The long white spikes dig in and pull at the tight curls. Every time the brush goes through I scream, aware that my father might come in and tell me to be quiet. Bunday. That’s what I call it, “the weekly torture fest” when my mother wrestles with my unruly hair, tugging and wrangling it atop my head into a perfect ballet bun. So I can fall in line, dance for a mirror and learn Grace and Control. I hate my hair. Why does it have to be so big and puffy. It’s so ugly, surrounding my head like an alien helmet. Why can’t it be fine and straight and hang down by my ears like the Pretty people? Like white people. Sitting on the floor in between her mother’s legs, like a trapped animal. Animal.
I can feel my mom’s agony as she brushes and fights, feeling like she did this to me. If she had married a white man, she wouldn’t have to torture her own flesh and blood. And I feel this, too: I’m not perfect, and I should be. I should have hair that easily goes up into a bun, hair that a brush can run through without making my mother’s hands hurt.
Straighten it. Get it under control. We’ll all be so happy. The gooey white stuff smells like something that shouldn’t go near anything alive. It’s meant to kill, to conquer. My scalp burns, I want to claw my hairline where the fine blond hairs surround my baby face. Just a few more minutes, then it’ll be over and your hair will look so pretty, the hairdresser says.
Pretty, that’s what I want. That’s the promise. Get it out with cold water, get it out, get it out, this hurts! I touch It. It’s so soft, so thin. I don’t want to sit up and look in the mirror. I’m afraid, that I’ve disappeared, been dissolved by the chemicals. I want the red plastic chair to stay reclined forever. Instead, it shoots me upright.
Gabby pulls and pulls and pulls. Straight, straighter, straightest. Now it’s the heat that threatens my scalp. Daily News visions of kids with third-degree burns needing skin grafts burst into my 11-year old brain. You’ll be pretty, you’ll be pretty, you’ll be pretty. Just stay in the chair. Pretty starts to emerge. Perfection in neatly blown-out sections of hair in the mirror. Sections I greedily touch, desperate to run my fingers through the silky strands. The Animal is dead.
Pocahontas. Long, brown, straight, shiny. Where’d Abby go? What will They say? People are gonna look. I hate it when people look. I want the linoleum to open up and swallow me. Ooooh, ahhh, you look so pretty, pretty pretty, all the women in the salon say in unison. What was I before? I touch it again, not believing it’s real. Just don’t let it get wet or Pretty will disappear.
Everything’s under control. As long as there’s a hair appointment and all the right ointments, gels, sprays and creams nearby. Moisture is the enemy. But I can trick moisture, I have an arsenal. If I can just keep the hair around my scalp saturated with products any time I’m going to sweat, then I’ll be good. If the fine hair hardens into just the right place, the sweat won’t be able to unleash the Kink, the Ugly. And for the rain, there are hoods, hoods I can tie so tightly there’ll barely be room for my eyes to see. For bathing, shower caps, plastic bags and rubber bands. Swimming? I hate it anyway. I do this for eight years.
Black pants, straight hair; controlled, confined. Well-dressed, tight body, good grammar, good school. I can’t remember when I decide to just let It dry. To relax the fight. Maybe it happened by accident after catching a glimpse in a storefront, liking what I saw. Or maybe I just got tired. One day, something made me decide to leave It alone. The corkscrew curls that wouldn’t stay in place, soft and loud at the same time, holding spirit and freedom in each ringlet. A child set free. I see Her in my eyes, two chemical-free ponytails and a curiosity that will never be satisfied. It would be poetic to say that that little girl didn’t care what people thought of her, but she did.
The sun is so hot Stacey and I have to sit down on the hard cement and catch our breath. My palm drips salty moisture onto the blue rubber handball I’m clenching. The two of us have been running across that court in our neighborhood playground all morning, the urban equivalent of whatever it is pre-teens do in the suburbs. The first ice cream truck of the day jingles by as we sit, joined by distant conversations between New York Hospital employees let loose for lunch. We lean heavily against the white court, framed by plastic black fencing meant to Keep Out.
