Tuesday, May 18, 2010

HairStory, From Then To Now, Part 1 - The Early Years

Okay, you caught me in a gabby mood. Quick, grab that beverage and that munchie, resume your seat, and let me tell you the long-awaited story of my hair, as I promised last time we spoke.

For me, there isn't much to tell before the day I took a pair of scissors to the front of my hair when I was about six. Mama washed my hair when she thought it needed it, greased and straightened it with a straightening comb to silk it out before curling it with hot curlers so I would look pretty according to her expectations for church, and plaited and/or ponied it up to keep it neat for the rest of the week. All I had to do was sit there and let it happen.

I think I must have been influenced by other little girls at the boarding school I began attending at age five to do what I did, because I distinctly seem to remember being six when I picked up the scissors that day. Mama saw the handiwork, and after ascertaining from a shaky, oh-no-I'm-about-to-get-it me that "I just wanted to cut myself a bang," she got spanktacular. Any desire or interest I had in using scissors on my hair died a screaming, painful, permanent death that day.

Thinking back, I'm sure it was the trauma of having the hands of a stranger in my hair for the first time that made me pay attention to the bangs on little White girls at my school. Until I went away to the boarding school, Mama was the main hairdresser for me, with my grandma and the occasional aunt pitching in here and there. Mama didn't live with me at the school, however, and there were other little Colored girls who also needed haircare, so they had a Miss Luvinia to come in and take care of our hair.

I'd probably been at school a few days or so the first time I met her. I'll never forget it: Mama had styled my hair in twisted ponytails on each side with a bang in front for that final day, a Sunday, when she and Daddy packed me away to school, the awful day when she turned her little girl over to the hopefully tender mercies of strangers. Now, on this fateful morning some few days later, here was this tall, thin Colored woman with a voice that fell harshly on my ears, who was NOT my Mama, and who proceeded to undo my hair and ruthlessly comb out and eliminate the bang my Mama had made me, that I felt made me pretty, that was the one last thing I had of home to comfort me, because Mama wasn't there. It wasn't that her technique hurt, it was the psychological ripping of my Mama, of the last piece of the known, of the last comforting, familiar bit of home, from my hair. It felt awful, as though this monster who dared to put her hands in my hair had done something unimaginably, horribly wrong to me. I cried. Thinking on it now, that psychological violation felt to the then-five-year-old me as awful as the actual physical violation of the almost-19-year-old me years later, though for obviously different reasons.

I never wanted that to happen to me again. Mama sent me to school with a bang, and I wanted it back. Seeing the little White girls, with their bangs cut into their hair, I somehow understood that if my bang were cut into my hair, then it would be harder to comb it away. Even if the hair was combed back, it would be easy to make the bang again because it would be shorter than the rest of my hair. I doubt my thinking was this sophisticated, but I definitely had the correct idea, or so I thought. Thus, at the first opportunity on a visit home, I picked up those scissors. And, well, the rest I just told you.

From that first ill-fated encounter with Miss Luvinia until fourth grade, when I was nine, the most I'd done to my hair, besides the one ill-fated bang-cut, was undo my own plaits and ponies. I'd never washed it or styled it myself. That was Miss Luvinia's job. Every morning she was there to comb and style my hair as needed, and every two weeks she washed, dried, and straightened my hair. By its regularity and familiarity with what Mama always did, it became as familiar and comforting as home and did much to heal that initial psychic damage. I actually came, rather quickly, to look forward to my day to have my hair washed. Miss Luvinia would talk to me and sing while she worked. I specifically remember hearing, from her point of view, what that first encounter was like, her having to listen to my pitiful wails while she styled my hair to make it neat for school. I think I actually laughed as she described a day when, for some unrelated reason, I returned to the "cottage", as we called the dorms, "Wailing like a siren!" She said she could hear me all the way from the school building! Getting to know her, I found her to actually be quite sweet, and I came to love her. Thanks to her total management of my hair, however, I was totally unprepared to take on the task when I entered fourth grade.

My school was actually split between two campuses in those days. Grades K-3 and 9-12 lived on the Ashe Avenue campus. For fourth grade I was taken to the Garner Road campus. There was a Mrs. MacDougald who was a housekeeper mostly, who also did the Black girls' hair in cornrows, flat braids they're mostly called now. However, the daily washing and other maintenance was ours to do, and for me, the learning curve was a bit steep in places. My hair suffered greatly for it. That, however was the beginning of my hands-on, do-it-myself attitude in the management of my hair. I'd long since accepted the loss of life with Mama except in the 10 or so weeks of summer vacation, and, perhaps more than I, she suffered the loss of my beautiful, redgold-blond hair that, until I went away, she'd loved so much and nurtured so well according to the haircare custom of the time. First strangers had taken over that task, and now my own hapless hands had done worlds of damage. So I guess she saw it as salvation of sorts when the Jheri Curl came out when I was in my early teens. At her earliest opportunity, she had one applied to my hair. The chemical styling had begun.

As I indicated earlier, I had a brief interest in cutting my hair, and only then to cut myself a bang, that had died a swift and painful death. So I found it disconcerting, and ultimately undesirable, that every time I went to have my hair re-Curled, the stylist was cutting my hair. Especially since I also noticed, for the first time since I was a little girl, that my hair was retaining length! It seemed that between visits my hair grew quite fast but would then be cut. Since seeing the extent to which my hair grew between curl applications made me want to have my hair long, I eventually became very resistant to having it cut. By this point, it was Mama, using the box kits that had now become popular and available in stores, who had learned to apply the Curl to her husband and all her children, male and female, who was again my main stylist for this look, although the daily maintenance was mine. One day, the struggle erupted in words, with her fussing at me because "You won't let nobody cut your hair in a style!" and me responding with equal heat that "I don't want my hair locked into the same style! I want to be able to do different things with my hair, and the only way I can do that is if I keep it long!" I was sixteen. The Hair War had begun.

You know, as with all my utterances, this is taking more words than I planned for. So I'm gonna take a break. Stay tuned, because this tale ain't by any means done. Maybe I'll come back tonight or in a few days to finish it. But finish it I definitely will.

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