As I write this, I pause intermittently to tug lightly at my waist-length havana braids, watching bemusedly as they stretch, then spring back into place, bouncing playfully against my body. I twist a stray end around my finger. I lightly touch my textured roots. I smile faintly. I think I have finally learned how to wear this hair.
This hair stands out. It is thick, rough around the edges, and unevenly coiled. It seems to be participating in some sort of riot against the man. Often, people who unironically use the phrase “riot agains the man” have hair like mine. Dreadlocked men in baja hoodies nod at me, signaling solidarity.
I can’t be shy in this hair. I can’t blend in in this hair.
And I don’t want to.
When I first got my hair relaxed, I was an angst-ridden, nerdy, teacher’s pet of a fourth grader. My family had moved to Indianapolis from Eldoret three years before. I had recently become self aware (read: shy), and had begun to retreat into myself, moving away from the boisterous, IU baseball cap, army print cargo shorts and soccer jersey-wearing bastion of boisterous youth I had been for the past two years. My friends and I had recently formed a rock band (never mind that none of us had any instruments or musical talent to speak of) and I was starting to think that boys were cute.
I don’t think I ever reflected enough on the fact that “permed” is the past tense form of “perm” and “perm” is short for “permanent,” and “permanent” is short for “FOREVER, WENCH.” When a girl decides to get her hair relaxed, there’s absolutely no going back. Her tightly wound curl pattern is forever denatured by the sodium hydroxide that is the active ingredient in that white cream I remembered seeing the older girls apply onto their heads as I sat in the saloon in Eldoret years ago.
What I thought I knew about relaxer:
- Your hair will be straight
- Your hair will be shiny
- Your hair will flow majestically
- Men will love you
- Women will envy you
- You will fit seamlessly into the professional world
- You will fit seamlessly into the world
- Men will love you
What I now know about relaxer:
- It burns
- You may no longer swim because frizz
- You may no longer frolic in the rain because frizz
- You may no longer stand still in the rain “”
- You may no longer stand still/frolic/be happy in humid places “”
- Some men will love you, but that’s mostly entirely unrelated to whether or not your hair is relaxed
- Your hair will probably break at some point
- You will give a large part of your income to your hair stylist
- You will become attached to your hair stylist
- Because your hair will flow majestically… for a few days after she hooks you up
- But even then, it’s not exactly like your white friends’ hair.
- Because you literally had to denature it to make it this way
- Therefore your texture will always be a little different,
- And your hair will always be a little more delicate
- And a little more sensitive to the elements and to constant hair straightening and styling than theirs is
- Which is why you need your hair stylist again
- and again
- It always burns.
There’s an unmistakable bond between every black girl and her hair stylist. It is a bond borne of mutual dependence, obligatory biweekly visits, emergency appointments, and inevitable heart-to-heart conversations that flow forth out of an abundance of time together as she takes on the all-important task of making a girl feel beautiful. First there was Susan, then Scheri, Fatima, Awa, Laquita and most recently, Uzuri.
These ladies consistently crowned me queen of the land of the waterfall of paradise every two weeks, for years.
After the initial “OMG Lisa has straight hair!!” hype wore off, I happy relished in the fact that finally, my hair looked (pretty much) like everyone else’s. It’s just that I had to work several times as hard to make sure my hair continued to be appropriately #basic.
And I worked hard.
No longer confined to tiny French braids, my newly straight strands could basically move around as they pleased up there. This meant that every violent gust of wind (and every violent gust of air conditioning), every gym class, every rain shower, every swimming pool, and every morning required that I remember my hair.
I remember dreading rainy soccer games, skipping track practice when it was too humid, and coolly sitting poolside while all my friends played flirty games of water polo. I remember always making sure to have a hairbrush and a portable umbrella within reach. Always driving with the windows rolled up. Always patting. Always smoothing.
My hair was relaxed, but I sure as h**l wasn’t.
So about a year ago, I stopped. I called Fatima (hair stylist #3) up, and we decided that after eight years of relaxing my hair, I should try braids again. And so we did. (To be sure, my foray into the world of braids was inspired by Beyonce and Solange Knowles’ success therein. By embracing braids, these arbiters of beauty somehow made it okay for the rest of us to fall in line.)
For me, it was a strange, slow lesson in standing alone. I would navigate my whitewashed world in the northside of greater Indianapolis feeling violently different from everyone around me. My turbulent first semester at a majority-white top 20 private university had me considering getting a relaxer again, just to fit in for a little while. And I suppose that if I had, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. I do not count myself among those who treat the decision between natural hair and relaxed hair as a decision between right and wrong. It’s more nuanced than that.
But for what it’s worth, I’m glad that I stuck it out freshman year with those box braids.
Added perks: my hair is about as low maintenance as it gets. As a result I’m usually weirdly eager to dance in the rain and jump into pools and stuff.
Right now, I am multiple bracelets and powerful poetry and social movements and late night conversation and blogging and hello and power walking and power and walking and happy rap and identity and I simply do not have time for hair that does not know how to take care of itself.
Tomorrow, I may be different.
Who knows (who cares)?
(the featured photo is courtesy of Vibhu Krishna. thx Veebz)
Song of the day: Who Knows Who Cares by Local Natives
Quote of the Day:
“I’ve never wanted anybody to like me because I had long hair or short hair, or because they liked the way I dressed or they liked the way I smile.” – David Allan Coe
Recommended watching: Chris Rock’s Documentary, Good Hair
 See previous blog post
 See previous blog post. Some things never change.
 Unless they’re superficial or #basic
 More on these lovely ladies later!
 See previous blog