This is me at 17.
I am the epitome of Black Woman of the future in this photo.
I am about to debut into society under the vigilant eye of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. I am a Senior at Xavier University Preparatory School, National Honor Society Member, Top 10 in the class of 1999, twice published writer, classically trained award winning pianist, I can also waltz and execute a straight backed drop curtsey gracefully without letting my foot peek out beneath my hemline.
About a week before that photo was taken my hair was “natural” My mother, a woman who insists instead of inquires actually begged me to get it relaxed for my debut. I conceded while saying: “Enjoy it because I’m never doing it again. In fact I am totally going to cut it all off after this shindig.”
She thought I was kidding.
3 hours after this photo was taken, after I had danced down a glossy ballroom floor with the guy who suffered the reigning terror of what was my first crush. I skipped merrily off to our hotel room and made good on my threat. I proudly showed the glossy handfuls of strands to my girlfriend who told me I had lost my mind before thoroughly cleansing the bathroom and myself like a CSI crime scene
I had left two inches.
Just enough to pull back under a headband wig.
Just enough to throw my mother off because while I was certainly defiant I definitely didn’t have a deathwish. There was a moment on the elevator when my mother looked at me suspiciously but didn’t pursue. I was terrified she was would ask. Now that I am older I wish she had.
I wish we had that conversation.
I knew cutting my hair was akin to cutting her.
I knew that she was trying to protect me from her own experience as a child who was harassed, a young woman deemed unattractive for not having “good hair”, a grown woman who may not get that job, constant teasing, constant touching and constant explanations.
She gave up her own comforts to save the money to spend on this beauty regime so I could walk this world unnoticed. She worked the extra hours to pay for the hair to help me get “ahead”. If we had that conversation I would have told her that didn’t do it to hurt her. But I would have apologized for catching her feelings and money between the crossfires of an intentional rebellion against Eurocentric beauty myths that would never deem me worthy.
I hated it. I hated the process, the alteration, the denial of self, this way of saying I am less than.
7 years later
I am in a REI in San Jose, California.
I am hiding behind a rack of 75% off snowcoats from the white male partner of the law firm where I have recently been employed as the front desk receptionist.
My hair is freshly locked. Like two hours freshly locked.
Not only am I freaking out over how different I look, how surprisingly vulnerable and unfeminine I feel I am also now shitting my pants because I need to keep this job. As I am planning my escape route out and to the nearest Michaels’ to buy some fabric for headcloths the coats part and I am face to face with his wife.
She leans forward unsure of who I am for a moment but as soon as she recognizes me a smile spreads across her lips. “Irene! I love the hair!” She pulls me through the racks and makes a beeline for husband who is red faced from trying to force his size 12 foot into a size 11 ½ snow boots.
“He’s going to give himself a hernia. You’re going to give yourself a hernia! Look who I bumped into.” My employer who is now sweating and cursing looks up at me for a moment and grunts a greeting “He’s not observant at all. Honey, you are not observant at all. Look at her hair.”
He pauses and gives me his full attention. He sits up and smiles. “Neat! I like it. Our son had locks. His were blue.” He goes back so swearing and shoe stuffing.
“He’s going to kill himself over this sale. I better stop him. Nice to see you dear. It’s really cute on you.” She hugs me and begins to gently pry the boots from her husband who is insisting that they are supposed to be a bit snug.
I’m surprised by this interaction.
I wasn’t expecting such easy acceptance of something that caused me angst and agony for nearly a decade. I was expecting to take an offensive stance but not to be offended by mention of a blue eyed blue haired boy casually wearing a style that is rooted in history, rebellion and revolution.
For the record I did face a lot of discrimination and fascination as I continued to wear my hair in its natural state. I’ve been pulled into HR for chats, batted away lots of hands and on a few occasions thrown synthetic hair at people from my purse but I’ve never regretted this choice I made 17 years ago in that hotel bathroom after I debuted to society as a woman.
This first decision as a woman.
As a black woman of the future.
As a black woman in this present tense.