Good Hair (an endorsement of vanity)
Recalling days of my mother frying her hair. Pressing comb heating in a small rectangular stove made just for such devices. I didn't envy this, how she burned her neck, ears, sometimes even her shoulders (her hair, after she straightened it, could almost reach them, though there was always the danger of it reverting, "going back" to its natural nappy state which always looked best, though she denied this, just a little water would do it, clean pure rain: the enemy).
She tied up her hair; hid such an abomination even from herself, always called "the little black one," darkest complexion in her family. What a complex she had, growing up in the 1930s in Alabama and Tennessee. No wonder she sought ways to combat abuse received for being so dark with furry strands of frizzled snake runts. She needed a man like my father, his pale skin; he was Native American and Indian, like his father, a descendant of Native Americans and immigrants I never met. My father's appearance encouraged her to pursue him, and she prevailed; she didn't have the hair or the skin tone, but her child would. Part of my mother's goal was to have offspring with the good hair she craved. Well, I did get that, but not the high yellow skin tone.
I quickly learned my hair was privilege; set me apart. Everything about me was different. Even my name. I was welcomed in places my mother, the little black one, wasn't. I was an exotic little thing, cute and pretty, many agreed, waves in my hair from the beginning, and reactions of others; my hair allowed me privileges; I never had to struggle to draw a comb through it; even then, sometimes I felt guilty, as if somehow I wasn't really black since this essential nappy badge was something I lacked. I no longer feel this way. I am brown, and were there a choice, I would choose hair over pigment. As I did, and still do, every day of my life.
My mother had bad hair, and didn't want it. She's still so ashamed of it. Complexion also. To this day, she uses skin whitening creams, Nadinola her preference. All those jars of skin lightening and bleaching products, carcinogenic, but the lightness was worth it, the way she smoothed it on her face, neck and shoulders as if this would help her more quickly become a swan —white face with black hands, that never were given attention in these desperate smoothing, superficially transforming acts, denying herself sunshine. I thought these jars were my toddler foods, Gerber alternatives.
And those containers of Dixie Peach pomade and Hair Rep, her favorite, green and petrolatum based, like most of the products she bought for her hair. If she happened to be out of those, then Vaseline would do in a pinch, made her hair shiny also, and was good for my elbows and knees. Patent leather purses. Her patent leather face facsimile.
To this day, she's never seen without one of her wigs, over those tightly wound balls of her own teddy bear fur, warm, luxurious, abominable. My featureless aunts, white Styrofoam heads lined up in her bedroom like a silent choir, singing if they could, only songs of self-denigration my mother's behavior teaches them as"the little black one" in her family. I escaped such epithets, extended them and going to Oberlin College only emphasized our differences; what an insult to her lack of formal education my graduating first in the class and Phi Beta Kappa were; she was proud, but this extended the distance between us, brains and good hair; she never went to college, did not even finish high school, and seemed that hair was explaining this to her, separation of possible destinies. Part of her ambition was to have a child who could escape what she couldn't. She even tells me that I can't be her daughter; I'm high class and she's low class. And that really hurts, for unlike that daughter in those old race films, both versions of "Imitation of Life," I never denied my mother, and did not, couldn't and didn't want to"pass" for white, but she denied me. I couldn't be hers. I was even called "gifted," and had been since I was six. No one ever called her gifted unless her gift was that of a broodmare, source of the gift, but not the gift itself. I made it obvious that she had slept with a man unlike her. No one ever called her pretty either. No one ever envied her bad hair.
My mother might be bald under the wigs for all I know; she hates her hair enough to be bald, to forever rid herself of this misery. Guess her sister is black Medusa. Maybe that African goddess, my evangelical mother would still have to reject. Blond, blue-eyed Jesus, you know; no heaven without him. No heaven for her, that is, and no heaven on earth either. I refuse to live without some heaven. I flat out refuse.
And in this refusal, I escaped as far as I could, to Durham, New Hampshire, one of the whitest parts of this country, at least when I was there as the only brown female grad student. So no one had any expectations; as if a TV character had stepped in, once it became known that my mother was a maid; I was never ashamed of this, and made it known, though my mother will always be ashamed, will never feel that she is good enough to be my mother; she seemed to fit the stereotype: The Jefferson's maid. There was no one like me. So I was even more of an oddity in New Hampshire and wherever stereotypes prevailed, but the hair again made me different and unable to fit stereotypes as neatly as was wished by those who simply decided that I belonged to other parts of the world that already accepted brown-complexioned women for whom white hair was natural.
"What are you? Where are you from? Peru? Columbia? Sri Lanka?" Yes; I always answered, for I looked as if I belonged to communities of the most beautiful, many think, women in the world. And my paternal grandfather was part Indian anyway, but I felt no need to explain this, for I was, am as human as anyone else.
