My beautiful niece, you are already the rainbow’s source of light. You are certainly the bloody battle. You don’t like your hair and that worries me. It worries me that already at six years tender, you are so conscious of a standard of beauty that I fear was never meant to favor you. A standard you will find accommodates very few people of our color.
When I was younger, your grandmother had a rule that I could not get my hair chemically relaxed until I was at least twelve/thirteen, so until then it was in its natural state. Coarse, tangled and wildly disobedient. I found comfort in braids, much the same as you do now, but my mother also had a rule that we had to occasionally let our hair breathe. This meant after a month of three-strand braids or twists, I would have at least a week’s cooling-off period in which she would do protective styles at night before I went to sleep, and leave me to decide what I wanted to do with it during the day. I loathed the combing sessions. I remember wincing and squirming in my seat. Letting out the occasional Ouch mommy! followed by my fingers rubbing fiercely against my scalp; a look of frustration coming over me as I began to regret living. It felt like torture, and it was only after many, many years that I realized how tormented my mom must have felt as well. She had no choice but to learn how to braid hair and do cornrows because going to hair salons to your mom, your auntie Nyiha and me, was like marathon running to fish- it just wasn’t meant to be. So I can only imagine what it took for your cucu (grandmother) to psych herself up for the intense and arduous task of doing her children’s hair. A mountain of resistance exhausting every ounce of patience she had on reserve. But you know what, she did. And each Ouch mommy! that escaped my mouth was met with a sorry baby and a little pause, and somehow we got through it.
When I was in the sixth grade I moved to a new school. I did not know anyone yet and during one of my very first break times, I remember dragging my feet and trying to waste what time I could in the classroom so I would not have to sit alone outside. My hair happened to be breathing, so that day I’d decided to go to school with my hair in a ponytail. Naturally, it did not lay flat and smooth like the Caucasian girls’ hair in my class, spilling effortlessly over their shoulders and down their backs. It was spongy and the resisting coils fought for height. The puffy tufts shot through the other side of the hair tie, sticking up in defiance. As I stood in the classroom, fishing through my bag for my snacks, I noticed two white boys standing a few desks down, studying my features.
“Look at her hair. What’s wrong with it?” Boy A spoke with such disgust.
“It looks so ugly.” Boy B opined.
“Mmm, she’s not pretty.” Boy A concurred.
I was devastated. I knew then that lonely would have been better than the alternative I’d unwittingly chosen. In that moment I lamented my ethnicity, my culture and my difference. I took their words to be definition of my appeal as a young girl. I was ugly, my hair- abominable. That was that! I decided from that point forward, never again would I let them see me with my hair out. Braids City, population: Me.
Your mother told me a couple months ago that you cried and begged to stay home from school because your hair was undone. You did not even want to get out of the car at the grocery store because you feared the harsh, anticipated words of strangers offended by your afro. As you know now, I know just what that feels like. Many other black girls and women do too. But, my baby, it is not yours to own that another being should pass judgment on your value in the world, substantiated by archaic dogma. You stem from a line of people who were denigrated and demoralised so severely for our features, it has taken decades if not centuries to learn how to appreciate our own reflections. That is why I say you are the bloody battle. Because wars were fought for you, sweet child. Men and women shed blood so you could celebrate who you are without regard for someone else’s subjective opinion. So you could walk proudly into any grocery store, or sit in your classroom confident that you own the standard of beauty by which you choose to live. That the criteria are set by you and for you to celebrate YOU!
You remark on the growth of my dreadlocks every time you see them: “Auntie Gendo, they’ve grown. They’re growing!”
I laugh because I’m excited that you’re excited to see something different that our texture of hair is capable of. You see, baby, it took me standing in front of the mirror, straightener in hand, watching strands of my relaxed hair fall out with each stroke to realize I was honoring the wrong person. I was trying to emulate someone who would never be a representative of my heritage, my community or my struggle. So I cut my hair. I started over and I blocked out any person who dared tell me I was not in my element. But I still hated the combing and protective styling. So I decided to let my hair do what it had been trying to do since I was a kid- I let it lock. I embraced the coarseness, the coils and the beauty of its rebellion.
Zela, love of my life, perhaps it will help you someday to see your hair the way I see mine. It is multilayered not one-dimensional. Your hair is not just an accessory for your face; it is the story of your people. A living narrative that you should wear with pride because it is written in the blood of those you owe your dreams. Those people who were locked up for believing you deserve civil rights. The ones who chose your life over their own. Those people who I’m certain- if they could be resurrected- would say it was worth it. We cannot afford to hate a part of ourselves that is so indicative of a resilience more powerful than bullets and laws.
Sometimes I genuinely wish I could clone you for a day if only to give you the chance to see how incredible you are. So you could study your features and fall in love with the versatility of your hair. I hope that when you watch this video in your later years and read this post, you save yourself a lesson I had to learn the hard way.
Our conversations will change as you get older. But one thing will always be consistent:
That I love you more than you will ever be able to handle,