|Photo credit: Jeffrey Mckee|
This Is What it Means To Say “Black Hair”
Originally published in Narrative Northeast
In third grade, I sat at a blue metal table outside on the blacktop. An older boy at the next table over said to me, “Your hair looks greasy.”
I don’t even remember his name, but I remember he was a white kid.
“Is it because your name is Mercedes?” he asked me, “Do you have to grease up the way you grease up a car?”
He said nothing else, simply stood up and walked away. I sat there, a third grade girl, staring at my unpeeled orange, feeling, for the first time, aware of my own hair. Feeling, for the first time, defined by my hair, noticing how it did not make me unique, but somehow different. A bulge of hot tears formed.
This was the beginning of my awareness of all the things my hair was: kinky, stiff, coily, frizzy, nappy, oily. This was the beginning of my awareness of all the things my hair wasn’t: straight, long, flowy, the kind of hair that moved when the wind blew, the kind of hair you see in the movies.
I am bi-racial and my Spanish mother has thick flowing hair. When I was younger, I always wondered why mine never looked like hers. Even black celebrities had hair that looked “white.” I wanted my hair to look like theirs.
Then, as if by a miracle, as if the universe heard me, I came upon chemical relaxer, the magic formula, the “creamy crack,” the stuff that made my hair luscious and flowing, that removed every unwanted kink and curl. I was eight years old.
I remember sitting in my Spanish class with my newly straightened hair, feeling “pretty.” It was a small private Catholic school and I was among three black students who attended there. The girl behind me asked if she could touch my hair. I let her. Then, three other girls came over, because they wanted to touch my hair too. I sat there, surrounded by these white girls touching my hair, feeling noticed, relishing the attention until my Spanish teacher walked in. She saw us, and screamed for the girls to stop.
“This is not a petting zoo,” she said.
“It’s fine with me,” I told her, upset she scattered the girls around me.
“It shouldn’t be,” she said.
It would take me years to understand what she meant by this.
Later, that summer, my mother took me to a salon to put my hair in braids. When I came home, my neighbor, who was my age, said to me, “Now, you look black.” A thirteen year old me stood there realizing that the way I wore my hair could define my race.
Growing into adulthood, the way I wore my hair determined whether I looked “professional” or not, whether I was “pretty” or not, whether I was wealthy or not. For every job interview and first date, I made sure to straighten my hair, to brush it back, to flatten every curl.
In the news that year, I watched as critics claimed that Viola Davis’ natural hair at the premiere of the movie, The Help, was “inappropriate” for the red carpet. It made me angry, but not angry enough to do anything about it.
My mother’s friend called me one day. I had stayed with her for a couple of months when I was three while my mom traveled overseas for work.
“I am so sorry,” she told me.
“For what,” I asked.
“When you were little,” she told me, “I shaved all your hair off.”
She told me on the phone that she could not handle my hair, could not handle the amount of it, the curliness, the way it knotted up if it didn’t get tied back. So, she shaved it off. She told me this years later as if she had been keeping this secret from me. She didn’t know that when I got ready in the mornings, sometimes I felt like shaving it off, too. She didn’t know that every morning I set out tubes and tubs of leave-in conditioner, olive oil, hair polish, shea butter, hair detangler, and other mixed concoctions out on the bathroom counter each morning. She didn’t know that when I went to the shampoo aisle, I was led to a separate section near the back labeled, “ethnic hair care.” She didn’t know that this had always instilled a sense of shame in me.
About a year ago, I learned about the “Big Chop,” which is exactly what it sounds like. A hairdresser “chops” all of the relaxed, chemically treated hair, leaving nothing but the natural. My first time witnessing this was when one of my coworkers came to work with a puffed out mini afro on her head. She was a girl who wore weaves and wigs and seeing her natural, I remember the rest of us saying things like, “Good for you” and “I could never pull that off.” I knew, secretly, I wasn’t brave enough to do what she had done, to shave her hair down to its root in an effort to get back to the natural curls.
About a year after dating my boyfriend at the time, I curled my relaxed hair, which came out, not curly, but wavy. It was the first time he saw my hair when it wasn’t straight. I’d kept it straightened for no other reason than that I simply felt more attractive when straightened. My boyfriend was Caucasian, an Irish and Scottish blend with a head full of bright red hair.
“I love your hair curly,” he said to me and I thought, you haven’t even seen curly since this wasn’t even my natural curl. No, my natural curl had the kind of kink you can’t stick your fingers through.
“Better than when it’s straight?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he told me and even went on to say that he preferred my hair when it was curly.
Now, I’m just upset with myself. How can this guy, who knows nothing of black hair, nothing of the pressures put on little black girls, love my hair more than I do?
When I go to see my therapist, I ask her, “What should I do?”
This is a real dilemma for me and I’m the kind who needs to be told.
“Do the kind of thing that would make your children proud.”
“I don’t have any children,” I tell her.
“Then, imagine them.”
Imagine my children? It’s absurd, really, but I start thinking about it. About how I would want them to see me. Imagine your children, she tells me. So I do.
On a Friday evening on the west side of Chicago, I imagined them as I walk into an all black hair salon, the first one I’d been to since I was seven. I imagined them as I waited in the black leather seats, flipping through Traditional Home and as the hairdresser called my name. I imagined them when she asked me if I was sure and when I told her that yes, I was sure. I imagined them as she wrapped a purple cape around my neck, as she grabbed her shears and lifted up a strand of my long shoulder-length hair. I imagined them when she cut it, all of it, down to only about an inch from my head, when she styled it and turned me around in front of the mirror. Little strands of curls, thick shining curls in tightly wound spirals, stuck up from my head. Beauty was not something I had ever associated with my own natural hair, but sitting there, I felt beautiful and I imagined what that would mean to my children. I smiled, a big goofy smile I couldn’t seem to get rid of, even as I rode the train home. I caught glimpses of my new hair in storefront windows and car door reflections and I smiled.
A few months ago, something really amazing happened to me. As I was walking around downtown Chicago, a homeless black man sat on the corner, shaking a cup in front of the passing people. As I came closer, he did not ask me for change like he had the others. Instead, he simply said, “Thank you.”
I was confused. I stopped. That day I wore my hair behind a headband, in a bunch of curls going this way and that.
“Your hair,” he said.
He knew. Of course, he knew and I smiled, slipping some money into his cup, telling him eagerly that I had finally decided to chop it off. He listened, nodded his head and just before I left, he said, “It’s so nice to see black women with their real hair.”
That’s what he called it, real. My hair. My black hair.
I walked on, through the crowded city streets, knowing what it meant.
Mercedes Lucero is a writer whose prose, poetry, and book reviews have appeared in Curbside Splendor, Chicago Tribune's Printers Row Journal, The Pinch, Heavy Feather Review, and Whitefish Review among others. Her short story, "Memories I Cannot Recall," was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is the Assistant Fiction Editor of Beecher's and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Northwestern University. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Kansas. You can find her at mercedeslucero.com.
Listen to Mercedes read "Black Hair" as part KJHK's Sunflower Reading Series.