My mother blows smoke off the cast-iron comb she’s pulled from burning coals. She grabs the handle with a small raggedy hand towel already singed brown from previous sessions, then wipes the charcoal black clean with another, before sinking its warped teeth into my roots and through kinks. I wait for the sizzle, inhaling the burning stench of wild hair getting straightened into submission. I hold my breath, scrunching my shoulders high, and brace for the heat, inching closer. My fingertips pin down the rim of my ears greased with vaseline, as she warns for the fiftieth time, “don’t move”.
I moved once. There’s a mark on my right wrist from flinching too soon, sending the comb flying out of her hands. I don’t remember the aftermath, only that my hair is soft and swishes from side to side.
By seven, I’m a ways from West Africa, and I have a feeling that people measure beauty differently here. I want to flip my hair like other girls on the playground do. Theirs is long and fine and I study how they brush their hands behind their swan necks and send it back over their shoulders. That’s beauty to me. My hair’s buzzed low because nobody can dare tame it like my mother, and it feels like a sun-dried sponge. When the wind blows and teases their strands of silk across their faces, it passes mine by, like the boys’ gaze. My legal guardian asks every black woman we see how to tackle this hair. All I want it to do is behave, stay matted down with the cheap gel I pile on every morning that isn’t made for it, but I apply in globs every day, then step out in the mid-west winter that’ll freeze it.
My mother’s letters from across the world are full of hair advice. I don’t understand. She’s obsessed with it; I’m not. Friends dare me to fro my hair. It’s middle school and we’re all looking for ways to stand out, embrace ourselves, and fit in. Students reach out to touch it in the hallways, running their fingers through. Teachers gawk at it from their whiteboards at the front of the room, and now I have the skater boys’ attention. “Dude, that’s awesome!” Everyone means well, but I’m more of a spectacle, not someone who’s desired. Their gaze still rests on the preppy girls who say they wish they had my hair, but I don’t believe them. My confidence retracts into puffy pigtails, then braids. At least hair extensions lay on my shoulders and across my back.
I despise the dark hair on my arms, so I shave it off. Boys like smooth, unblemished skin. If I can’t change the color, I can alter how it feels. I take care of the sideburns too, along with the little hairs sprouting from under my chin. Mom writes that it runs in the family. All my aunties are hairy. Comforting, but this is high school.
By college, I want everyone to think my wigs are real. Summer break brings many changes, but everyone wonders about my hair’s mysterious growth except my black resident advisor. I wait for roommates to go home on the weekends, then hang it on the bedpost to let my head breathe, cornrows exposed. When I meet my future husband four years later, I tell him the truth. “Whatever makes you feel free”, he says. That was beauty for him.
I ask myself what those letters riddled with hair care meant. I think my mother knew how it began. If it didn’t start with the color of my skin, it would start with my hair. It’s all connected. The need to disappear and become someone else, shunning every option to love myself.
I sit in my salon chair. I’ve settled on a new hair-do that’s shaved on my right side around the back, and full of my natural hair on the left, two extremes, my personal tug of war. My mother dislikes that it shows the scalp rolls at the base of my head. I did for some brief time, too. She combs through my wet and relaxed hair, then inquires before styling like she’s known my track record all these years, “Do you want it curled up or blow-dried white girl straight?”