My hair was a sore spot for a long time.
I just felt that it was unruly, and messy. Even when I cut it, my tiny curls would spring out and I would try and pat them down. At times, I would chemically straighten them, even though I knew that it would not take. The back of my head would remain curly and the hair at the front would be straight as a needle. Worse, the chemicals were unravelling my hair’s structure, making it brittle, weak and broken. However, there was no alternative — hair was most attractive, straight. After I got tired of the damage the chemical straighteners were causing, I moved on to the weave. People had no reservations about asking me if my hair was real. They had no qualms about touching me without permission.
At some point during those years, I moved in with Lucy. She is Caucasian and one of my oldest and best friends. She would watch me undo my hair. Tentatively, I would touch my scalp looking for the stitches that held in the rows of straight human hair. One time, she reached across to pet my head. She was visibly shocked by how soft it was, as though she expected my little coils would be coarse and unkempt. I took her to task for petting me like a dog, then I took her to task for reaching over as though I wasn’t a person, but rather an object she could do with as she pleased.
It was some years later that I started to understand the significance of this conversation.
I think this is because I had to confront, accept and love my own Blackness. Adopting white standards of beauty, such as straightening our hair, or lightening our skin is not new. African American slaves who appeared lighter in complexion, with straighter hair were more likely to live in the house where conditions were not as severe (Wilkerson, 2017). Post-slavery, it was also easier for Black people who met these standards to advance in society. Some would say that this is a reality of a dark past or at the very least, not a Canadian reality. Unfortunately, we still see it play out in the most insidious of ways. If I walk into Shopper’s Drug Mart, I know that the products for my hair will be relegated to a small corner, if there is one at all. I know that very few of the salons in the fashionable Beltline area of Calgary are for me. I also know that if I am attending an interview, my hair must be palatable for my Caucasian colleagues. It is also worth noting that systemic racism, oppression, and discrimination are more about what you don't see, rather than what is in front of you. Always ask yourself: who is being excluded, and why?
Since I have said all this, I just want to note: it is important to understand that not everyone is required to find love for their blackness in the same way I have. Hair is political but it need not be. It can just be about feeling good and looking good. The weave or chemical straightening may work for you, and this is not an attack on that.
Nowadays, I like my natural hair.
To care for it, I wear protective styles in the winter, braids being my favourite. Between washes, I gently part them and spray apple cider vinegar on my scalp to cleanse. After this ritual, I put some eucalyptus oil in a bucket with warm water, and I soak my towel, squeeze the water out, and run it over the braids, simultaneously infusing them with the fresh scent and removing any dust. After that, I take olive or coconut oil and I rub it into my scalp to protect me from the Albertan winter. Though, the best times are really when I take the braids out. I put on Netflix (sometimes Rupaul’s Drag Race, other times, The Mindy Project) and gradually untwist the strands. I coat each clump of hair with thick coconut oil, and then at the end I put on my bonnet and go to sleep. This is known as the ‘pre-poo.’ It adds so much moisture to my hair. Tight curls need to be treated with respect. The next morning, I get up, shampoo and condition it, then tenderly comb it out. I have a homemade mixture of shea butter and peppermint essential oil that I put in when I add heat. I love how it melts in when I blowout my hair. Those times, the afro rides free.
Lucy still asks to touch it; I still say no.
Wilkerson, K. (2017). The natural hair movement. The Spelman Undergraduate Research Journal. Retrieved from https://radar.auctr.edu/islandora/object/continuum:0001.008
Chris Rock in a documentary - not something one expects to see! However, this documentary follows him as he tries to make sense of what his young daughter means when she tells him that she does not have ‘good hair.'
These articles are quick reads that discuss the politics of it all. They contextualize how it's never "just hair."
How does black hair reflect black history?
by Rumeana Jahangir
A Brief History of Black Hair, Politics, and Discrimination
So You Want to Talk About Race
by Ijeoma Oluo
This book is for those who want to delve a bit deeper into privilege, systemic violence, and anti-Black racism. The author digs deep. Find it here.
Mandi Sakutukwa is a Zimbabwean – Canadian social worker based in Calgary working in mental health. She always thought she would grow up and make ice cream but was surprised to find that she fell into anti-racist activism and writing. She is an avid natural health enthusiast who believes in living a sustainable lifestyle. She can often be found mixing shea butter and coconut oil for her hair or making mango turmeric tea for a variety of illnesses she swears she has.
When she isn’t working, you can find her spoiling her cat, curled up on the couch reading a historical romance, or pretending to exercise.