It was also in New Hampshire when I was a TA, that I noticed a biracial student being rejected for dates because although she was only half black, had short, kinky, nappy hair, and she realized that her father a black professor of African-American history at a leading university, didn't find her pretty because of, she concluded: her short, kinky corkscrews of afro-textured hair. She fit the preferred model; she seemed to conform to those bad rules. Why else would this smart, attractive young woman be rejected as dating material? Hair. Her bad hair. As for complexion, she was barely-brown, but the hair texture and length revealed what she was making no effort to hide, that she indeed had a black father; her disappointment was realizing that her own father couldn't think her beautiful, since when he sought a partner for his life, he had a preference for a blonde with long hair, two attributes that this beautiful biracial young woman did not have.
Black men on campus, recruited athletes considered particularly virile, had their pick of women, white women who wanted them, who themselves believed those rumors about sexual superiority of the black man, and these athletes had just the toned bodies that let these women believe the hype. These women wanted good sexual partners, as reward, benefit, expected earnings for their good old long white hair either natural or dyed blonde. I conducted a workshop to try to help dateless black female undergrad students find dates. To major in hotel management, as this young woman did(and most of the other black undergrad young women) they had to attend this university, the hub for that major at that time, the early 1980s in the northeast. I tried to explain away this confusion, this acceptance that black women could never be beautiful according to those entrenched standards of beauty; that these Africanized features could never compete with and win. Think of the original King Kong movie (1933). My mother sure did.
I did my best, but the recruited black male athletes with their assumed virility had no trouble getting dates and could often be found with three white women hanging off each arm. Not much I could do about that. I had men, more than I wanted; didn't matter what race I was, because I had the features, the hair they liked, they wanted. In the workshop, I shared Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon where Hagar dies for lack of "good hair," what she is convinced the man she loves prefers: "He don't like hair like mine; he likes curly, wavy, silky hair. He's never going to like my hair."
He would like mine, however.
The black male students laughed, and the black female students cried, understanding how lack of this hair could easily lead to death of the soul; including the biracial young woman who discovered that her own father was no different from the black male athletes in their preferences for women.
What could I say to my student? For I had the hair she seemed to want, at least then, or at least the hair that would have made her more acceptable to her own father who seemed so hypercritical to her, so unforgivably insensitive; I recall how she vowed to never forgive him, teaching African-American history yet preferring white women, with blonde, long, wavy hair —he couldn't deny this, and she had no dates. She reasoned that since her own father would never have chosen a woman like her, he could not really love her. Soul death right there; her soul murdered, assassinated by her father.
Also at this time, I lost my way when I visited a shopping center in Massachusetts, looking actually, for a doll with brown face and flowing tresses, and I asked a black woman for directions, and she just stared at me, backed up a bit, and said, "Your kind has never needed any help." Then she just walked away, assassinating me. The caramel skin, and the wavy long hair growing naturally out of my scalp, good hair —those of us with it would succeed whereas a woman as chocolate skinned and nappy headed as she was, would suffer in our shadows, still stuck in Slavery, house servant, me, and privilege, versus field laborer, her, with very little comforts, getting even darker in the sun beating down on her back bent over like a tattered umbrella, tattering even more as she worked. She acknowledged no kinship with me; I would be just fine in this world, and she would never be. She drew the line that I would not get to cross, thin strands blocked the only path. And, I realized that even if I could have, I would not have removed my hair and given it to her. The hair she envied was mine. Period. I was enjoying this vanity handed to me as birthright. I did nothing to earn it but exist. And I was fine with that; I still am.
I continued to look for those places where I actually seemed to belong, more for the comfort of communities where a young woman like me was more common, and accepted. That bit of miscegenation, still problematic, a white man sleeping with a black woman, always happened, but to admit that, to have offspring advertising what had occurred in conception, the sex, the intimacy spoke to what was assumed of white men's fantasies: the greater decadence and pleasure of the black. She and other women unable to look as if they too had descended from this privilege (their own jealousy) would grow further and further from the ideal that in the most prominent cultural icons, TV and magazines, especially the gloss of the pages, preferred the lusciousness of flowing hair. I could have done hair commercials. Still could for that matter. And looking as young as I do? No problem.
I really learn this in Canada, and love going there as I seem much more common, and accepted. This was what I really enjoy: acceptance, tastes of ordinariness. The common. Just what a woman looks like, this woman. Something never allowed me, consistently a center of attention; I could never just disappear into the crowd. For mine is the power of the blend. The natural sun tan. Just about every Indian woman seems to fulfill this description, even women working, just piling tall heaps of trash even taller, filling rural streets with more and more filth seem, via their beauty and exceptionally long hair, to be the most elegant pillars of the Taj Mahal.
