The night before the first day of my last year of grad school, I cut my hair for the first time in a year. In death, the curls tightened, seizing up like muscles in the moments before a collision and lay closely wound together like black springs. They fell with each slice of the blade like peculiar rain on the bathroom floor. The fluorescent bulbs hummed, and my brown face looked washed out, almost ashen, in the stark mirror.
The first time I cut my own hair was four years ago in the summer. It was longer and thinner then, flattened by heat and chemicals that straightened the springs, pulled them taut. I was nineteen and a life I used to know was dying by my own hand.
The rain picked up, falling heavy, coating the floor in black wisps that were once washed, conditioned, moisturized, cared for. Outside it was nearly ninety degrees, 8 p.m. A heat wave in the last days of August baked California—a relentless heat that comes only when summer knows its days are numbered so it blazes instead of wilts, blasting the last of its engines on an already dried out world. I looked in the mirror and saw lines beneath my eyes and thought about how just an hour ago I was sitting on my bed, pulling out my hair strand by strand by strand like I always did, like I always do, letting it collect into a tumbleweed between my fingers. I ran my hands through it and it felt tired and dull. I knew it was already dead.
When I dream about myself now my hair is still long and straight like it was when I was a child. I think about being sixteen and braiding it at night, so it would be textured in the morning because maybe then people would ask fewer questions. Big, thick curls that cascaded around my face and down my back. They were mine, but when they were wet they fell straight, put in their place by the chemicals and the flat iron that seared the life from them once a week, every week. But then I cut it all off, in this same bathroom and watched the locks like clumps of seaweed wilt at my feet, giving my natural curls a chance to breathe. Free from chemicals and choking heat and the hands of curious strangers picking through them, detectives on an insolent, irrelevant case.
A woman’s crown and glory is her hair, but mine wound tight at the roots sat like a garland of thorns for far too long. I remember the girls in the locker room sneaking behind me, looking at my scalp, searching for the tracks of synthetics hidden among the strands of my straightened hair, too long to be real. It was all I was.
Why do I remember this?
At sixteen I combed my hair, felt my wiry roots unravel and pulled straight against the teeth of the brush as it ran from scalp to tip in a repeated downward motion. I felt the renewed length and softness as the knots and tangles were undone, leaving behind a smoothness that slid, effortless, between my hands. Now, I run my fingers through the curls once, twice, three times, and watch them reach upward, breathing and thriving, growing like stalks of spiraled wheat, baked black.
Once stretching three inches upward, my curls are now cropped close to my scalp and my head feels lighter. The rain left dark puddles at my feet, not wilting but seizing and shuddering before they stagnate, lie still. Somehow softer now than when they were attached, I held the curls—like cotton—in my hands. In the mirror I still looked tired, wan. Brown face under fluorescent lighting, shadowy rain in my hands. I ran my fingers over the fresh cut and it was soft and gentle, as if it has just taken the first breath of life. It makes me think of forests coming up from ash, my blade like fire against the dying trees that crowned and gloried my skull.
I asked my mother what she thought and she frowned slightly like she wasn’t sure. I like it long, she said and I knew what she meant, even though my hair hasn’t really been long since I was sixteen. I told her she’ll get used to it. And she told me it doesn’t matter, so long as I like it. Except I don’t know if I do. I looked at the black cotton in my hands, sheared and plucked willingly. I think of other brown hands, grabbing, shearing, plucking white cotton in wilting fields beneath a relentless sun. I looked at my own hands, where the black cotton sat soft and gentle in my palms, and suddenly wished it were still attached. It hasn’t been long in years, but I still dream about it and wake, remembering the blade releasing the locks from scalp to floor, thick rain that wilts and seizes and finally stagnates. It hasn’t been long in years, but it haunts me like a murder.
Why do I remember this?
It all starts with the hair. Everything, everything starts there. It starts with being seven years old, my mother standing behind me in the early morning dividing my hair into two sections and weaving them into long, thick braids. The same look every day. She would hold my chin and smooth my hair, kiss my cheek. My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Lindsey, tall, thin, and brown with a southern accent and high, powerful cheekbones, would come up behind me and stroke my hair, tell me how much she loved it.
She was from Louisiana and though I didn’t pay attention to it then, so was my family. I have deep roots in Opelousas, a black Creole grandmother white as silk and a grandfather brown and broad-faced with a sharp nose he gave to my mother, who gave it to me, softened by my father.
