bodies. Or pets. Or HBCUs. Or sex. But about getting a perm. We will weigh the pros and cons. We will consider getting it done at home or professionally. And if my stepmother isn’t too old, we will ask her for her thoughts. She’ll tell stories about me. About herself. Good stories, where the perm took and lasted longer than expected. Bad stories, where the perm kicked every hair follicle off of the scalp. Story stories, where the perm went fine but it was too expensive or the power in the hair salon got turned off in the middle of the wash.
And then, when the time comes, she and I will go to Target and buy every Black natural hair care product, all of them animal-cruelty free and from actual Black owners because she has decided to go natural. I will tell her how I cut all my hair off. And then I’ll pause and beg her not to cut all her hair off while simultaneously looking for Black barbers open on Sundays. Sundays are always Black girl hair care days, at least where I was raised. I will watch my daughter struggle with her Blackness, as she deciphers the codes locked within her curls and considers what it meant to be a woman in the material world. And I will cry tears hot with emotion and Black pride, as she becomes re-acquainted with herself.
But then, of course, I give birth to a boy. And I must dismantle the fantasy, expectation by expectation, braid by braid, scalp burn by scalp burn.
The first time I survived a kinda sorta big chop, I was six years old and too trusting. My hair was made of braids and elastics and hair grease and beads that tinkled when I ran and skipped and danced.
The moon was out, and I was walking down the empty stone front porch of my grandmother’s house and into the backseat of my mother’s silver Nissan Maxima. Opening the door filled the car with a dull light, and I could see the smile my godsister, Nashira, wore on her face. I don’t think I was able to get a word out. Not a hi or a squeal or a whine. I was barely in the car when Nashira said southernly,
“Oh my god, what happened to your hair?“
Her hands landed on the nape of my neck, where the middle of my braids used to be. Nashira repeated herself even louder and more southern, and my mother twisted around in the driver’s seat, full of fear that looked like anger. To reveal the lack of hair, Nashira twisted my head and, knowing her, my mother had already begun to string together words and threats and curses that I loved to recite alone in my room in the middle of the night.
My cousin Tiana, who was my age but double my height, and I had been playing hairdresser. Sometimes the two of us were best friends who covered one another in laughter and hugs. Other times we were mortal enemies screeching at each other over board games and slights. She was the closest thing I had to a sister, since my sister was nearly a decade older than me and, of course, couldn’t be bothered.
I wanted to be the hairdresser first. I told Tiana to sit on the chair in front of me, but she was still too tall so I asked her to sit on the floor instead. I got a comb, scissors, brush, and elastics and “did her hair.” I never really cared for playing with dolls, but I did know how to be bossy, and I took pleasure in telling her to hold this way and turn that way. Once or twice, I firmly guided her chin and sucked my teeth in exasperation. I never learned how to do hair, but I loved talking and used her assigned role to make her listen to everything that came into my strange little mind.
When I was done, I took a step back and told her to go look in the mirror. She feigned shock at a reflection that showed nothing had changed.
But that was part of the game.
However, when it was Tiana’s turn to be the hairdresser, and I the talkative client, she took the scissors and cut off six inches of braids. I probably didn’t hear the molded crunch over the sound of my own voice going on and on and on and on. And when she had me look in the mirror, I saw my braids start where they were supposed to begin and so I assumed that they ended where they were supposed to. I was none the wiser until my mother was on the phone screaming at my father, threatening his whole family like Denzel Washington at the end of Training Day.
Even if I’d known that Tiana had cut my hair off, I don’t think I would’ve cared much. At age six, my hair didn’t belong to me. It wasn’t my responsibility. I was too young to be aware of its weight and importance. It wasn’t until I saw how upset my mother was, and how wide her eyes were when she inspected the uneven chops, that I saw any value to the stuff growing out the top of my head. She didn’t mean to but her eyes and the way that she looked at me, with my hair raggedy and incomplete, made me feel ugly and undone. And that is what made me cry that night.
The first time I witnessed a big chop, it was Day Juana in fifth grade. Day Juana was not my friend, but I was hers. Meaning, she cared about me, but I had trauma festering and rotting away at any and all healthy friendships and so, I envied her and stayed away from her.
Confusion about my race caused my avoidance. I was desperate to impress the white students who once liked me but who were now pulling away. I wanted to be embraced by them again, and I couldn’t do that with a Black friend. And so, I separated myself. It didn’t work, of course but, as I said, I was desperate.
I envied Day Juana because she was everything I wanted to be, and I knew that even at the age of ten. She was a light creamy color, with beautiful hair that held on tight to its curls even when she was playing on hot asphalt. I was teetering toward obese and the fact that she was smaller than me devastated me. Day Juana had a good heart and never judged me, even when she should. Kids, white and black and everyone else, like her. Worse, the boys, white and black and all the rest, liked her too. I could not compete on any level.
So when I boarded the school bus, and saw her big chop, I was happy because I wouldn’t be the ugly duckling anymore. What was once long silky curls and coils was now a small afro smelling of pink lotion. What was once passable, was now…NIGGERISH. As the bus rolled from Boston to Braintree, I remember gloating to myself, a small: I won. I won, I won, I won.
