Bold Cuts – life experience story by Sylva
Trip to Puebla, Mexico, March 2001. I was disappointed. All the Mexicans were so, well, American. The clothes, music, Costco…my college experience abroad seemed like the stateside version, only dubbed over in Spanish.
While ruminating on alternative interpretations for ‘we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us’
it occurred to me that maybe I could benefit from some introspection. After all, who was I to judge when I was wearing shoulder length braids? I saw a golden opportunity to begin extricating myself from the obligations piled on to me by my family, race and culture.So, I cut my hair. I pulled out those braids and took to sporting the quintessential fade of black boys everywhere. Instantly, I was riveted by my face. What cheeks! My big eyes! My little ears! I didn’t have anything to hide behind. I was forced to face the world unapologetically. No more using my hair to make the appearance of my person less shocking or more palatable.
Going natural in another country was definitely eye-opening. When I was just black, everyone assumed I was easy; when they thought I was African, their ignorance became even more outrageous. People asked my white classmates if I was their maid and if I spoke English. At drum circles, the crowds eyed me expectantly like they were waiting for me to break out into dance. My mailman called me his ‘Jamaiquena’, his sly way of calling me African. The bright spot in all this was being approached by rural women who asked me to kiss
their babies. They told me that seeing a black person was lucky.
Once back home, my Dad schooled me on how to pick out my hair. I remember sitting in my grandma’s bathroom while he shaped it up for me. His strong hands were surprisingly gentle as he turned my head and inspected his work. There was a tenderness there that I hadn’t expected. I remember feeling grateful because I knew he feared for my future – he told me when I dumped my business major that I would be a pauper – and I could sense that he was hoping this would all be a phase. (Then I got a nose ring! Poor Pop.)
I broke so many picks trying to get my hair into a neat Afro! Even as I fought it, I was fascinated by its boisterousness. It grew in thick and kinky. It corkscrewed tightly and the kinks had this boiiing quality that was just too cute! I didn’t know my hair could do that! By fall 2002 it had started to loc up on its own. I marveled at how pieces seemed to bond together over night. My hair had a mind of its own!
The pictures during this time period are particularly telling: my family members look at times scared of, chagrined and bewildered by my natural ‘do. I’ll take responsibility—my hair was unruly. My locs were like raging pond fronds! My grandma caught me getting out of the shower one day and just let me have it. “Oooh!” she said, scrunching up her face and shuddering, “Your hair looks terrible! Terrrrible!”. I can forgive her only because she was a Sagittarius and they’ve been known to speak without thinking. Eventually, I did cut my hair. I didn’t know of any locticians or natural hairstylists in Seattle and I didn’t know what to do with it anymore. I took the shears to my fat, matted locs and cut. Then I dyed it Red Hot Mary.It was a cute color but it dried up my hair immediately. The little kinks I loved so much stopped boiiinging. The hair at the root became brittle. It truly hurt my heart to see. That was the first time I understood the effect of chemicals on my hair. The price for a seemingly benign pleasure was an irreplaceable quality that was uniquely mine.
For the next two years, I let my hair grow out again—but this time with more guidance! I washed and oiled it, brushed and parted it, braided and twisted it. Bantu knots were my favorite hairstyle. I arranged them in a diamond pattern all over my scalp. I always got so many compliments when I wore my hair this way. People thought I went to a stylist but it was all DIY. After a couple days, I undid the knots and finger combed the curls into a wavy afro. Talk about hot! At the dawn of the century, I was confident and on my own. My look matched my sassy walk and reflected my willingness to try new things.
In 2006, I officially loc’ed up. My hair was about an inch and half long when I got started. I went to a new stylist in Seattle’s Central District and she twisted me right up! My hair took to the process easily. It was pretty simple: wash, roll and dry. (I maintained my hair myself because I had a weakness for shoes and purses.) When it was long enough, I braided my locs to get a wave or rolled them up to get curls.
Ten years into nappiness, I have developed a rhythm and relationship with my natural ‘do. It feels good to feel the stubby twists as I wash them and to let my fingers discover new growth. My hair is no longer a burden to me. My roots don’t embarrass me. I don’t have to drive an hour to the next city where all the black hairstylists are. Whew! Going natural is a relief in so many ways. I have to admit that going natural also facilitated another journey. It brought me back to my people. Back in sixth grade, after moving from Washington State to North Carolina, my new black peers ostracized me for “acting white”. My highwaters could be overlooked, apparently, but my straight As were inexcusable. I refused to dumb down and took refuge in Latino culture, excelling in Spanish class and watching Siempre en Domingo on Univision.
Throughout high school and college I kept a wary distance from other blacks.Going natural gave me the courage to face the community who had rejected me in my youth. Hadn’t my hair forgiven me all those years of hotcombs and relaxers? When I took an attitude of curiosity towards myself and withheld judgment, my hair and self-esteem flourished. It wasn’t hard to see that black people responded to internalized oppression in the same way our hair responded to heat and chemicals: by becoming brittle, broken off imitations of images that didn’t sync with who we truly are. I decided to give my people the same chance my hair had given me. Over the years, I have built enduring relationships with beautiful, authentic and empowering people who have appreciated my features and valued our common histories. They understand my struggle and can encourage and nourish me because they are doing the same. All the while, my locs have matured and grown down my back.If there is one thing I’d tell black women, it would be to go natural at least once. If you chose to do chemicals again, then at least you will be making an informed decision. Whatever you choose, getting to know yourself at the root is a priceless undertaking. – Sylva, May 2011
To read more about Sylva, check out her blog Blackroot in Bloom.