1. profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person. as in, granddaddy loved grandma so much he beat her all day long; as in I love the way those pants fit you so tight; as in you’ve got a universal ass—big enough for the black guys, small enough for the whites; as in I love your hair, how do you get it to curl like that; as in I love the way you die, boy; 2. an intense personal attachment or affection. as in one summer a man told me I was beautiful. one summer, a man was my coworker and he told me I was beautiful. one summer, a man was my coworker and I was beautiful although I was just three years older than his son. one summer I was beautiful and scared to be alone at work. one summer, I didn’t want to be beautiful; as in I would just love it if you’d proofread this—we can hang out later; as in I’m not sure I can hang out later—did you proofread; 3. a person toward whom love is felt. as in I don’t love you, I don’t want to marry you; as in I never said I loved you, we’re only nineteen; as in could you be loved; as in what’s love got to do with it; as in I love God and I love everyone else, too as in I love you but I hate the way you’re always high; as in what about your children and your family; as in I’m not emotionally ready to date; as in when will anyone be emotionally ready for me; 4. a strong enthusiasm or liking. as in you’d be such a great wife; as in but why not a great wife for you; as in I don’t date black girls; as in black girls are magical, but I like more exotic women; as in what’s more incredible than a black woman’s thighs; as in what’s more incredible than black; 5. lov·a·ble, love·less as in what debris will be left from my heart’s constant explosions?
In the bathroom stall, I hold my breath as Mom pulls the white dress over my head. Today, I am Harriet Tubman, all dressed in the costume Mom has assembled. We fit the headscarf over my neat black braids. Anyone who didn’t know would think I was a nurse. A little, black, wheezing nurse. My adenoids are still blocking my tiny breaths, and my tonsils swell and swell. I wonder, each day, how it feels to breathe like the other children, like the pretty girls whose mothers let them wear their hair down, like the boys who can fly across the kickball bases. The beads on my braids make noise and so does my breathing—every breath comes and goes with a cluttered sigh from my mouth, forcing me to show the teeth I’m so ashamed of, the gap that will eventually close. Do you know your poem? Mom asks, smoothing the dress and fastening its buttons. I’ve never felt so safe at school—Mom is here to protect me from the blacktop bullies and my gifted teacher who treats us like adults. I am seven years old and reading way above my grade level. I am seven years old and all I want is a friend who doesn’t ask what we do in that strange gifted class. I want to cross the orange hallway to the other classes, the ones with twenty children and no special projects and no required number of AR points and no 6th grade word problems. I want to have pizza parties and use those little plastic bears to do math. Do you know your poem? Practice it. Mom is almost done primping me, and I take a heavy breath—bricks in my lungs and Eloise Greenfield crawling over my tongue. I begin, careful to soften my perfect English for the sake of the vernacular: Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff and wasn’t scared of nothing, neither…or is it either? Harriet Tubman didn’t have time to worry about grammar, and neither should I. None of my classmates are dressed as slaves. I’m the only one, proud to be wearing something other than my school uniform, to use the closest thing to Ebonics my sharp and proper tongue can manage, to play at being a woman, even if it’s just for thirty minutes. I wonder what it means to guide a railroad that doesn’t exist, what it means to be a little slave running through the night. What it means to take a breath through unblocked nostrils instead of the lake of swollen tissue keeping me from a clear sinus cavity, freedom, sweet respiration.
Samson’s hair gave him power—made him king of a mighty land, but only until the crown began to thin, only until the barber’s gyrating clippers misunderstood a little off the top, bruh to mean relieve me of this crown. One buzz too many on Saturday morning at the shop, Samson cackling too deeply at the same old joke about Moses’ old lady. Then, the glance in the mirror. The tuft of black coils like tumbleweed, hurtling to the white tile floor. An inch balder, and already Samson felt powerless, felt the seismic quake of Delilah blowing up his phone, buzz buzz buzz the sound of a kingdom falling, the strobe of text messages illuminating the phone he kept, like a sword, in his front jean pocket.
He would always struggle to pull them out of his front jean pocket—a green container of breath mints meant to break the ice. Sometimes, he’d shove them in two at a time, smiling with a mouth full of menthol and big, bright teeth. He, the first boy I did not love, was precise in many things—mints at the ready, a film of chapstick always neatly applied, a film of chapstick neatly re-applied when our lips were chapped from kissing, and the tiny black waves in his thin film of hair. He wore a du rag every night—I never saw it because we were good, Christian teenagers who only went as far as our clothes and curfews would allow. But, sometimes, when he’d wake up late and rush to meet me, I saw the little crease on his flat forehead where he’d tied the cap the night before, a greenhouse for waves—just add a little Murrays and a few strokes with the wood brush, and even the most stubborn afro would remember the moon and shimmy down flat and wavy with the tide.
Flat and wavy, a tide of curls dripped down my back as I left the hair salon. Seventeen years old and too blind to realize I’d just gotten a jherri curl, or Wave Nouveau as they were calling it then. I’d read it would give me “manageability,” which really meant a chemical de-kinking, an ooh, it’s cold followed by a wait, it’s burning and a it needs to set a little while, you’ll be okay. The women on the internet looked biracial with their Wave Nouveaus—curls popping and body rolling all down their backs. I wanted the ease of a curl in the wind. I wanted my soul to glow, oh so silky smooth. Look, they would say, how her hair obeys gravity. Look how she slips a hat on with ease. Even the flat iron would open its mouth and sigh at the sight of all that obedience—one pass with its hot mouth and I’d be hair flipping my way through high school, just like a girl in a movie.
