Black hair is magic. It can do or become anything. Straight hair grows down, but black hair grows up and out, and it can just stay there on its own. How does it do that!? If you were a black guy in the 1990s, you were pretty much a nobody if you didn’t have a “box” haircut, like the one Kid and Play rocked in House Party. Every guy in my family had that cut.
Black hair is mystical because nobody understands how it does what it does. Make no mistake, black hair can be a lot of grueling work. How can anything be beautiful without some creative work invested in it? Black hair gets permed, S-curled, jheri curled (just let your souuuul gllooowww), straightened, curled, braided, and extended. I have so many distinct memories of the women in my household rinsing relaxers out of their heads in the kitchen sink so their hair wouldn’t be kinky. Or they would take a hot comb to their hair, which is basically when you turn on the stove, put a comb on the burner and take it through your hair until it’s straightened. Culturally, we have an obsession with straight hair. Straight hair = good hair, and many of us will do what it takes to have the veneer of bone-straight locks.
But as magical as black hair is, it sure comes with a lot of problems. Black people can’t go to just any salon to get their hair done. We cannot go to Supercuts! Do not do it. I tried this once before and the barber had no idea what to do with my head. Like, how does a barber not know how to cut a head of hair? Whenever you do get your hair done, no matter what you do, it will never be as good as the day you get it done. As soon as you step out of that salon chair, it’s all down hill. When you do get your hair fixed just the way you like it, sometimes you have to sleep in juuuust the right position so you don’t jack up that side ponytail. Beyond that, there’s nothing more annoying than going to the Duane Reade/CVS/Walgreen’s and there are no black haircare products anywhere. Probably the worst, though, is when your hair is nice and silky people constantly ask if it’s “yours.”
At some point, at least once, a black person will hear: “Wow, your hair is sooooo cool! Can I touch it??” Like, I know that my hair is a site of unbridled fascination and holds many secrets, but unless you’re going to give me something of yours to touch in return, I’m thinking no.
I’ve been working Senegalese twists for a little over a year now, and people always want to touch them. Every few months I go up to Harlem to get my hair re-braided, and each time I do I’m like, “Why am I doing this to myself again?!” Let me paint you a picture: when you get your hair braided in any African style, twists, cornrows, braids, micro braids or whatever else you can think of, you’re basically sitting on the floor grimacing for hours and hours and hours while you pay somebody to rake the top of your head. It is not exactly a comforting feeling! But I do it anyway because my hair is a part of my self-expression.
When we roll out of a barber shop or a salon with a fresh hairstyle, we feel like our best selves. Hair is the one place where we can actually control our appearance. Sure, we might have a bad hair day once in a while, but in general we control our hair. We can’t really do anything about a zit or a flabby stomach, but we can throw on a wig, or put some goop in our hair or cut it all off to make it look like how we want.
But beyond looks alone, hair is political, and black hair in particular has been often seen as a problem that needs to be fixed. My cousin once temped at a high-profile corporate office in Midtown Manhattan where she worked a huge diva afro, upon my suggestion, natch. At the end of the assignment her manager told the temp agency that they let her go because of her appearance. They said her afro was completely “unprofessional.” Does anybody know how a particular hairstyle can be “unprofessional,” particularly when that’s the way it grows out of your head? But anyway, for her manager to say that her hair was “unprofessional” just highlights the biggest black hair problem: that it needs to be corrected, fixed, and alleviated rather than embraced for what it is. Black hair is awesome, and don’t let anybody/office place tell you otherwise.
There’s not necessarily anything wrong with wanting to touch something that’s foreign to you. We love touching things. Humans are all about touch. But before you ask to touch black hair, think about what you’re really saying.