I need a drink. The water from the fountain tastes faintly like blood, the same metallic bite that makes you want to spit it out but tastes comfortingly familiar. The playground. Summer. Upper East Side. White kids and nannies, the only colored faces are the ones spilling into the park from the methadone clinic, and my father. Oh, and my brother, Stacey and I. Sometimes I forget that’s how the world sees me. Black, and all that’s wrapped up in that one monosyllabic label. Sitting back down I lazily stretch out my warm brown leg and turn to my friend. Would you rather be black or white? I ask my friend who has a white mom and black dad like me. I have no idea what she said. I would rather be white. Without hesitation, is what I said. I feel sick in the silence that follows. I know something is wrong but at the same time it’s True. I want to take the sentence back, to shove it down my throat where it came from. But it is True. True. And something feels right about speaking Truth. I just wish the truth were different. So I never say those words aloud again, not even to myself.
That day, on that court, in the awkward silence following the Truth, I gaze across the playground, scanning for something to relieve the discomfort. My eyes find solace in the boys playing basketball, pick and rolling to the city heat. “Fame” was shot in this playground. The adjacent high school brought in kids from other neighborhoods. They’re loud. I heard they’re Bad. They aren’t like me. I don’t want to be like them. I’m Good, smart, well-mannered, have lighter skin. My parents told me early on that I wouldn’t be going to that school. Black. Brown. Beige. Puerto Rican? Dominican? All Black. Some of them almost look like me. But I’m half-white so I’m Better. So close to Perfect. And almost Pretty. Almost.
I go to private high school. I feel out of place because my family doesn’t have much money and all the other mostly white kids do. But people seem to think I’m pretty enough so I swallow my insecurities, play volleyball, get good grades and try to fit in with the cool kids. People tell me I should wear my hair out, natural. It’s the first time I hear that. Maybe it’s because Groove Theory and Erykah Badu came on the scene. I feel a sensation of something like pride. Maybe one day I will. In between the teen angst, I start to relax a little, grow up some and even have a little fun.
I decide to stay in the city and go to Columbia for college partially because I don’t want to go to a school in the country where there might be racist frat guys. I’m terrified of drunk white men. Fair or not, too many times it’s a recipe for racial slurs and other behavior I’d rather not see. It saddens me to think that my discomfort limited my world. Never again. I might have liked a country college.
Life in Morningside Heights is more of the same, rich ivory-skinned kids joined by a sprinkling of sort-of rich black kids. None of them are like me. They’re from the suburbs, excited to drink and go out in the big city, I’ve been doing that since I was eleven. I’m seventeen going on twenty-seven. I straighten my hair less and less. I try different products. Black-people pomades make my hair greasy, reminiscent of the jerry curl. I’ve never seen one, but I know it’s not for me. Even though I let my hair curl I don’t want to buy Their products, the ones shoved out of site collecting dust at the far ends of the drugstore. I try every product for “regular” curly hair looking for the one that will give my hair the perfect frizz-free curls. Thank God for John Frieda’s Frizz-Ease. Not too much, just the right amount-have to be careful-will leave my hair with the Perfect shiny, bouncy curls. Perfect hair, hair that people are starting to notice and like.
This Perfect hair isn’t completely “natural.” Perfect hair is about 2 months after it’s been relaxed so it can hold a curl but isn’t “kinky” or frizzy. This state of Perfection only happens a few months a year. Then full on natural encroaches. Like Kudzu, that Southern weed that creeps up and envelops everything in site. It comes in slowly and before I know it, a quarter of my head feels like a Brillo pad, tight and “nappy.” I have to struggle to get the brush through. It’s the sign to go on the offensive. Back in for treatment. Treatment, like I have a disease. At this point I don’t like fully straight hair so I despise spending time and money waiting for the “straightened” curl to come back. It means two months of in-between, having to put my hair up and out of the way. To pretend it doesn’t exist. All so I’ll look okay and people won’t ask questions. Some ask anyway. What’s up with your hair? Why’re you wearing it like that? I try and explain the process, feigning comfort with the subject. Grow hair, grow! Faster, faster, faster.
Then I find it. Hawaiian Tropic SPF 15. Ocean, coconuts, beach, salty air, my heaven, all pouring out of a cheap plastic bottle. I’m on vacation, swept up in the freedom of being somewhere other than home. I squeeze a white blob of sunscreen into my hands, run my fingers through my wet hair and start scrunching. The curls never dried so Perfectly. I look in the mirror and like what I see. A rock star, a movie star, someone that people will like. Dare I say someone beautiful? Maybe just for a moment. How do you get your hair like that? Oh, it’s sunscreen. Really? (shocked look every time.)Yeah, really. I do that for six years.
