My Hair Journey: The Deepest Reclaiming of Soul

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Lisha Epperson -Reclaiming Hair4

I fell in love with natural hair in second grade. Traci wore her cotton candy clouds of hair woven into two soft braids. They criss-crossed at the nape of her neck.  From my seat at a wooden desk scribbled with the names of children who’d come before me, I watched and dreamed about her hair. Traci’s hair was a marvel, a fully loaded sensory experience of texture and smell. The sweet mixture of coconut oil and sweat intrigued me. More than anything, I wanted to talk to her about her hair. Her free, unbothered, beautiful hair. Traci tapped into the glory of her #blackgirlmagic way before it was cool … and we hadn’t even hit the double digits.

But this was the real world and I had other concerns. Our classroom wasn’t air-conditioned. While myself and all the other girls worried over the immanent reversion of our press ‘n curls, Traci simply looked beautiful. Something told me we were all trying a little too hard.

Who do you think you are
Who do you wanna be
You’re the only one that really knows
Maybe you’ll be surprised
After your search is through
When you find you’ve just been chasing you
                                                              – The Spinners

“Let me fix your hair” was a coded alarm, indicating the need to make right, the wrong of our hair. The central message being “your hair—Black hair—is a problem. It needs to be fixed.” Thus began the subduing of a girl’s soul with the heat of a searing hot comb. One section, at a time. “Not good enough” hair was doomed to a lifetime of living in an altered state.

A part of me I couldn’t name, was drawn to, maybe even challenged by Traci’s hair. But at seven, I’d already absorbed the language and messages surrounding good/straight and bad/nappy hair. I already lamented my position on the continuum. My hair in its natural state wasn’t good enough. It didn’t curl or cascade below my shoulders in a sea of golden locks. It didn’t look like the hair of the women and girls I got to know on television.

That part of me connected to the memory of my creation. A child of God, I knew the ancient beauty of my original self. That part of me longed to, through resistance, love my natural hair. The girl who stared back at me in the mirror at night began to ask questions. She begged me to stay curious, to give my hair a chance. She knew how powerfully hair shaped the identity of black women. She wanted me to be free.

***********

I’m not tall enough. I bend forward to push my head under the faucet of running water in the kitchen of our railroad apartment, but I’m not tall enough. The side of the sink presses hard against my belly. My eyes are closed. The water I resisted the two weeks between washings is suddenly supposed to be my friend. My height isn’t my only problem. I’m not sure if I want to get wet.

When it’s over, my mother softens my squeaky clean hair with Dax, a thick, green petroleum-based pomade. Pulling a wide-toothed comb through each tangled weft (this is the part that hurts) she begins braiding. When dry, she unravels each braid and applies more pomade before running a heated metal comb through the length of each section. She is straightening my hair.

Root to tip. Root to tip. I hear the sizzle of not quite dry sections and feel sorry for strands that get trapped in the comb. My hair responds to the heat and each pass of the comb rids me of my problematic kinks and coils. Longer and silky smooth, my hair is different—manageable they say. I’ll get compliments and everyone will say how pretty I am.

But I remember the unmistakable smell of burnt hair and knew the pain of inflamed skin if I flinched. My shiny new hair would cover the burns. Would it erase the fear and insecurity, the message delivered each time I submitted my self and soul to this process of beautification? Was it worth it? I was only seven.

*********

We repeat this ritual every other Sunday.  It’s a whole lot of work for such a fickle style. Pressed hair is conditional and can’t be trusted. Pressed hair can’t get wet. This means no swimming, no surprise of rain, no water. No spontaneity. I quickly learn to cover my hair with a scarf and shower cap when bathing. I learn not to take chances. Could it be that Black girls learn to speak the language of fear and limit ourselves in the area of risk-taking through messages about our hair?

My tween and teen years were ritualized by this bimonthly routine. I learned to style my hair without too much pomade to keep it from going limp and used pink foam rollers for bangs and curls. I was happy enough, but Traci’s hair followed me.

On wash day I met myself in the mirror and marveled at the texture of my hair when wet. I longed for freedom, a life beyond the hot comb. I wanted to know my hair in its natural state, but the pull of processed hair wouldn’t let me go. A lye-based relaxer promised straight hair that wouldn’t revert when wet. A relaxer promised manageability and the look American culture told us was beautiful. Relaxed hair blew in the wind. My lust for it would be satisfied.

But the relaxer and I never really got along. I suffered through a ring of fire that bubbled and burned my scalp. I stuck it out for a few years but in the end salvaged the resulting damage by cutting it off.  When it was clear my attempt at a Lisa Bonet inspired pixie cut flopped, all I heard was my father’s voice: a woman’s hair is her crown. I wondered if I’d lopped off more than my hair. Had I also lost the bulk of my senior savings at an upscale salon chasing a beauty that never made sense in my heart?

It was time to go natural. I grew out the relaxer and never looked back. The choice was spiritual and political. I wanted to define beauty for myself. I wanted to be a representation of self-love for the little people in my life. My hair was a rebellion.

I didn’t have YouTube videos for guidance or a plethora of natural products to help style my hair. What I had was the courage to explore questions of identity, race and culture by experimenting in real time with my own hair.

I’ve spent the last 25 years learning my hair, learning to speak its language, listening to the stories it tells. From box braids, to a carefully crafted and gelled ballerina bun, to twist outs before they were called twist outs, and locks I loved to life for over 12 years. I’ve watched a woman grow fearless. I’ve relished the home of my beloved Afro halo. I learned to love my hair and in the learning, loved myself.

My father was right. My hair is my crown. It is my adornment and pleasure but it doesn’t have to be anything other than what it is. And all it has to be is healthy.  To be clear, I don’t blame my mother or her generation for the stories they told their girls or the practices they introduced. Years of oppression and indoctrination are not undone overnight and I believe the adage that says “when you know better, you do better.” My mother didn’t know.  Many in my generation asked the hard questions. We struggled. But our daughters? Our daughters live the redemption of a beauty reclaimed.

I have an appreciation for the magic of Black hair. ALL of it. Natural, pressed, relaxed, weaved or braided. I’m grateful to live in a time when my girls are constantly affirmed for their puffs and twists. Hair, in their world, is about celebrating options, not about believing the lie that says their hair needs policing with labels of good and bad.

My hair, believe it or not, loves water and cutting it short made me feel like a super hero. Reaching up, around and out, each strand connects me with the frequency of heaven. With hair, the journey is your own. It is the evolution of a personal awakening. It is the deepest reclaiming of soul.  

In my hair journey… I name myself, and call the woman looking back at me beautiful.

Betcha by golly wow
You’re the one that I’ve been waiting for forever
And ever will my love for you keep growing strong
Oh keep growing strong
                           – Phyllis Hyman

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Lisha Epperson
Hi! I’m Lisha Epperson, a hopeless romantic, lover of Jesus and most things antique. I love being a wife and mother of 5. I’m hooked on books (got the library fines to prove it) and all things ballet. I work out a life of faith with fear and trembling in New York City and blog about it all at lishaepperson.com.
Lisha Epperson

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