If my grandmother is silk, my mother is almond milk, and I am soil mixed with water, made into mud. Mrs. Lindsey was bronze. Skin freckled and wind-burned smooth, bright brown eyes. She would call me to the front of the class while she taught math lessons and take one of my long braids in one hand and a ruler in another. Pressing the edge of the ruler into my scalp, she would then pull the end of my braids gently, extending the curls my mother had painstakingly brushed straight, and ask:
“How long are Kathryn’s braids?”
Twelve inches, the class would answer.
“How long is twelve inches?” she would ask.
A foot, the class would answer.
She wouldn’t let go of my braids but would loosen her grip just a bit. Look how long, she’d smile. Look how beautiful. I smiled back, feeling pride at the length, aware it was special—aware it set me apart. She’d let go and the braids would spring back, slowly recoiling, pulling each strand tight like hands reeling in a rope ladder or a fishing line.
It starts with being nine, sitting under the dryer with a Harry Potter book in my hands, waiting for the curls to release the moisture they had taken into themselves during my sink wash. My mother would place a mat on the counter and I would lie back into the basin, neck bent against a towel, while she shampooed and conditioned and rinsed. She’d wrap a towel around my hair and sit me up, help me down, and walk me over to the chair where I would spend the next five or six hours while she blow-dried, brushed, and braided; and I cried and cried and cried.
Everyone said I was a tendered-headed crybaby. I was a wailing banshee with the wet hair of a witch. Even then I knew they weren’t wrong, but it didn’t change anything. Each stroke of the brush unraveling the corkscrew curls springing up from my scalp felt like my skin being ripped apart. Section by section, thin braids trailing down my back that pinched as my mother wove the strands one over and across the others. She’d string beads at the ends so that they clicked together while I walked or ran. My mother, exhausted, always said I had so much hair. She gave up Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons to care for it, to braid it, to adorn it with these small shining beads like jewels. The little girls in my class would run their fingers through it, wishing they too had trinkets in their hair.
It starts with being eleven, hair past my shoulders in a straight, chemically altered sheet. Long and beautiful like it had always been, still shown the same amount of care if not more—but easier, now. Managed.
I was so ashamed for so long.
Was there shame in saying your hair needed help to be worn every day? No more break-neck brushing, no more crying? There was when the girls who surrounded you had hair that grew long and straight, flowed like water from the faucet. There was when these girls touched and fondled your hair, examined it for authenticity, forever an anomaly. Still thick, despite the chemicals. Still growing. There was when you were questioned, when being black wasn’t explanation enough for the length because “just black” girls didn’t look like that.
My mother still guided me up to the sink, neck bent against the towel, head in the basin. Shampoo, condition, rinse, dry. She’d sit me in the same chair and run the flat iron from root to tip, root to tip, over and over again until my entire head was sleek and shining, soft and flowing. Saturday afternoons and Sunday evenings—who was I to feel shame in the face of such care?
A small Indian boy would make eyes at me as I sat alone on the concrete in the early morning hours before school, head bent over a book so that my sheet flowed around me like a shroud. I would glance at him and smile, but his eyes were always on my hair.
A small mixed girl would offer backhanded compliments, corner me in homeroom to ask how I got my hair like that, how it was possible, if she could touch. She would tell me I was beautiful. But like him, her eyes were always on my hair, traveling from root to tip with ravenous scorn, with veiled disbelief. You’re so pretty.
It starts with being fifteen, having fallen into a rhythm. Wash, dry, straighten—once a week, every week. I learned to wash and straighten on my own, staring into the bathroom mirror as I divided sections, ran the flat iron from root to tip, root to tip. A trip to the salon every three months. Sitting in the chair with a burning chemical paste at my roots, smoothing out the new growth. My hairdresser would take a comb and rake it across the curls, loosening them and loosening them until my hair had dropped another inch or two.
When I left, my hair was plastered to my head. Flattened, thinned. I began to schedule these salon trips during school breaks, so I had days to recover, so no one would notice enough to ask.
It starts with being sixteen, and then seventeen, and then eighteen, and friends asking why my roots didn’t match my curls. Sitting up night after night, brushing and braiding and twisting, just to feel normal in the morning. Compliments when it was straightened, long and silky. Questions when it was curled, thick and frizzy. Suspicions that it was all a big fake. Why the hell did anyone even care?
A fevered summer and scissors and then—invisibility. No more questions. No more touching. No more investigations. No more comments about not being black enough, a closet mulatto. Suddenly, I became too ethnic to be seen.
Kathryn H. Ross is a recent grad and holds a BA and MA in English and Writing. More importantly, she adores cats, warm baths, and Daniel Radcliffe movies. Her work ranges from sentimental and absurd shorts to lamentation essays about living as a young black woman in America. Read her at speakthewritelanguage.com