I remember sitting in between my mothers knees, no longer holding back tears as she used a wide-toothed comb to untangle my hair. Bawling while simultaneously trying to pay attention to The Lion King because, an hour in and we were hardly a quarter of the way through. After each section she would take a clump of my hair that was trapped in the comb and place it on the table beside me. As the ball of blond hair became bigger and more cloud-like, I would think back to my friends at school, with their long straight hair and I was jealous. How come they didn’t have to spend a whole day washing their hair? How come their mamas never burned their ears with a hot comb? How come they look like the women in magazines and I so often get mistaken for a boy, just because my hair does not fall in glossy tendrils down my back?
For my twelfth birthday, I woke up early, so excited that this morning might have been mistaken for Christmas. At Katie’s Hair Salon, Katie herself would spend the next six hours making my hair straight; like that of the women on relaxer boxes. I ran my fingers through my hair for the first time and constantly after that. I brushed, twirled and flipped it just like my friends at school. I had never been so happy. It lasted three days.
Almost none of my friends recognized me, and in the first couple of days, I hardly recognized myself. As time progressed, and my hair got frizzier, more things got stuck in it. At first it was just simple stuff like twigs and leaves, even frizzier and I would pull out that bobby pin I left there three weeks ago. Frizzier then, and I would remove the occasional pencil placed by classmates betting on how long it would take me to notice.
When I finally let it bloom into its fullest potential, I found some things I never expected. I found pride when a photographer invited me to his workshop, my unique look engraved now, and forever, as tintypes. I found frustration when my local temple took me less seriously because my curls made me an outlier. I found a startling attention from strangers stemming from the curious as well as the creepy and inadvertently racist.
While I have to fight every day to make my voice heard, my hair makes statements without even trying. I’ve had older black men look at me and raise a prideful fist in the air. Our eye contact speaks about Black Power, Angela Davis and a fight for equality that continues to this day.
I’ve had women stare with admiration as they touch their own tresses damaged by a billion-dollar industry pushing chemical relaxers, wigs and weaves. They tell me about sacrificing their natural hair to the European ideal of beauty so they don’t get passed over for a promotion. They tell me to keep it up because I’m continuing a personal protest with every wash-and-go.
I found my identity in a cloud of hair cocooning and incubating how I perceive the world as well as how it perceives me. It took years for me to accept that what I have is malleable and beautiful and mine and it shouts of black excellence even when I cannot find my voice.
Sidney Fisher, Class of 2018, will be attending The University of Michigan in the fall.