My hair, my choice, my identity

I have been reading with anger and disbelief of children and young people being punished for their black hair. My disbelief is that in this modern age we are still having these conversations. Isn’t it about time that certain parts of society stopped the black-hair shaming? These news articles took me back to my reading of ‘Don’t touch my hair’ by Emma Dibiri last year, and from that memories of earlier personal experiences jumped into my head. This weekend I sat with my beautiful older sister reminiscing and all sorts of pieces fell into place of how society has influenced notions of black hair.

I have written previously about an early memory of my first days at school and telling my mum I wanted to be white like all the other children that surrounded me. One of the greatest wishes for me at that time was that I had long ‘swishy’ hair like my friends at school. I wanted hair that you could style high up on your head in a bun, or with a pony tail that moved of its own volition from side-to side, or fell in long waves down your back. I looked with envy at those girls seeing their confidence as they tossed their hair over their shoulders, or expertly tied it up with bright-coloured ribbons. It looked so…pretty. In my mind at that time my hair was a boring ugly mass – a black static frizz that did nothing but cause pain. This pain was dolled out everyday by my mum. She would either clamp my older sister first, then me between her thighs and use the ‘Denman’ brush with its solid unyielding teeth to pull our hair into submission. Or we would be sat on one of the hard wooden dining chairs with the red vinyl cushion, the seat of torture at those times, with one of mum’s hands holding our head still to stop our squirming and the other holding the brush to rake our hair and its knots relentlessly. I remember the feeling that my hair was being torn from my scalp. The tears would flow, and I would put my hand on my head to see if blood also flowed as it felt like it should. This act would be rewarded with that instrument of torture scraping the skin of my soft brown hand instead, or my mum would slap at it chastising me to be still. Eventually I learned not to wiggle but to submit as the pain was over quicker. My hair would be scraped into a round unmoving bump at the back of my head with an elastic band, or held down by Kirby grips – tamed, at least for that moment in time. The throbbing soreness of the attack on my scalp lasted a while, at least until I got to school but by then the mass of my hair had made a bid for freedom from its constraints and would have began to stick up in strange shapes from my head.

My sister and I had the pick of some amazing dressing-up clothes. I think now that they were my mum’s old clothes really but I loved to dress up. I remember the heavy blue silk kimono with flowers and birds embroidered as an embellishment on the back and the long draping sleeves. Mum had been given it from an employer from her cleaning job I think, and used it as a dressing gown for a while before we discovered it. We also dressed up in her wedding dress – I cringe now at the irreverent way we treated such a special garment with its little seed-pearls covering the white-lace frothiness. We tripped on and ripped the hem, we draped it through dust and grime as we imagined ourselves queens going to grand balls. On our feet we would wear the fur fronted wooden-soled mule slippers that my mum had also been given, clip-clopping in some imagined dance. My favourite item however was a full petticoat of purple and pink tiered net. It was seldom used for its intended purpose, instead I would bend forwards pulling the tiny-waisted skirt so it sat around my head. As I tossed my head back the petticoat would fall over my back, like long wavy hair in my mind. I would spend hours ‘combing’ my pretend hair – I could actually use a real comb rather than the ‘Denman’-brush-tool-of-torture. I would stand in front of the tall wardrobe with the long mirror, tossing my pretend hair like those white girls.

Talking to my sister we now understand that we shouldn’t blame our mum for the pain. As Emma Dibiri explains so beautifully in her book, the culture of how to look after black hair, to moisturise and style it was passed down generations. Such treatments and styles take time. My mum never learned this information coming from a colonised place where her ancestors had arrived as slaves. Cultural history was lost, and slaves were certainly not given the time that it takes to look after and ‘tame’ their curly hair. My mum learned from her mum instead how to brush hair whether wet or dry and to pull those knotted bits apart by force with the teeth of that tool. And my sister and I learned the same process for our own hair, but at least we could choose the force applied. When I was eleven and a half my next sister was born and we tortured her in the same way mum tortured us. However we added a whole other level of torture. She would scream and cry her way through the ritual – big snot-gurgling tears. Rather than submit as my older sister and I had, she would fight it. So to add to the torture we recorded her crying on our tape-recorder (the same one we recorded the ‘top ten’ on) and played it back to her – horrid behaviour as only sisters can dole out. I cringingly gave her a copy of that tape on her 18th birthday! As well as never having been shown how to look after our hair, we lived in a rural place where black hair products were just not available. I think the local chemist would have fainted had we turned up and made any such request!

This pain-filled battle with my hair continued through my Primary School years. People liked to pat or stroke my hair often without warning or asking permission. Grown ups would exclaim as they patted or stroked my head “Aren’t you sweet with your spongy hair”. Some of my peers would claim condescendingly that they would have liked curly hair too, and others repeated the usual jokes about velcroing me to the wall or called me Brillo-pad. My hair was a source of unhappiness for me marking out my difference. I have written before of my first eye-opening trip to a hairdresser in London. This was set out in my mind as freedom to express my identity. I opted for an Afro but my mum was disappointed in my choice and the following year she repeated the trip so that I could have my hair straightened. I hated it. The chemicals left burns on your scalp and the smell left you with smarting eyes. However as we walked out and I caught a view of myself in the shop windows I was astounded that I had straight hair. It didn’t swish like my friends but it was hanging downwards rather than outwards and upwards. I took every opportunity to look at this new version of me on the journey home thinking perhaps people would also view me differently. My mum suggested a hair net when I went up to bed, to keep it ‘nice’. I stared at myself in the mirror as I brushed my teeth. I was not as glamorous with my new bedtime headwear: more like Ena Sharples from Coronation Street than I would have liked. It took sometime to get to sleep. A small part of this was the excitement that with this new hair style would come a new identity – one that would make me blend in rather than stand out. The other cause of my sleeplessness was the soreness of my weeping scalp. However, as I finally drifted off, my mind full of the adventures of the day, I remember thinking it would all be worth it.

