Hair Journey: Part One
Tracks in the sand
In the bathroom mirror I catch my eyes and hold them. They break contact and focus on the top of my head. Hello, old friend, I mentally offer, chastened. It’s you and me again. I rub the space where before it was just skin and feel textured identity. My hair. It resists my touch, doesn’t yield under the pressure of my hand. I could almost feel it pushing back like a woman against the advances of a lover trying to win her over with cheap displays of affection to cover up a wrong.
I drop my hand and stare into my reflection’s eyes. It has every right. I haven’t really been the best partner.
My relationship to and with my hair began without me. Accounts from both my father’s and mother’s side of the family before my personal memory kicked in are about the same: it had to go.
Mom: “You should’ve been a girl, Odé, because your hair (shakes head ruefully)…. It grew so fast and (this part is lost to memory, but it amounts to the correlation of feminine projections that she wanted to get rid of)
To my mother’s credit, she single-handedly, directly managed a household with four children and two of them actually were girls. When I reached the age of seven, she religiously kept my hair short. “Caesar,” was her terse command every week to the barber. As I watched my hair fall in clumps, then float down in sparse, air-light strands outside the windows of my eyes, the sense of wistfulness and loss shrank in loc(k)-step until it, and my hair, was gone.
Mom knows best, I supposed.
Dad: (The exact words are lost in the sea of memory, but his point of view was that any decision he wanted made or done spitefully provoked its opposite in a show of weekend relegated/custodial parent power plays and were not noble)
When I became old enough to visit the barber on my own, she’d hand me the money and repeat the same command. I remember protesting against that monotonous directive, but with my baby brother in tow we’d come back freshly cut down to the scalp – every time, no exceptions. The programming took hold and ran on rails; when I started paying for my own cuts, my routine, terse request to the barber was, “Caesar.” I should probably say my barber, because to date it’s been nearly thirty years since I became a regular customer, back when he was just starting his career as a taciturn, skills-speak-for-themselves teenager looking to pay his dues. With those skills, he succeeded; Shine, owner of This Is It! barbershop in my hometown of the Southwest Bronx would nod imperceptibly and get to work.
To the credit of the hairstyle, it didn’t exactly ruin my life. With my oval-shaped head, strong jawline, naturally arched eyebrows, sloped crown and deep-set, almond-shaped eyes, I look(ed) good with it. I remember one barbershop experience: as I took a seat pre-cut in the barber’s chair, I met gazes with a young woman waiting on her turn. The eye contact was inadvertent but it caused a stiff, almost room temp-dropping rebuff of an advance I didn’t even intend. I went into a rejected, meditative state while Shine started on my hair. I came back to reality when he tapped me on the shoulder. From my peripheral vision, I could see/feel her eyes glued to me with a completely different energy as I stood up, freshly cut. I hazarded a quick glance. She wasn’t just looking, she was staring. I paid Shine and left, in a hurry to shake off the intense cognitive dissonance of being literally the same person just twenty minutes before yet being received differently. Another time I was headed home after a date. It was summer; a grown woman was standing in front of a corner store. As I walked past she looked me up and down, then straight in the eye and said: “Papí, get your car and come back.” I learned an important lesson at fifteen: hair(cuts) made an important difference to opinions.
A Caesar was also pretty functional. As an active kid, basketball courts and parks were a constant. I was into exercise as well as an active swimmer. In and out of pools at least six days a week, it paid dividends to keep my hair low because on top of slowing me down in the water, the chlorine only exacerbated the skin-related hormonal changes I was going through.
BUT: there was a singular experience that made me pivot all the way around.
That D’Angelo video.