One of those displays at the end of the aisle in Duane Reade jumps out, brown and beige Hawaiian Tropic bottles, NOT my white one. A new sku, probably for deep tanning, but who does that anymore? I start scanning the shelf looking for reassurance that everything is as it should be. Where is my Perfection in a bottle? No way, I don’t believe it. It has to be here. It isn’t. Maybe it’s just a packaging change, not a reformulation. The formula has to stay exactly the same. I’ve tried using the SPF 30, even the 8 and neither product has the same effect. And this is my Hair, my signature asset–the thing that makes me Pretty in a cool way. It’s the thing that makes it okay not to be white and blond. It’s what I have that They want. I gotta find my sunscreen.
Drugstore.com. I order 20 bottles. It’s sophomore year. My father dies, and with him the half of me I already feel disconnected from- except when a white person points out my blackness or a black person gives me the “we’re in the same club” head nod. I don’t know how to mourn so I go to class. I power through like always. I graduate, get a “good” job and do all the right things. But the love is still missing.
I want to love Abby for real and stop hiding, apologizing, staying small. I quit my job and I leave NYC to let discomfort transform me. I had learned to ski in Aspen when I was 13 and the Rocky Mountains took my breath away. So I move to Colorado. So white, so uncomfortable, so beautiful. Someone tells me black people live on the other side of the mountains. I never did find them. I try to relax my hair myself. No one notices. I don’t get my whole head evenly. Some parts are straighter than others, it’s fucked, but the curls relax and it only costs five dollars. In just two months the curls will hit their prime. And I’ll be Me again. Almost Perfect. But it just isn’t the same doing it myself, it’s kind of a mess. There isn’t anything I can do though except wait. Whether my hair is straight or curly doesn’t matter much anyway, here I am just plain Other. My brown skin means people recognize me on the creepily clean Boulder streets, in yoga classes, at Whole Foods. There is no hiding. Abby is Seen everywhere. I get a job teaching yoga. I give them Abby, Jay-Z to sun salutations, peppered with Nina Simone, Madonna and Michael. Headstands, handstands, Buddhist meditation in a straight up no bullshit, tie dye or hemp kind of way. They love it. I start enjoying being different and offering this bubble something fresh. I stay a year. Then it’s time to go.I miss the edge, the grit, the energy of different stories smashed together and forced to figure it out. I miss color.
I move to Bed-Stuy to live with black people because I never have and it’s time. I’m 30. I want the soul, the joy, the pain, the strength, the unshakeable heart. I want to feel connection to That, to Them, to people who share the experience of being black in America. I find my spot and for the first time I have neighbors that actually say hello. There are bullets. When I hear them I pray the children ride their bikes the other way. I wonder if they see my “whiteness” underneath the brown. I know they hear it.
In my Brooklyn kitchen, a friend painstakingly combs the chemical shit through my puffy, frizzy, uneven, broken hair, scared of what she might be doing, knowing the value of what she’s touching but terrified to say no. My scalp burns. Just a little more, then I’ll wash it out. Have to make sure all of this is worth it, and it’s a store brand so it can’t be that strong. I’m only straightening the roots, so tufts of brown puffiness pop out from gobs of white. I run to the shower, knowing that we left the side we did first in too long. What’s it gonna look like? How will it dry? Who the hell knows? No matter what, I have a Pretty face right?
Do you want to look like Lionel Ritchie? Cut it, she says, a black woman, in a black salon. Take care of it. No more relaxer. I know it’s time, that’s why I’m there. The curls look sad, defeated, tired of the abuse. Even still, I sit in the chair and debate between keeping this mullet or cutting my hair so it can finally be healthy. It had started falling out in clumps, breaking like dry twigs– some short and some long. I cling to my hair like my life depends on it. She cuts and cuts and cuts some more. I keep asking for reassurance that it’s going to look okay. She promises. I don’t believe her. I finally surrender.
My hair is so short. Tears well up. I smile, thank her and run. I have dinner plans with a white boy I used to pray would like me. Little Abby is terrified he’ll see her now and think she’s ugly. Grown-up Abby keeps moving forward, down into the subway with curls set free, perked up and finally given permission to be light, bouncy, alive and whatever they are-naturally. Real. Power. Grace.
White boy loves the new hair. But really, I think it’s the comfortable in my own skin. It’s hot. I think I’m falling in love with myself. And that’s the love I’ve been looking for all along.