One of my most vivid memories of a time before my grandmother became ill was me asking her to style my hair into pigtails. We lived down the sidewalk from a rec center and basketball court where the smell from multiple grills were too tantilizing to pass up. I stood in the mirror, trying to make something happen with this unruly head of mine. Defeated, I sheepishly asked my grandmother to help me out with some ponytails. She looked at me as only she could, remnants of my mother ecthed her face when she arched a brow at my request. “That’s a baby style”, she said. “I know but I really like it”, I said undoubtedly looking down at my feet. I had to be in middle school heading to high in the fall. She turned her head to me. “Cmon”, she gestured in that way only southern, tired black woman can. I had to grow up so quickly back then. I considered myself a tiny adult around age 12 after four years prior I told myself I couldn’t be a kid anymore. Being the only living child of an alcoholic parent will do that to you. In this moment, I let myself feel like a kid again. I sat on the stool, the relic with busted legs and a knitted cushion, beside the tin promising cookies which instead held sewing supplies. The rare time we had company outside of holidays and funerals who weren’t familiar with the unwritten rule that there are never any cookies in that tin was always a laugh. The smell of Ultra Sheen was a welcome frangrance. I knew when I smelled it she was taking me seriously. I made sure she was comfortable and listened to her every order. I tried not to make my winces apparent as she started the part from the middle of my forehead. I remember sitting back and thinking this is what it feels like. To have a connection to something, even if it’s fleeting, that makes all the sense in the world in that moment. That connection was Nonee doing my hair. Her hands were steady and I took in every second of being in her company. I don’t remember what we were watching; maybe that’s why she was a little annoyed with me asking about pigtails. Maybe the stories were on. Or Matlock. Or The Price is Right. What I do remember is the ease that settled around her after she began doing my hair. It was a hassle; my mother joked that when I was born my hair was longer than me. So my hair has always been a thing to tackle and subdue for the ease of the one doing it. Only when she was done and she saw my face light up did she smile as I thanked her. I walked over to that neighborhood cookout certain that you couldn’t tell me shit. I got so many compliments, mainly that my hair was long enough to achieve such a style. Two Pollyanna ponytails split down the middle, adorned by some thread I found and braided by grandma’s hands.
I was a couple years removed from my first relaxer by a woman named Hot Sauce who was a dear friend of my mother. The stairs leading to her shop were crickety, worn by age and no doubt bored children playing on them. I hated the process. My hair was thick and unruly. The myriad of complaints and compliments hung in the air like the smell of freshly-washed-out perm. Hot Sauce would pick on me about my hair flips. “You think you cute flipping your hair like a white girl”. I would do the neck/head thing to get hair out of my face instead of “flipping it”. That caused an adjacent stir. She would also pick at how long I had to sit under the dryer. Thick hair trying to acheive a sleek style does not a short time make. Eventually, I learned to settle in to myself with books and my Gameboy. I never could get a doobie wrap just right. Still can’t.
Years later, post childbirth and in the throes of a divorce and single motherhood, I accidentally went natural. I could no longer afford $40+ walk-in appointments every other week for a Dominican blowout (hell on your hair and scalp, btw) and $60+ for a relaxer every 6-8weeks. At my temp position at the urging of my good sis Amy, I stopped my creamy crack, bone-straight hair addiction. The new growth was real - I hadn’t had an untentional curl in my head since the 90s. There in 2010, I began to embrace a new pattern. With that pattern came honesty. Honesty beget change. Change beget why the hell is all this so expensive?! Still, I was here, a baby naturalista between the knees of another matriarch - the natural hair resurgence.
I’d hear the jokes about the juices and berries I put in my hair now that I was #TeamNatural. My uniform was perpetually at the cleaners but still I was easy to find. Being a natural hair novice and a consummate researcher, I looked up every video I could digest on how to take care of transitioning hair. Back then, I was too afraid to big chop. The two times my hair was short had been a bob given to me by my aunt who was known to be scissor-happy. The second time was an after-breakup, pre-divorce mohawk because of course it was. Even with that, I retained some length. Potentially going down to the literal roots gave me anxiety whenever I thought about it. I’d stick to the rivers and lakes I was used to. I chopped off the remainder of my relaxed hair on election day 2012. It wasn’t intentional, but it definitely felt like a new precedent was taking shape. A few things have happened since.