You know the one (I’m talkin’ about, babayyy…)
The song was already good, but Untitled (How Does It Feel)’s visuals mega-boosted his career and highlighted – stole the show – his physical presence as an artist. The D’Angelo from ’95’s Brown Sugar was low-key, but ’99’s Voodoo version…
Women (forever after) drooled over what he bared from the neck down; I honed in on what I saw above the hairline. As he rotated and sang with raw, inclusive lust, his cornrows could be seen from every angle. And each rotation sang of hair…hair as self-expression. Hair as extension of personal power..and masculinity?? Up to that point hair length, or hair in general was instilled in me as being something that detracted from a male’s identity – a masculine male, in particular. It didn’t take seventeen year-old me very long to throw off my programming and write new commands. Besides, I’d had half the formula to start because my body was already fit and chiseled. Why couldn’t that story also be me? When it came time for my next visit, I jumped in that barber’s chair and said with my whole chest: “Shape up.” Shine’s brief, impassive look was the equivalent of open-mouthed shock. He put the clippers down, picked up the T-Liner and got to work.
Back in those days, African women, easily identified (here I mean no disrespect, but honestly show my past ignorance of the fact that African culture is an exhaustively distinct-yet-interconnected cultural spectrum that I lacked the skill to parse, and so conflated) by their garb and distinct, quiet gravity amidst the hustle and flow of foot traffic were a common sight on street corners in the Bronx, most especially in Harlem. Their insistent, melodic catcalls for clientele are a part of urban sidewalk history. I had been invisible to them in the past, but whenever they’d see me with my three month’s worth of hair, their eyes would narrow with interest and they’d court me with everything they had in the six seconds it took for me to pass (I never stopped; Teen Samson had shit to do).
The fall off(/out)
Yes, the experience was glorious. The throbbing sensation the first few days after getting my hair braided, the neat, tight rows standing out on my head gave me confident satisfaction. I’d find any excuse to be in the mirror to see the results. There were so many ways to do it but as an on-the-go person it was faster to skip the line, so I relied on the expertise of others instead. Like good ol’mom (on the floor at her feet, her frequent, “you just need to cut this mess off, boy” grumblings contrasting with the highly ironic fact she was even doing my hair at all, her small, firm hands fashioning the two French braids along my scalp in their tough, loving way); my dad, who swore by Luster’s Pink Lotion, a to-this-day staple on his dresser and in my childhood (he was surely one to talk: at 73, his hair still reaches his shoulders effortlessly); my aunt, to whom I would endure a three-hour round trip by bus for my cornrows when paying the professionals became too much; a then-girlfriend, who in addition to helping me relax my hair put me beneath her portable hair dryer – with rollers and everything – on a puckish whim. I came out from under it looking like Big Worm from Friday.
For all of that versatility and guidance, I missed the the overarching concept, and reality: it was one thing to manage a hairstyle and another world entirely to manage hair in general. I was like Mr. Incredible helping his kids do homework at the table: “Math is Math!”
No. No, it isn’t.
One hand is all I need to count the times I’ve grown my hair out. Despite the initial feelings of a “fresh change”, before long I’d be reminded that its upkeep was no simple task. Short forays into the hair world – three-to-six-month stays each time – were all I could muster. “Caesar,” I’d mumble to Shine, ready to see all that hard work disappear. He’d nod and get to work.
Fast forward to over a decade later: lack of proper care, common biological process and no appreciable preventative measures left my hair defenseless. The virile growth slowed. Recession steadily chipped away at my hairline until it became impossible to ignore (which is what I did at first). Shine did his best to minimize the appearance but it kept going; “It’s not a big deal,” I’d shrug to the reflection in the mirror. It really wasn’t, to me, anyway. But…
It became a big deal when I started working in public schools with elementary/middle grades. A child will tell you what’s on their mind; what/how they think, aside from the reductive emotions of hunger or boredom is understood to be largely informed by internet pop culture – the omnipresent, digital (unfit) co-parent who lets them stay up past their bedtime, vape, travel unchaperoned, twerk, drink, and assemble the rickety machinery necessary to become an ironic blend of preternaturally savvy and fundamentally helpless. Case in point, the hairline obsession got its start from memes, and the flagship representative at the time was LeBron James. The cognitive dissonance of a celebrity in the pre-prime of his athletic godhood stricken with a blue collar affliction germinated like petri dish bacterium. He became the world’s target and everyone took a shot at him, from colleagues to fans and detractors alike. And I mean, they went HARD.
