I’ve always had really thick, kinky black hair. As a child, my family friend – Aunty Ugochi – as I called her, would come over and do my hair regularly. And the whole neighborhood knew I was getting my hair done because I could be heard crying and screaming, almost as badly as a child getting the cane. My mother did not allow me to perm my hair until I was fourteen – and only allowed it once or twice a year until I left home. My pre-teen and teen years often involved the other girls, especially the Black girls questioning me daily, “Why don’t you relax your hair?” Memory is fictional of course, so maybe it wasn’t daily but it sure feels like the questioning was as frequent as it was taunting.
My college years were filled with weaves and braids and like my mother had taught me, I still only relaxed it once or twice a year. But mostly being on a campus as a foreign African, Black girl, I got a lot of questions about my hair; everyone always seemed to have an opinion on how they liked it or what I should do with it, or why it was the way it was. These days, I usually keep my hair in a unique combination of “Ghana Braids” and “Senegalese Twists.” I’ve not relaxed it in almost three years and have had nothing to do with a weave in two. It didn’t start out as intentional and I have nothing against these styles, I just choose not to do them anymore until further notice, intentionally.
See when you’re a little girl, no one tells you that your hair is political. Sure, it’s yours but everyone gets a say on how, when, and what about it too, especially when you’re Black. Looking back at photos of my parents, despite my mum’s soft, flaky hair, she kept it in an afro and a jerry curl. My dad had his in an Afro too. I used to think it was just what everyone did back then; I didn’t understand it was a symbol and expression of their politics, and their resistance. After hating my hair for so long, I braid it these days intentionally as an expression of African identity and because I really like braids. No, I am not my hair. But I like what it means to me.
I don’t remember the first time I realized I was a dark-skinned Black girl, I’m sure it was earlier than I imagine. I do recall a conversation with my dad in the car when I was eight or nine, maybe older. I told him the kids at school always made fun of me because I was dark. He told me that the kids are silly, and that dark-skinned women were always the most beautiful in his eyes. I never really knew for a long time how people saw me and how they saw my dad were different. My dad is lighter-skinned, and his dad was so light-skinned, he was nicknamed, “Oyibo.” – a term for “White people.” The best-kept secret in global communities of color is the colorism – the extension of racism – that is often perpetuated among us.
There are several incidents from my childhood and teen years which made me feel ugly because of my skin but one in particular always stands out. When I was ten or eleven, I remember this boy calling me “priceless.” He was never very bright and what he mean to say was, “worthless.” If it hadn’t been for very intentional parenting, and conscientious self-reflecting in my adulthood, who knows? I might have continued to feel worthless instead of priceless, as so many dark girls often do.
It’s funny because the times I remember feeling pretty as a teen was when I was in Europe or in the United States, among mostly White people. It’s funny because you experience racism being Black in the world, and then you further experience colorism from people who share your experiences as Black, but then choose to “other” you because you are “Blacker.” And then the people who are often most privileged for their skin – White people – will often turn around and tell you that your dark skin is beautiful, more than people who share a different shade of your color. It’s all ironic and messy.
See when you’re a little girl, no one tells you that your skin is political. Sure it’s yours but it signifies so many things to the world around you. Now at times I am aware of being sexualized for my Blackness, being othered for it by different people; being considered beautiful for a Black girl, being considered beautiful for a dark-skinned Black girl, and not being considered at all. I used to wish for lighter-skin because I thought that’s the only way I would be comfortable. I didn’t know that kind of comfort had to come from acceptance and appreciation of self – skin and all. No, I am not my skin but I think it’s beautiful the way it is, and I like what it means to me.
I’ve always felt like an outsider, an other. If I could describe what feels normal to me – “being foreign” feels normal. Because I’m not just foreign being an African in the United States, I was foreign being Nigerian and having lived outside of there, all but four years. And indeed I am not always African enough for a lot of people, including other Africans, much less Nigerian enough. To a lot of Black Americans, I “act White,” or “African Black but without their Black experience.” To everyone else, I’m just Black, and until they hear me speak or know me and my background, I am treated in specific ways. I think that’s why in social situations, I’ve always tended to attract “others” too, especially those whose identities involve living in multiple cultures in one body.
But then there’s the soul. And I love my soul- I think that’s why I’ll always be religious and spiritual. Because people can mark your body – they can mark your skin, and your hair, and all the other superficial things about you and tell you have to be something; even something you’re not. And for some people with specific bodies, while they must go through their lives with the same mundanities as everyone else, there is an added struggle of ensuring one’s own humanity. But the soul, the apolitical soul, is a refuge through which you can really see yourself. And through those eyes, you recognize not only the magnificence of the Creator who made you, but the creature who you see in the mirror, and indeed the creatures who are made in the same likeness.
See when you’re a little girl, you don’t think about your soul very often. Maybe because even then, no one judges you by it. They judge you by everything else. For a long time I wanted to be the best at everything not just because I’ve always been competitive. But because I convinced myself that if I could be good at school and sports and dancing and singing and all the rest, then maybe people wouldn’t notice my hair or my skin; if I could be the best, then maybe I could at least be good enough. I’ve learned to love my hair and my skin and take care of them because I ought to. But I couldn’t have done it, without first healing my soul. And if you let it, the soul will always heal – with love and time.
This hair will fall out, this skin will get saggy, this entire body will fail, and any politics associated with it, will eventually cease to matter. My soul however, from what I choose to believe will hopefully live on forever in perfect love. In the meantime, this soul is still what matters most about me. And not just about me, but every body that I meet. I struggle to remember that; I guess I’m still working on it. Hopefully I always will.