The first crack in my positivity about a new identity appeared as I jumped out of bed and removed Ena Sharples’ cast-off. Before I had donned that net my hair had still looked like it had as I left the hairdressers – it was shiny black and full of life reflecting my views of my young self. When I removed the night-time head gear my hair had lost its life and shine instead it sat flat on my head. I tried to tease it into life with a comb, the teeth snagging on the crusty sore wounds left by the chemical assault. It didn’t look as good as when I’d been gazing at my new image the day before, but better than my first view of the morning. I went to school with a spring in my step – a new day, a new identity. My friends reassured me that my hair looked good and one teacher commented with approval on the ‘neatness’ of my new hair style. Their approval felt good, but the second crack in my positivity appeared when we had ‘games’ in the afternoon. I loved netball, however as we played the weather decided to prove the fragility of my confidence that this new hairstyle would somehow make me more like my white friends. As the bright day turned to drizzly rain, my true curls decided that it was time to remind me that they would not be cowed. As it became wet the length of my hair shrank, and instead bulged outwards. Whilst my natural curls were tight and springy, the assault they’d experienced had singed their exuberance and what I was left with was a mix of straightness and frizz. It was neither one thing or another and I was distraught by the time I got home.

My mum tried to fix things – my hair and my heart. She used the products she had bought at the hairdressers to wash my hair and after greasing it with ‘activator’ rolled it around the big curlers that she used for her own hair, pinning them still with big black curly grips. She placed a flowery white plastic cap over those big curlers, and connected the white pipe that joined the cap to the hairdryer. She turned it onto the hot setting, and the white cap with its orange flowers expanded as the hot air was pumped in. After a short while those curly metal grips began to get hot and uncomfortable, making my crusty scalp burn. The rollers cut into my head and my ears. I pulled the cap so that my ears were free and stuck out so that I looked like a black gnome. Once I was ‘done’ – well and truly cooked – mum began to remove the curlers so that I was left with lots of strange separate coils over my head. Using her fingers under each coil, and a black comb she persuaded each curl to join to another. She was pleased with her efforts as she held up the mirror and I tried to hide my disappointment not wanting to hurt her. What stared back at me was an image of my mum – her staid older-woman hair-do was replicated on my head. So much for a new identity.

We couldn’t afford for me to go up to London to get my hair straightened very often but as I began to earn my own money I tried again. In my later teenage years, I loved punk and two-tone. I tried to get my hair straightened and cut in the same spiky hair as I saw on my peers. As I sat waiting for my appointment an image in a magazine of a black model with coloured stripes on each side of her hair jumped out. That was what I wanted – spiky hair with coloured stripes. I wanted to be like my peers: a rebel whose appearance shouted disquiet at society. The spikes didn’t stay sharp long, my hair wasn’t made that way. The sharpness softened again perhaps like my resolve for fighting the inevitability of my position in my world. I began to realise also that my fights with society weren’t the same as my white friends for whom much of their rebellion was about fashion rather than as a result of negative experiences. I also discovered that I was quite lazy when it came to looking after my hair and looks. I quickly got bored with making my hair do something in order to fit in and be the same as my peers, and I hated the feel of makeup on my face and the mask it created.

I turned instead to hairstyles which were easy to maintain and went for short cut natural hair, or later braids made with synthetic hair. The latter also involved pain too and long long days of sitting in a chair whilst someone plaited my hair into beautiful tresses. My scalp would still be sore as my hair was pulled to be joined with the synthetic, and my neck, back and bottom would ache after sitting still for 8-10 hours. I was so often told it took so long because “you have a big head”…no jokes please! The longest marathon was 12 hours when they decided to give me plaits that reached down my back to my bottom. This made me realise that I still hankered after my dream of that long swishy hair of my petticoat days. This desire was still rooted in a long held desire to fit in, to be the same rather than different to my friends. I wanted acceptance for something that would never happen – that little girl still wanted whiteness.

Times have changed. In my late 30s I decided that I no longer wanted to try and make my hair fit a white-ideal in order that I felt more like those in the majority around me. I didn’t have to protect their sensibilities by conforming to what many expected me to do to tame my offensive hair, which was so different to theirs. I spent many years growing my locs and after several years decided I wanted to look after them myself. Not everyone black or white likes them; to them I say “my hair, my choice, my identity”. I watch as many of my sisters have embraced their natural hair, and some supported their children with how to look after their natural hair to lessen the pain which I experienced in my childhood. They have access to information on how to do this through the power of the internet, something my mum never had to help her. As a result of a lack of knowledge she could not pass on this sort of wisdom to her daughters. Not all my sisters have decided that natural hair is for them – sometimes the pressure of the workplace has influenced their decision, sometimes it has been their choice because they prefer the look. It matters not – what matters is that it should be a choice for all black people to wear with pride the hair that they choose as part of their identity. It must not be used as a stick to beat conformity into them. Ignorance of how black hair grows is no excuse and the punishment must stop. Our hair, our choice, our identity.

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