Despite his fast-rising stats, LeBron unwittingly broke the code and stepped into the spotlight with more than a few hairs out of place; the internet gave him no peace.
It was unlikely he would ever visit the South Bronx school where I worked to be derided in person…
Why They Do Him Like That?
A short play
Setting: A third grade classroom, many pre-pandemic years ago
A TEACHER stands in front of a classroom of twenty third graders in various states of attention after having given instructions to said class to prep for the upcoming lesson. He looks around at the students expectantly.
Any questions on what you all heard? Are we all ready?
In the sea of desks, only silence; a lone STUDENT lifts her head up and then her hand follows. Teacher nods to her, calls her by name. She takes a breath and straightens her body to prepare herself for what she has to say.
Why does your hairline look like that?
While the younger ones were relatively innocent, the middle school boys came for me live and direct. They would jockey for top-clout position at any time, damn near falling over each other to get the best wisecrack in. My hair line/loss became a bigger distraction – more important – than anything I had to teach them. Yet across all grades many of them couldn’t tell a vowel from a consonant, which underscored how grossly imbalanced the internet raised generation was. Kids are excellent imitators with boundless energy and potential. Yet that promise is only as promising as the material they’re given to excel. The public school system and the “inner city” aka black and brown populations have never really embraced each others’ values (I was one of those kids), but each pay lip service to the other’s most unavoidable imperatives. The children must be pushed through the system – or dragged; the children for their part must show up to be pushed. They showed up, all right. Apart from getting to socialize and affirm their identity with their peers, I was part of the side show. SMFH.
Eventually I budged and stayed diligent with keeping my hair close to the scalp. In general, that solved the problem from week to week. I could always tell when it was time to get a haircut because when I’d pass any males in the hallways – kids, teachers, it didn’t matter – hands would fly up to their hairlines and rub with uncomfortable, distracted looks on their faces (think gypsies in those old movies giving witches the Evil Eye to ward off curses). If I waited any later, then the jokes would start up again. As you might guess, frequent barber visits got expensive. My T-Liner got upgraded from touchup guide to Shine’s full replacement. From that point on, the relationship with my hair devolved to that of, let’s say, a person has with the trash.
These experiences, from the beginning of memory to present day can be summed into one word: trauma. Socialized from a young age, and then internalized, placed to the back burner of my psyche I ignored it and kept going with my life. Unpacking and reminiscing, these emotional/psychological paper cuts – as an adult I recognize them as such – never really healed, and more or less melded with the other, myriad forms I was accepted or rejected on any given day.
Unpopular Opinion Alert: everything doesn’t look universally great on just anyone (unless you are, in fact, Harry Styles), and really, it isn’t meant to. With respect to the important, and lucrative, paradigm of inclusivity that our society is currently working in, dimensions and the like do matter because from person to person it changes the conversation/feel of the piece(s) being worn. What’s being said will differ between a six-foot thin person and a five-foot, heavier built person. That’s the wonderful thing about style: at bottom, it’s an amorphous concept which takes time, effort and patience to find what covers your outer/inner shell best.
Another unpopular fact: a portion of an individual’s self image is both consciously and subconsciously drafted to be in service to society. Trends and styles are birthed from the womb of the general feelings of society during any particular era, captured by an observant artist or designer or common person. Some of the catchphrases – “clean-cut”, “edgy”, “natural”, “classic”, “outlier” – exemplify which direction any given person can move in, with those specific benefits (or consequences) embedded within. These choices are also binary. When you pick a path, the others as a general rule are closed off to you. In a school setting my purpose was to be of service to others, but what purpose did I succeed if my hair distracted my target audience, or was a reminder of something uncomfortable for my peers? What great statement did I make, in the end, as a teenager with hair long enough for braids just to run back to a shaved-down style each time?
Staring at my hair on my head in the mirror, the chasm yawns. I take a look down into the abyss that separates us and I can’t even tell the lie “it’s not a big deal” any more. My question is: What are we gonna do? My hair is sullen, resentfully silent, but in cahoots with my memory, it displays my past performances on the film projector in my mind. I walk away from the mirror.
What AM I going to do?
to be continued…