When a girl in a movie is in love, her special boy always runs a hand through her hair. Through her hair. Through it. Even Teddy Pendergrass wants something silky and flowing—let your pretty sexy hair down, baby, he moans. When you take your hair down, it remains suspended in midair, reaching out to grab itself.
When did Al Sharpton first reach out for the box of permanent relaxer? No Lye, no doubt. Was he guided by the sweat-gleaming hand of James Brown, his lifelong mentor? Did he think the revolution would only be televised if its leader had hair you could comb with ease? The road to freedom won’t be easy, but Lord, I will have manageable hair. Did he bless the gods of Black hair care each night while he wrapped a satin scarf around his crown of glory, bejeweled with pink foam rollers?
For a year, I snapped a handful of pink foam rollers to the ends of my silky ponytail to make it bounce the next morning, so I could swing it around and feel it land on my back. I even bought a pair of fake pearl earrings to make me look more Southern, more like the pale sorority girls I knew and envied. I was a junior in college, giving campus tours to prospective students, and all I wanted was to smile with that same effervescence. A campus full of bouncy ponytails. A campus where you can shine. I wanted to idly play with a lock of hair during meetings, pull the ponytail out of the way as I threw on my backpack. One sign of reversion and I was back in the bathroom, flat iron at the ready. It wasn’t until my hair began to jump, kamikaze style, from my head to the bathroom floor, that I realized it might be time to cut it off.
Before he cut it off in favor of professionalism, or maybe in favor of the receding his hairline had taken to, or maybe just so his fire helmet would fit, my dad had a high top fade. All that hair balanced on his head reminded us that he was more than Dad—he was a fashionable man, he was a powerful, hair-full man. He was a man who was a man outside of his dad-stained clothes. This Dad only exists in our memories—there are barely any pictures of him outfitted in his black, number-two-pencil-eraser-hair.
Erase her hair, scrub it with shampoo and blow it dry, drag the brush through it to remove the kink, smear it with Blue Magic and heat the hot comb on the stove, if the eye is red hot and smoking, you’re doing it right. Hold your ear, baby girl, I got to get them naps.
We never measured them in naps and grunts—to us, the Williams sisters were goddesses. The beads lined up at the ends of their braids were magical—each plastic crash reminded us of ourselves, beaded and clacking down hallways, waking up with the little round toothmarks the beads made on our cheeks while we slept. When they marched out in all that blackness with hair stitched frontways and backways and sideways and down, we thought, familiar, power, maybe I should ask Mom to buy a pack of all white beads next time. Each grunt an anthem, each swing our own arms swinging. We wondered, were they real, were they princesses from some place where tennis balls grew whole and hollow, fluorescent apples from rubber trees? We watched them serve and volley, marveling at how much like our faces theirs were. And their hair, their hair…
Their hair just doesn’t grow. That’s why they always wear weaves.
As you weave your hair into ropelike twists before bed, you try to remember the time before the fro. You should say, the time before this fro, because you had one in high school. Remember? Remember how the boy who dipped tobacco used to see how many pencils he could fit in your puffs during Algebra I? Remember them calling you Minnie Mouse—her ears, your hair? Remember your best friend’s warning to cut it after the full moon, or else it wouldn’t grow? Was the full moon out when you cut your hair three months ago? Does even the moon have a stake in which way your hair goes?
My mother was young when she learned that hair comes just as it goes. She used to have the longest hair—full and fluffy, perfect match for her light brown skin. Then, the chop and the jheri curl, her mother, her aunt, everyone at church asking why did you cut off aaaaaaaaall your pretty hair? This was before I was born. But maybe the strength to let go of hair is a recessive trait. Maybe, in her ovaries all those years ago, my egg perked up at the sound of scissors, the soft schinck schinck of their blades.
can scissor blades hear
the kinks crying out, spare me!
I wanted to grow!
I wanted it to grow—hair so long I could be like Samson. I could be powerful. But it turns out it was not the having of the hair, exactly. Cut after cut, I realized, it was the ownership, the this is mine and it’s all natural. No need for a bottle of activator in my front jean pocket, no pomade to keep it all flat and wavy. Like a girl in a movie, I could walk down a street, only an inch of hair to my name and hear some theme music pushing me on. My hair, a little black crown, a circle, one curly arm reaching out to grab itself, unbent by the wind or the tourniquet of a pink foam roller or the hungry teeth of the hot, hot comb. When I finally cut it off, I saw how hair could be an eraser, you weren’t anything but your silky weave or a bowl of naps. When I finally cut it off, I was bigger than my hair, bigger than the curls weaving into themselves atop my head. When hair goes, the spirit doesn’t go with it. The blades separate shaft from shaft but even Shaft (2000) was powerful with his big bald shine. Even he, hairless and black, could run his hands over his head and feel something in his scalp, something brilliant and big, growing, a halo, an afro made of sun.