“To tell the truth is to become beautiful, to begin to love yourself, value yourself. And that’s political, in its most profound way.” — June Jordan
I come from a culture, it is said, somewhere between where the Ganges meets the Nile, converging with European colonialists, Chinese, Syrians and indigenous people. Where girls slicked their hair back with petroleum jelly and water — cinching cinnamon buns wound close and pulled tight with woogies. Where box-plaits were common and traditionally, you got braids for carnival, even my East-Indian, white and black mixed friend whose hair I’d done, tightly winding the ends with tiny rubber-bands. Her father hated them, she told me — hated how it looked when she plaited up her hair. And my curly haired primary school friend: a Trini ‘Spanish’ — every swivel of her head echoing with the clack of snap fasteners and aluminum foil on the ends down her back.
In secondary school, rebellious girls shaved half the underside of their heads — it was a way to be definitively edgy then. And more than one East-Indian girl came into her own by loping off the long, dark strands she’d been waiting to remove. Many of them, never looked back. Some girls permed their hair straight; some were life long naturals like me. Some of those naturals permed then when natural again — some stayed natural, adding length in locks, in nattys: coiling, clumping, unbridled, twisting, spiraling across shoulders, down lower backs.
Our heads once smelled like Luster’s pink oil, Let’s Jam! pudding and African Pride products. We pulled brushes from school book-bags and dipped them under the tap before dragging them across our scalps and flaked black gel buildup from our tresses. We leaked jheri-curl juice onto the top of our blouse collars and maintained dry-curls and glittered finger waves. We learnt about “weave-ons” and sat still with our selves, quietly dancing fingers around and around to put our hair in corkscrew twists.
We traded in banana clips, barrettes, the sharp teeth of tortoise shell hair combs and baubles; and sported bandeaus, bandanas wrapped around buns and metal hair clips made famous by those girls tumbling through the air at the Olympics on TV, instead. Once upon a time, our mothers slow-rubbed Dax grease into our roots, coated strands with coconut oil and wove colored woolies into plaits and styled them to match uniforms. They burnt and sewed the edges of our hair bows so they wouldn’t unravel — and when they did, we ran the length of school yards in vain, searching for them like lost dreams in the breeze.
I went to a lady in Tunapuna to get epic canerows — the first time I smelled that unique alchemy of relaxer on someone else — how it filled the room and nostrils, how you don’t ever really forget it. Or the rhythmic pat-pat-pat of my friends’ fingers on scalps that will soon be permed. I dyed my hair with kool-aid, more than once. Back then, we knew who to call “picky-head,” understood why “greng grengs” needed taming and grew to warp beauty with hair, hair with beauty. We knew a natural blonde could turn heads walking through Port of Spain — they were as rare as winged unicorns. There was a particular stylist all the Indian and other silky haired friends in the East went to — and only that kind of hair. Got my first press out in Tunapuna too and watched my hair recoil afterwards, engorged like a stomach after Sunday lunch, with the moisture laden island air.
In Guyana, they used to say, cut your hair on a full moon, preferably, but don’t ever throw it away. Bury it in some earth. These are the things my mother told me. These are the things I forgot. When I cut my hair up to my ears as an undergrad in Miami, on a whim, with paper scissors, I tossed the pieces in the trash. Somewhere in a landfill, my hair became one with the maggots and the topsoil.
We lost ourselves. We found ourselves along the way. Some never strayed from what they knew — whatever that was. If it eh broke, you don’t need to fix it. If you thought you did and didn’t like it, you could always wheel and come again. We are a nation with few hair secrets, they say. None of it is sacred. Ask an Indian about canerow, find a white girl who is not familiar enough to know about relaxers and straightening. Who doesn’t know a janx from a full-on ras?
This is the hair culture from whence I’ve come.
The natural hair culture is different and nuanced in the states in many different ways. Some aspects of it, I can connect to and value very much. The whole notion of a self (hair) that has to be validated is a fascinating evolution to see unfold, because in my hair culture, I wasn’t so much a voyeur, as a part of the machine — a cog, and I just moved — not knowing it had to be a thing because that’s all I ever knew.
This video below is currently circulating online and while I think he makes some wonderful assertions:
It’s also heterocentrist and presumes all the natural-haired women who need reassurance need it mainly, if not solely, to appease men. He’s easy on the eyes, it’s a nice sentiment, true — ergo, this video will probably be very popular and do well in sparking and shifting any existing, constructive hair culture discourse to something revolving around what men like and are attracted to. Fuck kudos from a dude — how do you feel about your own natural hair? And do you like it?
Centering men around black women’s hair, (even for women with seemingly legitimate conundrums about the men in their lives hair tastes) hardly seems like the best decentralizing point. Hair culture and black women’s hair culture is complex, everywhere. We’re all dealing with similar and same constructs, fighting against same and similar structural forces at once. The power to resist, to reclaim, to revisit entrenched notions of hair and beauty must, I think, ultimately, come from women themselves. And overall, it must center women as agents and wielders of that power.
I am interested in reworking, reframing and paying careful attention to the various ways in which femininity, the feminine and femmeness has been indoctrinated inside my cultural and lived experiences, (and while not all of it is bad or problematic) and I have come to terms with how femininity and femmeness function as a large part of my being and that includes the lessons and messages about hair. This includes the hair culture that I carry with me, in me and on my head. The kinks from my scalp don’t define me entirely but lest a day came when I forgot, they’d tell more than I’d ever need to know about myself. My hair is one part of finding my way back to home and love.