So we fast forward through the annals of time to current day events.
I used to have dreadlocks and when I got them, my world changed. To talk about black hair, is to fall down a rabbit hole. It’s an act of patience, as you wait for these locks to appear. You’re tested, you experiment, you have to learn a whole other set of skills and you also have to deal with other peoples’ opinions. I was still in contact with my mother during this time and she would often take the piss out of me, waiting to see my ‘natty head’. In her mind, getting dreadlocks was akin to being unkempt and dirty. The ironic thing was that I had uncles and aunts who were Rastafarian. I spent a summer when I was young with my Aunt Napthali and Sansha and was tutored to improve my maths and English and immersed in black history. The Natty Dread was wise and intelligent and living in Brixton, everyday I saw a Natty Dread who would greet me with, “Blessings Sistren” and ask me how my day was going and wish me ‘Jah bless’ as I ran to the corner shop. In the eyes of my father, this was no big deal but in the eyes of my grandmother and mother, this was something to be frowned upon. In part, it showed the difference between the islands. My father is Jamaican and my mother was from St Kitts. As much as we are one people, we are also a divided people. The island you inhabit brings its own preconceived ideas and notions from Barbados, to St Maarten, St Croix, Antigua and Jamaica. My mother and grandmother were snobbish, feeling like a lot of people do, that Jamaicans were too crass, bawdy and beneath everyone else…yes my parents were married so you can kind of see how divorce wasn’t twist in this plot.
This frames my thoughts about beauty and the constant donnybrook (I love that word!) that exists in me. It’s the rabbit hole, starting with locks and ending up exposing these preconceived notions and thoughts about beauty and blackness and growing up in the UK, the mainstream held no place for; you were a ghost. In my community, there’s a stream of mixed messages. There were songs which loudly decried the message that black people were ghosts or animals. A walk around Brixton on a hot day would hear the sounds of Kofi singing ‘Black Pride’
"Black is the colour of my skin
Black is the life that I live
And I'm so proud to be
The colour that God made me
I just got to say
Black is my colour, yeah
(Black pride for all to see)"
or Crucial Robbie singing ‘Proud to be Black’. On one level you were taught to love yourself as a black child. As I got older though, I realised other things. I realised that because I was darker than some children, I would receive more negative perception and nowhere was this more apparent than the issue of hair. I remember the ritual of getting my hair combed on a Sunday night (preferably in front of The Professionals as I had a crush on Lewis Collins). Mother would choose her weapons, thin tooth comb, big teet comb, grease, spray and then the torture. Combing through my mane until my scalp was raw and then plaiting my hair, cane rowing it tight for the week ahead of school. I swear that woman was a cenobite in her past life. I remember the cussing under breath about not having good hair and that ‘coolie’ hair would not be so much trouble. Looking back on those times, reminds me of the Ceti Eel in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, have a look here but I’m warning you, it is grim!). It’s this little thing, from something else larger and vile and plucked and placed in your ear, where it slithers in and wraps itself and grows and mutates and consumes your mind. My Ceti Eel was how my hair and beauty was perceived.
To explain a little bit, ‘Coolie’ was a term that was used to describe someone of mixed Caribbean descent, in particular Asian and Caribbean. It meant by default that people with this genealogy had a completely different texture of hair, in some cases hair very similar to Caucasian hair, though not always. My hair is very kinky so I was told often that because mixed hair was ‘good hair’ my hair was therefore bad hair. That slug was wrapped around in there, devouring.
I had natural hair until I reached 11, then for ‘ease’ my mother said, I joined the curly perm crew. At 16, after tiring of being ridiculed I straightened my hair and cut it, dyed it and weaved it at one point (it lasted 3 days). Then at around 24, I decided to stop straightening my hair and grow dreadlocks. I kept them until Nov 2016. I shaved half of them off a year earlier and then as illness ravaged me, right before another invasive surgery I took the scissors to the last of my locks.
This was a solo journey. Every step I had taken previously involved someone else’s opinion either as a guide or something to rebel against. Straightening was rebellion because I was responsible, not my mother who had been up until that point. I had friends to guide and at some points, really fuck up my tresses. Dreadlocks was inspired by the friends I had at the time and there was more of an emphasis on embracing natural hair. However I was still carrying my Ceti Eel.
It oozed out of my ear last year. I was trying to style my hair into an afro and all of a sudden, I felt a pressure of voices telling my how ugly I looked, how nappy my hair was and it was crushing. It was a wave of voices of aunts and my mother and grandmother shouting inside of me that this was not right, that I couldn’t go out looking like this. It was the feeling of everything that I had learned and was continuing to learn, hitting the bedrock of how I had been raised. I know that my relationship with my hair as a black woman is steeped in the legacy of slavery. I know that African hairstyles were ridiculed and literally torn from our heads during slavery and that our hair was seen as further evidence of our savagery. I learned that the rapes of slaves, meant that there were lighter slaves and because they were lighter, they were seen as closer to whiteness and purity. When slaves were ultimately freed, we took this legacy with us and it still remains, although not just in Afro Caribbean culture. I am saying all of that to say that in the clash of my education versus what I had read and researched, I struggled to see the beauty in me and that was the crushing weight I was feeling. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I am so quick to point out the beauty in others and raise them up but struggle with my own reflection.
I know why this is but this is the first time I could see the anatomy of it laid before me. I struggled because we all struggle. I struggle because of legacy and at 40, I didn’t want to anymore. For all the negative things you hear about living in 2018, one of the benefits has been social media. I have in my hand a community of people who understand this struggle and have wrestled this beast into submission. I was on the way to work when I saw an advert at Bank Station for a firm but this advert had a young dark skinned woman with natural hair at its centre. They say people don’t double take in real life, well I did and I felt..warm. I felt those words about good hair start to melt and every experience since then has been a tonic, whether it is the strong YouTubers and Instagrammers who answer every question and show you the hows and whys and products for natural hair. It’s my cousin who did my hair in December and took time and patience and love to do it, I have never been treated so tenderly by someone doing my hair, “It shouldn’t hurt” she told me. One warm drop after another on these frozen words. And then there was the flood.
Black Panther…..you knew this was coming. I cried tears and looked and almost got the clippers to shave off my hair like Danai Gurira (but then my head looks like a kick in old football so I decided against it). It was like walking a perilous and dusty road. The ache is deep in your hip joints, parts of you are numb and it burns, muscles have been replaced with taught, white hot strips of metal that pulsate and all you can think to do is put one foot in front of the other because the end comes somewhere. Then you get there and you fall, weeping, exhausted and grateful with bloodied dried lips. There have been so many articles discussing and dissecting Black Panther, hell I might even do one myself in the future. The thing that was like an arrow in my heart, spreading a warm tonic throughtout my soul was the images of hair, coiled, tight, rough, braided, shaved and all of it beautiful. I felt such completion on my journey and I when I left the cinema and replayed the scenes in my head later, I was able to feel a whisper of my own beauty.