From 2012-2013, I dated a black man who viewed natural hair as unkempt and a negative slight against any woman who chose it over the likings of her man. He was heinous and a serial narcissist and emotional abuser who later was fired from a position due to sexual harrassment in 2014. By then, we had long broken up.
In 2015, I began seeing another black man who loved natural hair until the talks of cutting it came up. By 2016, my hair had begun falling out due to a botched dye job. With every protective style came the fear of how many remaining healthy strands would I lose during the shedding and taking down of my style. Daily maintenance became a non-factor as I retreated to a top bun as my mainstay. I began playing with the idea of the big chop, now with some courage under my belt. Later that year, distraught with yet another huge clump of my hair in my comb and in my hands, I elected to chop it all off. I started it on my own, embodying every chick-flick trope of the woman staring into the bathroom mirror with scissors and rage. I started at the heart of my bird’s nest - the top of my head. Scissors to root I chopped at every expectation, every toxic hair identity, every ounce of sovereignty long hair gave black women. When I was done, I stood there, proud and shaking. I sent a pic to my friend who was my hairstylist at the time. “Oh you were serious”, she said back. “I couldn’t do it anymore”, I typed, relieved that the hardest part was done. I spent all of 2017 experiementing with my now inch-long hair. Tapered cuts, fades, designs on the side. I wanted to find and know my limit. I wanted to know who I was without a giant, curly fro to hide behind. In that space, I found a new connection. It was uncomfortable and draining. I now understand the girls who would grow out their tresses to only cut them off again. That was me. Me until late 2017. As this last partner broke up with me after returning to the states in early 2018, he cited that me now having short hair, along with the depression that was present long before his ass ever was, that which I’d always spoke about openly, was his deciding factor that he was done. We broke up and he went on to be an habitually unfunny comedian. My main regret is leading him to believe he was actually funny. The shit you do for love and these niggas. Never again.
When I started my current position in Maryland July 2018, I had a kush fro with one side beating out the other in length. No one really talks about the perils of growing out a big chop in a way that seems surmountable. No one also talks about doing this with a broken heart and new depression weight. They equate it to the super-awkward adolescent phase of life. Makes sense. I started my natural hair transition over nine years ago. My journey is basically a preteen. Still, not many tell you about the emerging new curl patterns, how what worked on long hair won’t work on short, how short hair does what it pleases. They just pat your hand and tell you “chile, I’m still figuring it out”. So I did what I always do: research. Mixtures of peppermint and castor oil. Rinses of brown rice water. Masks of bentonite clay and aloe vera juice. Fenugreek oil made by seeping Fenugreek seeds in olive oil had me smelling like pancakes. But for once in my natural life, my hair began to flourish. For once, I sat my ass down and worked with (and stuck to) actual recipes. I didn’t half-ass it. I didn’t rush through it. I let the juices and berries fall where they may.
As I write this now in June 2019, I am edging closer to my original, big-haired form. I’ve run the gamut of protective styles to the fascination of my white colleagues: box braids (jumbo and medium), kinky twists, crochet braids and now cornrows. One of my colleagues remarked after seeing my newest style, “see Joi’s so cool. I’m just a white guy who can’t do anything like that”. I take my natural hair accolades where I can.
My particular brand of natural hair has always been a battleground for me long before I was aware. Within my strands laid power and animosity, strength and fragility, gainful employment and reprimands. In losing so much, I’ve gained an understanding of myself as defined as my multitextured curls. I am loose and tight, bound and strong, moisturized and never dry. I grow when I am nourished and cared for by my own hands. A big chop continues to grow where the roots were severed. Long live the kinks.