Even my mother tells me not to cut my hair, she recognizes its power. Always did. Explaining everything in our even more uncomfortable connection now that my hair has become so ravishing as I age while hers, the little that remains is just gray, woolly stumps. The contrast could not be more obvious.
There, I saw so many who looked like me, and I recall being accepted with ease into these gatherings; I just didn't know the languages with which they tried to talk to me; I still don't, but feel that maybe I should learn them; I should be able to talk the talk of the packaging. Somehow belonging to Indian communities was fine, as Indian women are not black. Yes; I learned that my appearance, because of that hair that U.S. black women seemed unable to grow naturally indeed granted me a feeling of beauty, and that is true now more than ever, in these days of hair weaves, relaxers, and extensions. This caused me to believe my hair really is privilege. I was a member of a club I belonged to anyway, and I don't like when I am accused of having a hair weave or extensions or a hair relaxer. Because I don't. As if there is no other way a brown woman could have this hair. That is part of why I wear it loose and flowing; I try to make it obvious. I make it a point to indicate that my hair grows out of my scalp, and is a magnet for men who still prefer women with long flowing hair, who don't remove it while sleeping with them, who do not have to engage in elaborate rituals for sleeping with them to protect the do; I don't have to use any rollers at all, and I will awaken with my hair the same as it is when I go to bed with him. Yes, Beyoncé fans, "I Wake Up Like This" No tracks to detour the journey of his fingers in my hair. I can even shower with him if I want.
Although I am in my sixties now, I enjoy feeling beautiful by most standards, for my natural hair is just-below waist length (butt-kissing) and continues to grow. The length itself is what seems to impress most people, who assume that I must have a hair weave. My hair does indeed get me noticed, length alone and I must admit that men do seem to like my hair... So do I, and I wouldn't give up my hair for anything. My hairdresser asked me if I were boasting because of my hair, and I admitted to her that I was. That I am. Because I do not want shorter or nappier hair, and I thank the little black one for making sure that her child would not have bad hair, but a length that many men love and women envy; and I like that fingers can be drawn through it without getting stuck or finding any tracks. My hair is not sewn in or glued in. I like that I can go out and get noticed with my naturally long, thick, and wavy locks. No "weave sex" for me as in the Chris Rock film "Good Hair" with which my essay shares a title, for this is what I've always been told I have. Always. Born with it. Long before the 2009 film.
Men of all ages and races look at me a little longer; just what is it about men and a continued preference for women with long hair? They seem to imagine what it would be like to caress me and my "beautiful hair". They like to look at me, and I like to be looked at, so I encourage this; obviously part of the reason I walk three miles in my neighborhood is to flaunt the hair that gets me noticed without fail. There's a part of me that enjoys tempting men with my hair and leaving other women jealous, long hair, my size, my age.
Some of these men, one in particular, have even told me that they like my hair, that it affects him too much, turns him on. Good; it is supposed to. What good is it if it cannot have this effect? I want men, one in particular, to see it and like it, and if he's lucky, even have it, for it comes with me. I should mention right here that it is the total physical package of me that helps get me noticed. This retired professor and MacArthur "genius" grant recipient, has a medium brown complexion, no wrinkles, and never any surgical sculpturing, everything about me is natural; just under five feet tall, and a hundred pounds without ever having to diet, and a buxom thing too, the rest of me thin. And to crown this, waist-length natural hair on a brown woman in her sixties who can pass for a woman in her thirties. I love the woman I have become. Every bit as "Flawless" as the song. I exist and so does my hair.
Get used to it.
Thylias Moss, a self-employed multi-racial"maker" at Thylias Moss Writing LLC, is also Professor Emerita in the Departments of English and Art & Design at the University of Michigan. Author of ten published books, and recipient of numerous awards and honors, among them a MacArthur Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, her 11th book, a collection of New & Selected Poetry, "Wannabe Hoochie Mama Gallery of Realities' Red Dress Code" (from Persea Books, September 2016; link to a video poam she made for her YouTube channel, where many poams (product[s] of act[s] of making are displayed) as part of Limited Fork Theory, an approach to making and thinking developed in order to assist co-makers and co-learners become more collaborative in thinking and being. All about how things interact across all boundaries, and encouragement of interaction that becomes more meaningful over time; all have collaborators. Nothing makes alone, and everything makes; there is nothing that exists that does not make stuff in some form, which is also open: any form that becomes possible; invent whenever necessary. "Making" is not static, is evidence of life, as is the romance novel on which she has recently completed, book #13 is a romance novel, New Kiss Horizon.
She has also completed an as yet unpublished collection of prose poams: "LFMK (Looking for my Killer)" --an act of public service, (link is to her YouTube poam of the same title).