When I was a child, someone spit in my hair. And I don’t mean sprinkles. Nope, I mean a big, fat, gross loogie. I was standing with my mother at the corner of Jerome Avenue and Fordham Road, right under the 4 train, when my mother looked up and started cursing and yelling in Spanish. Someone had spit their glob of phlegm into the tracks and because the train is elevated on Fordham Road, the tracks were right above where people walked.
Where we were walking.
“¡Animales! ¡Sucios!” My mother was horrified. She pulled out a tissue and tried to wipe it from my curls. I reached back to see what had fallen in my hair.
“No! Don’t touch it!”
When she washed my hair that night, I remember her gagging as she washed my hair twice. Her fingers rubbed shampoo into my scalp in soapy swirls, combed through my hair with her fingers with such vigor that my head pulled back with her movements. She washed and re-washed my hair as if the loogie would somehow leave an imprint, leave a residue I wouldn’t be able to get rid of.
“Your hair is your crown, so you always keep it clean, Imani, okay? Y cuidado con el mal de ojo que te mira a su corona, okay?”
When she finished washing my hair, she rubbed coconut oil into the strands and braided it. I remember hating when my mother combed my hair.
Now, I ask her to comb and braid my hair every chance I get.
The great majority of the men that I have loved have had facial hair. I blame my father.
My father’s beard was always a part of him. In fact, I don’t recall seeing his chin until I was a young adult. It was always long, thick, and as he got older, became a salt-and-pepper identifier. It was how I defined maleness as a child. He had a beard and that meant that he was un hombre, he was in charge, he was strong and would love and protect me. My father was all of those things and I suppose in some weird psychological way, my subconscious still defines facial hair as being attached to maleness, to love, to safety.
My father doesn’t have a beard anymore. He lives in Florida now, where the humidity makes his face itch if he has too much facial hair. He doesn’t like the way his beard smells in that kind of humidity. He’s used all kinds of face washes and fragrant beard oils, but something about Florida humidity affects his beard. He shaved it off and hasn’t had a beard since he’s lived down there.
Florida made my father a different man in a lot of ways. He has always been a man in movement, doing something, creating something….a man as rhythmic as the congas he can’t live without playing. He tells me he can’t take the pace of New York anymore, can’t live through the cold winters and ice and snow that hurt his bones and make his joints ache. But warm, humid Florida has slowed him down a bit, though the congas are always and will always be there. His rhythm is now just a slow clave compared to the bomba of his youth.
When he shaved his beard, I knew things would be different.
I rarely straighten my hair. I can’t stand the smell of salon in my hair, the mixture of shampoo and burnt hair. I can’t stand the length of time, close to two or three hours, that I have to spend in the salon. Because I am not a regular at any salon, I feel uncomfortable around women who chat as if they’ve known each other for years. I become fidgety. I hate sitting under the hair dryer for hours. And then when I leave the salon, I hate having to worry about rain or humidity making the silkiness of my straightened hair turn into frizz and poof.
I prefer my hair curly. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to do something different with my hair, but I look at my senior picture for high school and ask myself, why did I always think straightening my hair meant something special? To look at my high school yearbook, you’d think I always wore my hair straight when I didn’t. People remember my curls, the straightening was for the picture. Because it was a “special day.”
When I became an adult and began looking for work, people recommended I pin up my hair or straighten it because it was more “professional.” Curls were deemed too wild, too unreliable.
I suppose I prefer to be wild.
I have clear memories of my mother relaxing her hair. Mami would sit in a wooden kitchen chair, towel draped around her shoulders as her best friend from next door, Lucy, would coat sections of my mother’s hair with white cream that looked like paint. Lucy would make sure every strand was coated in the white paint which smelled yummy until it started taking a hold of my mother’s hair. Then it smelled funky, like if it was burning her.
They would chat while they waited for the burn smell. When Mami would start reaching for her hair, poking fingers into her cream-covered scalp, Lucy would help her wash it out as she bent over the bathtub, using a plastic cup that had a handle and a picture of the Simpsons on it. Then, Lucy would take big plastic rollers and Mami would sit and wince as Lucy tightened each roller so that no piece of hair was crinkled. She would sit under the dryer for hours until her hair was dry and then she would take out her rollers. She would blow dry the roots and then do a doobie, wrapping the hair around her head and covering it with a silk scarf she used specifically for her hair. Only then would she be able to do anything else, which was usually just go to bed.
The process would take hours of her night. It would be planned. This had to be scheduled into her week. My father always hated it, says he prefers her hair natural, kinky, big. I remember chapters of my life where Mami had her natural texture and it always looked just like she said, una corona. When I tell her that Dad prefers her natural hair, she smiles at first, the kind of smile that makes you think of a young girl being wooed, but then she scoffs that “Ay plis!” reaction she is a master of.
“These aren’t afro days….we’re not in the 70’s anymore, Imani. Your father has no idea what it was like with his straight hair. It’s not as simple for me.”
My mother has a short haircut now, cropped close to her head, and her hair is evenly silvered, the kind of gray I hope to inherit. She says it’s much easier to manage than before.
The first time I ever straightened my hair I was 12 years old. My mother took me to the salon when she had to do her hair. When they washed my hair, they pushed and pulled and yanked at my hair with a detangling comb. My neck hurt with each yank. The lady, chatting with her friends the entire time, cut my hair with sharp shiny scissors. My mother, who had been getting her own hair washed, walked up and spoke harshly in Spanish to the woman who had cut my hair. She hadn’t asked for my hair to be cut, let alone that much. The lady apologized, offered a portion of the bill to be taken off. Infuriated, my mother sat to get her hair put into rollers.
The woman put my hair into rollers, pinning them in with metal hair clips. I had never been to a salon before, so I did as I was told. This was supposed to be like this, the metal clips poking me in the head. I sat under the dryer and waited. At first, it wasn’t that bad. As the metal clips became hot, I could feel their imprint in my head. I sat there, thinking to myself that this is what women must do all the time and all I had to do was get used to it. I cringed and squirmed, put my hand under the hairnet to lift some of the clips. The woman saw what I was doing and scolded me, told me my hair wouldn’t dry right if I moved it again.
So, I sat there, legs bouncing up and down because I was so scared to move and ruin the rollers. I knew my mother was paying for my hair. I didn’t want to get anyone upset. So, I sat there for what seemed like an eternity, feeling the burning but thinking to myself that I just wasn’t used to this, this is what getting your hair done felt like. Eventually, about 2 hours later, I was crying. The pain was too much for me to take. Mami came from under her hair dryer on the other side of the salon when the woman told her I was crying. She knelt, pulled the hood off of my head, and comforted me.
“What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” she asked.
“It hurts, Mami. My head hurts!”
She untied the hairnet, and began pulling out the rollers one by one. When she realized that the woman had used metal hair clips, she balked. The woman said she didn’t realize I was so soft-headed and my mother’s eyes bulged in fury.
“¿La quemas y dices que es ella?” she stared at the woman. “You must be crazy.”
The woman used her blow dryer on high to finish my hair. I cried every time the roller brush with metal bristles grazed the burned tender spots on my scalp. My mother sat there, watching, her hair not done, her face ruby red with rage.
When the woman asked to be paid, my mother told me to put on my jacket and wait outside. Before I walked out, I heard my mother say, “Tienes suerte de no hacerte daño ahora mismo, m’ija. You’re not getting my money for burning her. I won’t be coming back here.”
Mami tells me that they didn’t try to stop her. I had huge patches of scabs on my scalp from the burns for months.
I didn’t get my hair straightened again until I was a senior in high school.
It took me years to find hair products that helped my hair texture. I spent a great majority of my adolescence putting basura in my hair in hopes of taming my curls. I am considerably low maintenance when it comes to my hair as I hate the salon and I’ve only dyed my hair once in my entire life. Once I realized how much work it would take to maintain the color, I vowed I wouldn’t color my hair until I get much older and begin to really gray. I don’t have the thick, coarse texture of my mother so the products for her hair weighed my hair down and made it flat. I don’t have the thick, straight texture my father has, so the products made for that texture hair never helped with frizz or hold and left my hair feeling like straw.
I found products finally that worked with my texture curl. Shea Moisture. And for some time, it was my go-to. I would hunt for bargains in the “ethnic” hair aisles, haggle over prices in beauty supplies, cut coupons even. I remember not even being able to find it anywhere for some time when I first started using their products. As the brand became more and more popular, I was happy because I knew it would be easier to find.
Then, they dropped the ad.
In the ad they released, they were no black women that helped make the brand what it is represented at all. A Latina looking woman and two white women. Look, the reality is that people should use whatever works for their hair texture, whatever race they are. If Shea Moisture works for a red-head with curls, then so be it. The problem is not white girls using Shea Moisture or even white girls in the ad. The problem is that they stripped the ad of the very customer base that made them what they are, the very customer base that supported it when it wasn’t as popular and wasn’t as easy to find.
This isn’t about inclusiveness at all. This is about erasure.
I told myself I could still use the products and not feel bad, because their products work with my hair and blah, blah, blah. But my spirit wouldn’t let me relax. How can I fight against the erasure of people of color and use products that did that very thing? Perhaps, to some, the conversation about hair, stories about hair politics and so forth, seems frivolous. But the whole Shea Moisture situation is what made me think of these stories of my mother and father and myself. The way that experiences with hair have shaped parts of my memory, of my identity.
It’s just a small piece of the puzzle though.