I have two relationships with the outside world: One is with my hair, and the other is with the rest of me. Sure, I have concerns and points of pride with my body. I like the curve of my butt but dislike my powerhouse thighs. My breasts, once considered too small, have been proclaimed perfect so often that not only am I starting to believe the hype, but also am booking my next vacation to a topless resort in Greece. But my hair. Oh, my hair.
I have reddish brown dreadlocks that fall just below shoulder length. Eventually, they will cover my aforementioned breasts, at which time I will give serious thought to nude modeling at my local art school. I like my hair–a lot. But over the last eight years my dreadlocks have conferred upon me the following roles: rebel child, Rasta mama, Nubian princess, drug dealer, unemployed artist, rock star, world-famous comedienne, and nature chick. None of which is true. It has occurred to me more than once that my hair is a whole lot more interesting than I am.
Because I am a black woman, I have always had a complicated relationship with my hair. Here’s a quick primer on the politics of hair and beauty aesthetics in the black community vis-à-vis race and class in the late 20th century: “Good” hair is straight and, preferably, long. Think Naomi Campbell. Diana Ross. For that matter, think RuPaul. “Bad” hair is thick and coarse, aka “nappy,” and, often, short. Think Buckwheat in The Little Rascals. Not the more recent version, but the old one in which Buckwheat looked like Don King’s grandson.
Understand that these are stereotypes: broad and imprecise. Some will say that the idea of “good” hair and “bad” hair is outdated. And it is less prevalent than in the ’70s when I was growing up. Sometimes I see little girls with their hair in braids and Senegalese twists sporting cute little T-shirts that say happy to be nappy and I get teary-eyed. I was born between the black power Afros of the ’60s and the blue contact lenses and weaves of the ’80s; in my childhood, no one seemed happy to be nappy at all.
I knew from the age of 4 that I had “bad” hair because my relatives and family friends discussed it as they might discuss a rare blood disease. “Something must be done,” they would cluck sadly. “I think I know someone,” an aunt would murmur, referring to a hairdresser as if she were a medical specialist. Some of my earliest memories are of Brooklyn apartments where women did hair for extra money. These makeshift beauty parlors were lively and loud, the air thick with the smell of lye from harsh relaxer, the smell of hair burning as the hot straightening comb did its job.
When did I first begin to desire hair that bounced? Was it because black Barbie wasn’t, and still isn’t, happy to be nappy? Was it Brenda, the redhead, my best friend in second grade? Every time she flicked her hair to the side, she seemed beyond sophistication. My hair bounced the first day back from the hairdresser’s, but not much longer. “Don’t sweat out that perm,” my mother would call. But I found it impossible to sit still. Hairdressers despaired like cowardly lion tamers at the thought of training my kinky hair. “This is some hard hair,” they would say. I knew that I was not beautiful and I blamed it on my hair.
The night I began to twist my hair into dreads, I was 19 and a junior in college. It was New Year’s Eve and the boy I longed for had not called. A few months before, Alice Walker had appeared on the cover of Essence, her locks flowing with all the majesty of a Southern American Cleopatra. I was inspired. It was my family’s superstition that the hours between New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day were the time to cast spells. “However New Year’s catches you is how you’ll spend the year,” my mother always reminded me.
I decided to use the hours that remained to transform myself into the vision I’d seen on the magazine. Unsure of how to begin, I washed my hair, carefully and lovingly. I dried it with a towel, then opened a jar of hair grease. Using a comb to part the sections, I began to twist each section into baby dreads. My hair, at the time, couldn’t have been longer than an inch. I twisted for two hours, and in the end was far from smitten with what I saw: My full cheeks dominated my face now that my hair lay in flat twists around my head. My already short hair seemed shorter. I did not look like the African goddess I had imagined. I emerged from the bathroom and ran into my aunt Diana, whose luxuriously long, straight black hair always reminded me of Diahann Carroll on Dynasty. “Well, Vickie,” she said, shaking her head. “Well, well.” I knew that night my life would begin to change. I started my dreadlocks and began the process of seeing beauty where no one had ever seen beauty before.
There are, of course, those who see my hair and still consider it “bad.” A family friend touched my hair recently, then said, “Don’t you think it’s a waste? All that lovely hair twisted in those things?” I have been asked by more than one potential suitor if I had any pictures of myself before “you did that to your hair.” A failure at small talk and countless other social graces, I sometimes let my hair do the talking for me. At a cocktail party, I stroll through the room, silently, and watch my hair tell white lies. In literary circles, it brands me “interesting, adventurous.” In black middle-class circles, I’m “rebellious” or, more charitably, “Afrocentric.” In predominantly white circles, my hair doubles my level of exotica. My hair says, “Unlike the black woman who reads you the evening news, I’m not even trying to blend in.”
For those ignorant enough to think that they can read hair follicles like tea leaves, my hair says a lot of things it doesn’t mean. Taken to the extreme, it says that I am a pot-smoking Rastafarian wannabe who in her off-hours strolls through her house in an African dashiki, lighting incense and listening to Bob Marley. I don’t smoke pot. In my house, I wear Calvin Klein nightshirts, and light tuberose candles that I buy from Diptyque in Paris. I play tennis in my off-hours and, while I love Bob Marley, I mostly listen to jazz vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Diana Krall.
Once after a dinner party in Beverly Hills, a white colleague of mine lit up a joint. Everyone at the table passed and when I passed too, the man cajoled me relentlessly. “Come on,” he kept saying. “Of all people, I thought you’d indulge.” I shrugged and said nothing. As we left the party that night, he kissed me good-bye. “Boy, were you a disappointment,” he said, as if I had been a bad lay. But I guess I had denied him a certain sort of pleasure. It must have been his dream to smoke a big, fat spliff with a real live Rastafarian.
As much as I hate to admit it, I’ve been trained to turn my head to any number of names that aren’t mine. I will answer to “Whoopi.” I will turn when Jamaican men call out “Hey, Rasta” on the street. I am often asked if I am a singer, and I can only hope that I might be confused with the gorgeous Cassandra Wilson, whose dreadlocks inspired me to color my hair a jazzy shade of red. Walking through the streets of Marrakesh, I got used to trails of children who would follow me, trying to guess which country I came from. “Jamaica!” they would shout. “Ghana! Nigeria!” I shook my head no to them all. They did not believe me when I said I was from America; instead, they called me “Mama Africa” all day long. It’s one of my favorite memories of the trip.
Once, after the end of a great love affair, I watched a man cut all of his dreadlocks off and then burn them in the backyard. This, I suspect, is the reason that might tempt me to change my hair. After all, a broken heart is what started me down this path of twisting hair. Because I do not cut my hair, I carry eight years of history on my head. One day, I may tire of this history and start anew. But one thing is for sure, whatever style I wear my hair in, I will live happily–and nappily–ever after.