I lay the flat iron down next to the sink, and when I lean in close, I see the gray is creeping up again. I wonder if I should do something about it, thinking of all the ways I’ve worn my hair through the years, how my hair tells the story of my life.
My earliest memories include collard greens and thick cut bacon and sitting on the floor between my mother’s legs — or my cousin’s or aunt’s legs — as she sat on the couch or on the glider on my grandmother’s porch and worked the comb through my hair.
Whoever got the honor of trying to get me to sit still that day would spread a glob of hair grease on the back of her hand. She’d part my hair and with her index finger, run a line of hair grease down that part, pulling my hair tight into cornrows, or just three braids. Or four. It was years before I knew the white girls didn’t use hair grease and that it was best to keep that information to myself.
Eventually, I started getting my hair pressed. I don’t know how that started or why, but I’d sit in a kitchen chair while my mom heated up the comb on the red-hot eye of the stove. At least an hour passed getting my hair to go from natural to straight while hair grease sizzled and smoke rose up to meet the ceiling before slipping out the window into the air outside. The first time I told a White girl I don’t wash my hair every day — or even every week, for that matter — I thought she’d fall right over. So I stopped telling people that, too.
One year on summer break from elementary school, I let my hair go. Wore it just the way God made it. And when my mother took me with her to visit at a nursing home, the woman in the corner asked my mother about her son. My mother doesn’t have a son. And my hair was soon forced back into compliance.
In middle school, my mother took me to Mrs. Spicer’s house, where a hair salon was set up in the basement. I guess Mom decided it would be easier on everyone to pay someone else to press my hair instead of fighting with the hot comb in the kitchen on a Saturday afternoon. So, twice a month after school, I’d get dropped off for the washing and the drying and the combing out and the pressing, and I was lucky if I got out of there without having my scalp burned at least once.
Eventually, we caved in to the chemicals that mark the point of almost-no-return, and relaxers became the order of the day. I would keep my hands away from my scalp on the day I knew I’d be getting a touch-up, a necessary precaution to keep the lye from burning my scalp. For years, I treated my hair this way because it was easier to wear my hair straight than to deal with the people who wanted to know things like, “Can I touch it?” or “Do you use a pick for that?” or “Does your hair even get wet when it’s like that?” or “Can you hide things in there?”
In my thirties, I let my hair go again. And it was good. It was very good, and I wore it like that for years. When I finally changed it, it was because I wanted to and not because of the questions or the fears. I just wanted Halle Berry’s haircut for a change.
I keep staring at my reflection and the gray that’s creeping back, and I think it might be time to let it go again and wear it just the way God made it.
This essay originally appeared at The High Calling, an online magazine about work, life, and God. It is reprinted here by permission.