At six years old, I used to sit on a stool in Mama’s room while she slowly sectioned off my hair and saturated it with grease. I would wail and try to escape but Mama always managed to wrestle me to the ground so she wouldn’t lose the braid she was working on, all the while screaming at me to stay still.
When I kept it up, she would shake her head, forever patient, and yank my hair until I collapsed into an exhausted heap of snot, tears and reluctant capitulation. There was always “just one more braid, honey, I promise,” until it was finally over and my scalp ached and stung from being pulled on so tight.
I remember wishing for hair like my Barbie doll’s: Long, wavy, luscious hair that was free of knots and couldn’t hold a braid if it tried. I wanted hair I could run my fingers through, not the mass of curls Mama tried so hard to tame.
I remember wishing for hair like my Barbie doll’s: Long, wavy, luscious hair that was free of knots and couldn’t hold a braid if it tried. tweet
For years, I had a complicated relationship with my hair. Once I was older and couldn’t fit on Mama’s stool from hell, I had to do my own hair, but I hated having to deal with it.
I hated that it never did what I wanted it to do, that it refused to succumb to the will of my wide-toothed combs and bamboo hairbrushes.
Back then, I hadn’t known about relaxers and perms and all the different ways to “tame” natural hair, or I would’ve begged my mother to let me try them. I knew that braiding my hair was good for it, that putting it up in Bantu knots at night would prevent breakage, but I was disheartened and, frankly, just lazy. I didn’t see the point of exerting any effort on hair that I didn’t like.
When I decided to wear hijab halfway through tenth grade, I realized that covering my hair came with an added benefit, one that hadn’t initially crossed my mind.
I realized that I could now get away with pulling my hair back into messy buns every morning without bothering to detangle it or put it in a protective style; no one would notice, anyway.
I was young and naïve and failed to see that my hair is, first and foremost, for me and no one else. But it was liberating.
Of course I had other, more important reasons for wanting to wear hijab, but suddenly I felt that my decision had given me a way out. I didn’t have to wake up every day dreading the idea of attempting to do something different with my hair, and praying that it would behave throughout the day.
Instead I had entered a whole other world, a world where I could play around with what kind of scarf style best suited my face shape, where I had an excuse to go shopping so I could find headscarves to match my outfits.
The prospect of this new lifestyle was thrilling, and I welcomed it with arms wide open.
Growing up my mom had always told me that beautiful hair was strong, healthy hair. It was also hair that was thick, and long, and curl-free. She believed, as I think many of the women in my family do, that our hair — our Sudanese, African, Black hair — was troublesome and hard to take care of, simply because it didn’t fit into the categories they described. But still they were willing to take care of it.
She believed, as I think many of the women in my family do, that our hair — our Sudanese, African, Black hair — was troublesome and hard to take care of, simply because it didn’t fit into the categories they described. tweet
As a kid I was always graced with stories of how Mama’s hair had been long and healthy because her own mother had taught her early on how to properly take care of it. She couldn’t understand why I wasn’t like her, why I didn’t have any interest in showing my hair some love.
In all honesty, I didn’t understand it either.
By the end of sophomore year, I was going strong in my journey to becoming a new hijabi, but my initial relief at no longer having to worry about how my hair looked in public quickly turned into dismay.
My hair was falling out at a rapid pace, and when I remembered to comb it, there always seemed to be more hairs caught in the comb than there were on my head. One day I remember looking at myself in the mirror — having washed my hair for the first time in weeks — and breaking down completely. Clumps of hair had fallen with each stroke of the comb at my feet, and I stared — numb — at the result of my negligence.
At first I was angry. Red-hot anger pooled somewhere at the base of my stomach and slowly rose, demanding release. I was angry for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I had so carelessly disregarded a part of myself, a blessing that God had given me.
I was angry because my mother had worked so hard and tired herself out loving my hair for so many years, and I had destroyed it. And for what? Because it wasn’t straight enough? Long enough? Silky enough?
There is this deeply rooted idea among African women that we need to “fix” our hair. I thought this for so many years, but I didn’t understand that there was nothing wrong with my hair for me to try and fix it. It was different, sure. Stubborn. It refused to bend at will from the first time just because someone else wanted it to. It was resilient and strong, even after what I’d put it through. I couldn’t see that my hair was an extension of who I am and therefore just like me.
I was angry because my mother had worked so hard and tired herself out loving my hair for so many years, and I had destroyed it. And for what? Because it wasn’t straight enough? Long enough? Silky enough? tweet
It wasn’t easy trying to nurse my damaged hair back to health, and I’m still struggling with the consequences of my neglect. In recent years I have made an effort to make sure my lifestyle revolves around my hair, even as a hijabi — especially as a hijabi.
I make it a point to eat foods that I know contain vitamins good for growth, and I do my best to avoid straighteners. I’ve learned to work with my curls, to give them the attention and love they deserve, and when I’m at home I often let them loose.
I know now that there is no standard image for what beautiful hair looks like. Society likes to think there is, and sadly we’re often ready to lap up whatever society has to offer. Even now, after getting to know my hair again, I still have my off days.
Now that I’m married, I sometimes think, “Oh, God, what if I end up with a nappy-headed kid.” My mind conjures up images of a screaming child who has no patience for oils or conditioners, and I admit I get a little bit scared. But it’s okay, because when I do have kids, God willing, I know that I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure they love their hair — and themselves — before anything else.
I won’t go near any nappy-headed child with a ten-foot pole, though, even if they’re mine. That’s what grandmas are for, and Mama still has her stool.