Elizabeth Alexander ends her poem “Haircut” with “I am a flygirl with a new hair cut in New York City in a mural that is dying every day.” Have you ever had a haircut that granted you some revelation?
The first time my husband cut my hair really short with the clippers, I felt a freedom like never before. Not only the obvious wash-and-go ease, but the freedom to be that bold. I received many compliments. Some were wistful: “I wish I could get away with wearing my hair that short.” Other people told me I had a perfectly-shaped head for it. But it was actually a woman who told me she liked my hair better longer that confirmed my certainty that, yeah, this is the way I want to go with my hair, and I’m not going back.
Is hair a performance?
It certainly can be, but it doesn’t always need to be. It depends on the circumstance. For instance, sometimes you meet actors who are always “on,” as if they never left the stage, even though the show was over hours ago. When really, it would be nice to just experience that individual in a more subtle way. We don’t always have to shout, “Look at me!” with our appearance. We don’t always have to be “on” or “perform” publicly in that way.
What is your “hair politic?”
For a long time, having become mostly comfortable in my own skin—and hair, in this case—I held the extremely self-righteous opinion “be happy with what the good Lord gave you.” One day, when, standing in line at Starbucks, I glanced at the CDs they keep up by the register. I was still several feet away, and all I noticed on the cover of one of them was a platinum blonde woman. I confess I assumed it was Britney Spears. When I got closer, I saw that it was a well-known African-American pop diva. I was a little more than outraged. But I heard my mother and grandmother telling me “to each his own.” I also had a great discussion with another friend of mine who offered the perspective that it’s not always the belief that weaves and wigs are more beautiful than one’s natural hair behind such style choices, but for those women with children and/or who are entertainers of some kind, a matter of convenience.
More recently, I found myself equally upset by a comment posted on Facebook on a friend’s picture of her new hairstyle: “Thank God a sister with no puffy natural afro!” Do with that what you will.
A much richer and more understanding point of view is one, writer Bridgett Davis is quoted as gleaning from her mother in this month’s edition of O Magazine, which, by the way, offers a comprehensive approach to hair that includes all ethnicities and hair types, and the cover of which shouts a support to the afro in a big way: “ ‘Hair is only hair. It can’t be good or bad; all it can ever be is healthy or unhealthy.’ ”
My growing perspective and I ventured into the salon a while back, with the intention of trying some outrageous colors, as well, like electric blue or bright purple. Being a brunette, they had to bleach the section I wanted to color, and lo and behold, I ended up loving the blonde streak. Now, my whole head is just sprouting more gray, and I’m due for another trip to the salon. Perhaps one day I’ll have the courage to let it all go.
In her song “I Am Not My Hair,” India Arie discusses a journey through hair, race, perception, and personal identity. How is your hair linked to your own identity?
Well, first of all, I wish that we could infuse that kind of self-understanding in all of our young women. I wish I’d had it at the age of thirteen.
The texture of my hair is very fine. It’s always had a kind of wave to it that, if I let it dry naturally, it would look more like snakes than the curls I wanted. If I blew it out, and it wasn’t the dead of winter, humidity would turn it into a fuzzy mess.
In terms of identity, I never associated my hair with the questions I got about my race throughout my school years. I just always wanted my hair to do something it wouldn’t do. I did the relaxer thing for awhile, until my aunt said to me one day “In ten years, you’ll have nappy hair!”
“The concept of “good hair” and “bad hair” (and all of the related assumptions about and perceptions of lighter- and darker-skinned people) wasn’t solidified for me until adulthood when I saw School Daze. And then a whole history of what I’d experienced but had not realized was happening to me at the time became clear.
I will say, though, that even the idea that my hair might fall into the “good” category, according to one set of standards, never really made me feel more beautiful or worthy. My deepest insecurities were rooted in being a bookish sort, terrible at sports, and shy. Nothing about my hair helped me overcome these. That all had to come from someplace deep within.
If you could create a writing form or technique based on your favorite hairstyle, what would it be?
I think I would call it Unbound, meaning to invoke a sense of uninhibited creativity, in which there is no self-censorship, and initially, no self-editing. Just unadulterated expression. In terms of hair, this could be any style from the untamed attitude of a wild mane to the smooth ambition of a shaved head.
A Hair Writing Prompt:
I’d like to offer a stanza from a poem I wrote called Plantation, as a basis for readers to create their own poems about hair:
As the world’s winds