My hair was still long. My hair was still manageable. My hair was passable, making me the only passable Black girl in fifth grade. I couldn’t wait to see them pull away from her, turn up their nose at her. I couldn’t wait for them to push into me and welcome me back into their good graces with open arms. Once again, I won. I won, I won, I won.
Once I realized that everyone loved Day Juana’s hair, my heart dropped into my lungs. And I realized that I loved the big chop too. It made her skin shine. Her edges were greased and slick. Her face was round like an angel food cake. Her hair looked beautiful. And it added to her beauty. I knew that I could never win. I could never go back home and ask my mom to cut my hair like hers. I could get a picture, a three dimensional sculpture and bring it to the barber who cut her hair. I could promise a phenomenal tip and the barber could give me what he gave her down to the last detail. But Day Juana’s hair was part of her meaning it was good to the root. And I was not a part of my hair. My roots were trapped in earth and rotting. I’m sure she was scared going into school with her hair cut. With her race accentuated. With herself defined boldly. But she didn’t seem scared. She seemed ready, sure, and proud. And maybe that’s what I didn’t get, what I couldn’t get, what I struggle to get, even today, over sixteen years later.
The other day, I made the mistake of asking my father what he thinks I should do with my hair. I have been natural for sometime.
I had shaved my scalp bald over a year ago, right before I left Massachusetts for Arizona. Since then, I’ve let it grow wild, moisturize it when I remember, and, for the most part, forget about it. I even taught myself to block it out when I inspect my face in the morning. All I see are eyes, a nose with empty nose ring holes, and teeth that bleed when I brush them. I see my chin, and the fat beneath it. I see how my eyes smile when I spread my lips into a grin. But rarely do I ever consider the weeds growing into a shapeless thornbush.
I felt the need to ask my dad for his opinion for two reasons. One, he is a possessive man, one who likes to be involved in choices made by the people around him, no matter how minor they appeared to be. Besides, he was going to offer his opinion anyways, especially if he did not like the end result. Two, he has always been critical of me. And I have become quite attached to the comments of those who are critical of me. They reflect the low value I see in myself, and it can be oddly refreshing to hear criticism come from somewhere outside of my own skull.
He responded with,
“Whatever your stepmother says, I’m cool with it.“
Then, he added,
“And whatever it’s gonna be it has to be easy because you know you’re not gonna take care of it.“
His comments were valid. Painful. But valid. And I took them into consideration.
To be honest, I’d fetishized a big chop, turning into a metaphor of transcendence. It represented a fresh start; the up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, a cheat code crafting a happier me. It was as if with the weight of my hair went the weight of trauma, depression and fatness. And when that didn’t work, because of course it didn’t work, I told myself that in order for the change to be complete, I had to commit to letting the new hair grow back naturally.
My refusal to straighten my hair would be a way for me to purify myself in the waters of Prince’s Lake Minnetonka. I would be raw and born again, cleansed of every toxic action committed by the woman I used to be. I thought I’d feel good and meet a new version of myself, the person I never gave myself the space to become. But that didn’t work either.
A few months after I cut my hair, and let it grow naturally, I realized that it wasn’t the solution I needed. So I bleached and colored it blue. Then pink and then green and then blue and pink and purple to make a galaxy effect. And then I shaved my hair to the scalp because I was in the middle of a mental breakdown and needed a fresh start before I spontaneously moved to Arizona.
So, for the last two years, I have allowed my hair to grow without care and consideration. I have fallen out of love with it. And so have the people, all of whom are Black, around me.
Only Black people tell me how they like natural hair, but that my natural hair isn’t good enough. They tell me that I should have it like [enter name here]. They call my hair nappy. They tell me to wet it and put curling cream in it. They want me to style it, twist it the night before, keep it cropped. And they laugh in my face when I tell them I want my hair thick, wild, borderless, and coated only in grease. They laugh and laugh and laugh and dismiss me. Then I lie and tell them that I style my hair NIGGER because it is liberating. It is me letting go of the childish desires to be white and liked and passeable. My hair is my refusal to engage with limits I set or myself. It is my way to accept my ugliness. My fatness. My inability to be cute. I could go on and on and on. Bullshitting and afraid to say,
I like my hair this way. It is mine, and I like my hair this way. Back the fuck up and shut the fuck up and keep your hands and your expectations and your opinions off of my scalp.
It is my fucking hair. Mine. And I like it this way.
I need it this way.
I don’t know how to define my relationship with my hair right now. Maybe one day, I’ll grow it back and tame it with a hot comb and silk scarf. Or stronger yet, a relaxer. Turning it into a mood ring, I might dye it to mirror how I feel only to cut it again and again and start over from scratch with hair grease and a durag. But whatever happens, it will be my relationship with my hair. It will be for me. And it will be for me alone. As Tracy Clayton once said: “An afro is a nappy ass halo; therefore, what happens with my hair is between me and God and no one else.”
Jamilla D. VanDyke-Bailey is a 27-year-old, pro-black feminist who uses her writing to provide a voice for silent traumas, and to hopefully create a sense of belonging amongst the misfits. She has had work published in The Southhampton Review, K’in Literary Journal, and the Santa Clara Review. Her collection of poetry, than we have been, will be published by Weasel Press in the summer of 2021.