My friend Steph and I just wrapped up teaching a poetry unit in our classes. I loved it. The girls loved it. Steph really loved it. Now that we’re learning about fish depletion and gearing up to write some type of argument about oceans, I’ve got to say I really miss hearing the girls’ feelings in verse. I miss their excitement at identifying metaphors in music and the smooth way they figured out synecdoche–“that eye, that eye, that eye.” There were a few topics that recurred both in the poetry we used as examples and the poetry the girls wrote: absent dads, broken friendships, and hair.
A poet visiting my classroom told me that I touch my hair too much. She called it a white girl nervous tick. “White girls are always touching their hair.” At least for me, I agree. I twirl it, break it, repeat. I’ve been doing it since I was a toddler. There’s an old photo of me topless, sucking on a bottle, my fat pointer with a section of hair wrapped around it all ready for its destruction. And 20-some years later I’m still crafting my own split ends.
One song I’ve heard a lot lately is “Don’t Touch My Hair” by Solange Knowles. I heard it at the fashion show at my school, our own poetry slam practice, and an event Steph took a few girls to see at which I tagged along (Baltimore’s Louder Than a Bomb–look it up!). Solange’s message is that her hair is not an object to be fondled. It’s part of her. It’s her spirit and her sense of self, and not a hands-on museum piece. I did a little research on a very reliable website called genius.com. One user said that asking to touch a black woman’s hair is a “racial microaggression masquerading as a compliment.” Now, this is one user on the completely reputable genius.com, but I have heard this message many times. An incredible poet (I will fill in her name once I ask Steph) who performed on Saturday at Louder Than a Bomb shared a gorgeous slam poem all about a man that asked to touch her hair in the grocery store. She was physically sick about it. And that’s her right. I can’t really imagine that happening to any man or even really to me. Again, the genius said about Solange’s song that asking to touch a black woman’s hair is to deny her respect. I’m with this. Spending all of my days with African American pre-teens with a wide range of hair styles, I understand this point and I honor it.
That said, I feel the exact opposite.
I absolutely love when people play with my hair. My girls play with it all of the time. I know I’m supposed to say “Get back to work, please.” Or I should think, “This isn’t professional,” I just love when their little hands (or hands bigger than mine) reach out and make a braid. To me, it’s a sign that they are comfortable around me. I think it shows mutual trust. In a 99% black school, my hair had become a topic of conversation. “Is that a weave?” “Is this your real hair?” “How did you get it to be this long?” No, yes, it grows from my head and I let it.
A couple of months ago I challenged my crew (I will likely mention them a lot so here comes the glossary definition) to earn a certain number of positive accolades we agreed on as a group. Crew (n) a group of 12 girls who are supposed to remain with me for our mutual duration at my school. They vary in grade level. We do character education for 45 minutes a day. I am like their mom at school meaning that we experience many pre-teen + mom situations. If crew met their challenge, I told them, they could chop off my hair, an idea I’d gotten from my friend Caitlin who did the same with her students a couple years ago. Oh, they liked this idea. Not all of them believed me at first. The more I talked about it, the more they realized that I was crazy enough to be serious. One girl though, had tears in her eyes, “But I love your hair!” She got over it and participated with the rest.
Thus began a wild week in white girl hair. I agreed on the date and time with my hair dresser who would provide actual hair-cutting scissors, as opposed to those safety scissors with the dull tips we have at school.
My hair wasn’t ready to go down quietly though. So I sought out a braider. After a disappointing round of terrible reviews on African braiding shop websites, I posted my need on NextDoor (a neighborhood website for the exchange of needs, advice, free things, etc.): “I am looking for someone who can braid my hair in large cornrows. I would like to do this ASAP. Please PM me if you have this talent and a little bit of time. I will pay for the service.”
I received one reply from a girl named Naomi. She came over, made my cornrows while we talked about the state of education for an hour, I paid her $30, and she went on her way. When the rows were fresh, I received a double take from every single person I encountered–unless I just perceived it that way.
That night I FaceTimed with Steph to get directions on how to wrap my hair for sleep–something I’d never had to do before. She gave me a helpful tutorial. We giggled. And I then sweated through that scarf all night long.
That said, my rows were intact the next morning for the girls to enjoy. And enjoy they did. One girl rounded a corner and burst into a belly laugh. Yes. A perfect send off for my long hair.
I kept the cornrows for two days, smacking my head violently when it itched and finally, on a micro-level, understanding maybe two aspects of what my girls go through when they have an expensive hairstyle they need to keep in place. When I took the cornrows out on Tuesday night, I was Tina Turner in 1984. It felt a shame to wash it away because I would have loved to rock that do for a day too but whew, my scalp needed some shampoo in a bad way.
On Wednesday I arrived at school as Rapunzel as usual. My hairdresser friend Karen and my Aunt Carol came to school to observe the girls, bring the scissors, and watch the show. My crew and I agreed to put on “Intense Music” on YouTube for the event. They were silent throughout the preparations. All sets of eyes stared at me like I was about to walk the green mile. They were taking their job seriously. Six girls had met the additional requirement of making “Happy Spring!” cards for a nursing home and thus received a section of hair to snip. Each of the six approached me with a stone cold expression and Karen’s scissors. They cut about 10-12 inches all the way around. I instantly felt lighter. We stored the ponytails in my closet (weird?) with plans to mail them off to donate next week. The crew did a pretty good job and I was able to live out the day without looking like a total weirdo. Girls in other crews poked their heads in and then squealed and ran away yelling, “They really did it!”
I spent the day being told I look “older and more sophisticated” and “younger, like a little girl.” I assume it’s somewhere in the middle and I look pretty much the same.
That night, Chas’s mom and I hosted a party for a nonprofit where I donned my new do for a crowd of 50. Same reaction: “older and more sophisticated” and “younger, like a little girl.” Yesterday, I went to Karen for an actual haircut to get it styled and fixed. I went for an Emma Stone meets Taylor Swift just above the shoulder deal. I like it! And again I’ve been told: “older and more sophisticated” and “younger, like a little girl.” Whatever is the truth, it’s been an exciting week for my head from Rapunzel, to cornrows, to Tina Turner, to an uneven chop, and finally to my Emma-Taylor bob. I think I will leave it alone for a while but I think I still have that white girl nervous tick.
Author’s Note: I should mention that I do feel like a weird Oprah-esque narcissism (and I love Oprah, don’t get me wrong) by including 6 photos of myself in this post. I want my face in here about as much as I want someone to rip out my hair but I felt it was necessary for this hair journey. I’m sorry. I am also sorry for the awful expressions I clearly make when I take selfies. Ew.