I peeped around the corner, as I quickly pulled the hot comb through my hair. There was no sound. Thank goodness, my mother was still sleeping. The kitchen window was open so that she wouldn’t smell the hot comb process from that morning. It was 1976 and a seriously hot summer. My afro would go from 7 to 2 inches as soon as I started to sweat. I loved the work of Angela Davis and so wanted my afro to look just like hers. In 1976, as one of the hottest recorded summers in the UK, the shrinkage was real!
I allowed my sister to convince me to put ‘realxing cream’ into my hair once. It was hard work though and all of that burning, visits to the hairdresser and ‘treatment’ really didn’t work for me. It was so funny watching the women flock to be around the male hairdresser. He reminded me of Marvin Gaye, but that was insignificance once he started doing my hair as it all took so long and seemed to cost so much money! He was making a killing as I suspect those women would have paid him just to walk across the shop floor.
I had locks for years. Once I cut my locks off, I wore all of the hairstyles which looked exactly like locks. Single plaits and that pineapple wrapped thing were my favorites. Whilst I had lived in Ghana, having my hair ‘fixed’ was easy and cheap. I could change my style every week if I wanted to and explore colors, up, down, braid, weave, whatever I fancied!.
Moving to Asia was a different ball game. There was one Ghanian aunty who I found after asking all the women who I saw with braids, where did you do your hair? Aunty Cynthia was great and I bathed in the familiarity of her and her twi speaking customers. Her tails of the traffic she endured to get to her place in Cape Coast and the constant light off, brought back fond memories. I had loved many aspects of my Ghana journey. The traffic Jams and power outage were not part of that though! I liked aunty but she never really understood how tender my scalp was. I mean, really was. Twelve years of locks had made my scalp super tender. On my last visit, I had to bite my tongue and hold myself from cursing as she had not mastered the crochet style and kept digging my head with the needle. It was not a good look and my blood pressure rose every time she exclaimed ‘sorry o’. I decided to only go there if I was absolutely desperate.
The Nigerian community in Malaysia had grown and hair extensions, bleaching creams, and yam had appeared in Chowkit market. The store owner offered me a hairdressers number but, if the truth be told, I was wary of the Nigerian women I had met so far. My Nigerian friends had also stayed away from Nigerians. The young men told me how their mothers had categorically warned them not to go to their churches. They said too much 911 was going on so I followed their advice.
I pulled out my braids on a trip to London, and, although I knew that the hairdresser there had overcharged me, I paid anyway. The fact that she whispered the price was not the friendly gesture that the mini-me had received this as. My funds also looked greater on the first day than they did on the last. I wanted a good steam and wash, plus she reminded me that I have hair so I paid her asking price.
I left the hairdresser happy that my hair was clean and that she had managed to comb out all of the hair which had begun to lock for I had washed it many times with the braids in. As she blow dried my hair, I admired it in the mirror. It looked good and felt so soft. I was considering a short neat cut, but not today. I loved the feel as I walked down Peckham Rye Lane with my own hair. That trip to sunny London was way too hot to wear my wig and my hair demanded to be free of all attachments so I listened and complied. I decided to stay in that space for my return to Malaysia.
People asked me is that your original hair?. I loved the way that the English language took on its own style in the different places I have lived and worked in. My hair! My original hair! Not someone else’s hair or a synthetic rendition but my own hair! I told them yes. It was not a perm. