My hair is getting longer. And it’s complicated.
And it is a complicated thing, my hair.
Not because it is hard to wash (it is).
Or because it shifts and morphs based on the moisture in the air (it does).
But because it’s enmeshed with my identity. It has been since I was a little girl.
I can intellectualize it, hair. I have. At Princeton “respectability politics” took up a large part of my independent work. Black women would straighten their hair, thinking that it would make the world treat them a little better. Treat them a little closer to white women, a little closer to basic human kindness. And Black men would encourage this. The hair straightening. The respectability. The fight to prove humanity by changing the things that were distinctly human for them.
And if you want to read about this you can. Maxine Leeds Craig has a great book on it. But I’m thinking about my experience a lot lately. My experience with hair.
My mother would do my hair every day. I would have to be in her bathroom at a certain time each morning and she would smooth it, put it in ponytails and braids and such with little barrettes. I remember how tender-headed I was, how much this hurt. How bad it hurt when I’d go to my grandma’s for cornrows. Sometimes when I got cornrows, I didn’t feel like a little girl anymore. I’d be afraid that people would think I was a little boy. Maybe because the girls at my pre-school never had cornrows. And later in elementary school, I felt new fears, fears about my hair when it wasn’t cornrowed. I used to be scared that people would think my dad was kidnapping me when we were out in public, just the two of us (my dad is white). Kids in elementary school used to make a big fuss out of it when he came to pick me up. That’s your dad? they would say. That was my father. And these were my cornrows that my grandma had braided— my grandma who I have only ever seen in a wig, and this is my hair, now, getting longer.
Back in pre-school, I got ringworm. I have a lot of vivid memories of childhood, but very vivid ones about sickness especially. The flu. Throwing up in the same bowl we used for popcorn sometimes. Sierra mist. A dislocated elbow. Laying between Mother and Father for the night with it contorted on the pillow. The ringworm. The ringworm didn’t hurt. I don’t remember the discomfort. I don’t remember an itch. But I do remember my mother’s horror because the ringworm was on my scalp. I think I had gotten it from a hat from a girl named Emily. We were playing dress up — I was dressing up in her clothes, I was trying to look like her, maybe. And she gave me ringworm, or so my Mother suspected. Strongly.
And the hair fell out — some hair fell out, and I had a little bald spot at three. My mother took care of the hair around the bald spot meticulously. And eventually it went away. And I was back in her bathroom, every morning getting my hair done. With little beads sometimes. When I started ballet, we’d slick my hair back into a bun every day. I couldn’t get cornrows often anymore. Just during long breaks. And in elementary school she straightened my hair for pictures. And I felt proud that it was so long. I felt like I was proving something to the kids in my class. I felt like I was proving that I was a girl. That I could be pretty. That I was like the others, that maybe the boys could have a crush on me because they saw that my hair was long too and could be straight. When I learned how to straighten it myself, I did often.
The first time I remember straightening my hair myself was one morning before picture day. I was late to my mother’s bathroom. She was not happy. Do it yourself, she said. I tried to do it myself. It sizzled. It was still wet and I felt the heat travel up to the scalp and I flinched. It hurt. And I did a half-done job and my Mother finished it even though she said she wouldn’t because it was picture day and we were proving something together.
When I was doing pageants really seriously, I straightened my hair every day. I would work out for two hours after ballet and sweat out my roots, I had to.
In middle school I would save my best outfits for the days I straightened my hair. And in high school, at the end, when I was doing pageants really seriously, I would remind myself that I had to go to school looking like the type of girl who was doing pageants. I was always trying to prove something to everybody. Everybody else. Everybody. And I straightened it so much that it stopped being long.
It had gotten really long during my first summer in New York. I was here for a summer intensive with Dance Theater of Harlem. It was my first time dancing with other Black dancers. I ate more food, I got more sun, I used the muscles in my thighs while dancing without feeling shame, and my hair grew so much, got so long during that single summer and I got back to Kansas and stopped using those leg muscles and started eating less and started straightening my hair and being ashamed again.
So when I was doing pageants and straightening it often, it started to singe off at the ends. And I had extensions. Gaudy extensions. I didn’t know how to use them. they were a part of a sponsor package. And there are stories. Stories I’m saving for the novel (maybe), stories about contestants that made me feel shame (I just gave one of them a raya referral because I am nice I am too nice and I am working on that), I’m saving all of the pageant stories for the novel, I am trying to at least. But the hair. I could pretend to have long hair. With the extensions. Gaudy as they were. But without the extensions people were asking me if I’d gotten it cut.
And my friend who I love and fight with like a sister showed me how to do my hair when I was 20. But I still straightened it a lot. Because the curls were weird, they were crooked and lifeless and I was ashamed that I had killed them. That I had singed them off and killed them. And I got to a bad spot one November — a bad spot about a lot of things and I stopped straightening it. That was the last time I’d straightened it. And it is curly and long. It is getting very long. But even depending on the type of curly, I can tell how people are going to treat me. I can anticipate who will catcall me, let their eyes linger for an extra second, depending on how I wear my hair. And when I’m with friends, when it’s during a night out, it feels harmless. When I am alone it’s scary. And I think about the little girl trying to prove something when I wore my hair straight. I don’t know who I was trying to prove my length, my beauty, my girlness too. Was it primal? Was I like a horse trying to show that I was healthy? Should I have let them get a good look at my teeth too? Hilary Levey Friedman writes that we put on makeup in the imitation of arousal because attraction in this way is very primal, but I don’t think the hair is about that. Not for me.
Because white women compliment my hair all the time. I know they will on days that it’s biggest, on days that it’s curliest. I know that when I wear my hair in flexirods, a surprising amount of Black men will ask me if I have locs. I know if I go on a date with a white man and he comments on my hair, he has probably dated a Black woman before (and I will momentarily wonder if I’m being fetishized, but I am trying so hard to be less cerebral, too many people have called me cerebral lately). But the only things that make me feel validated are the comments I get from Black women. I love when I’m on the phone with my mother and she talks about my hair. When she tells me that it’s getting long.
And my Great-great Aunt who passed away a couple of years ago (it still doesn’t feel like she’s gone) always had her hair in these little rollers if she wasn’t wearing a little hat, so that her Black-Grey, wispy hair would fall in curls around her eyes. She had eyes that were always lively and looked curious. A little mischievous too, even at the end. And she had a boyfriend. Right up to the end. He always called me Hailey Denise, never just Hailey (He passed shortly after she did). And I was at her bedside at a hospital back home in Kansas. And I really thought she would get better. I know she was older, but she had so much life in those eyes. She had trouble breathing in the bed. And she couldn’t get comfortable. My mother was there, too, but she’d stepped out for a bit to get the nurse.
She’d raised my mother for a bit, my Great-great Aunt. They fought, but they really loved each other. They fought the way people who really love each other only can. And when my Mother stepped out, my Great-great Aunt looked at me and caught her breath for a moment and she looked at me and said two words:
And these were her last words to me.
My mother came back in. The nurse was there now too. They were trying to make her more comfortable. And I had just washed my hair, I think. It was curly. Long, but not as long as it is now. And I looked away as my mother and the nurse tried to make her more comfortable because the hospital gown slipped up and I could see some of her upper thigh, a part of her I’d never seen, even when I was little, when I used to go to her house after school and eat cheese and crackers and she’d take me to the park. One time I got stuck in one of those little cup-looking seats that spin. And she got me out. I don’t remember how, but she did. I was in a bad spot and she got me out. And now she was in one and I couldn’t look.
And if my hair straightening, my hair growing, even the en masse hair straightening of the post-reconstruction era is an effort to prove our own humanity, to earn kindness, then don’t we have it backwards? Isn’t humanity a little upper thigh in a hospital bed? Isn’t it getting stuck in a cup at the playground? Isn’t it shame? Isn’t being human inherently shameful? I think I’m beginning to understand this. I think I’m beginning to embrace the shame. I think about cutting my hair sometimes. It’s getting longer. It’s heavy. But I just need to figure out if I like it. If it’s comfortable. If I like how it feels on my head. I’ve never thought about it like that before.
The feeling of the hair on my head.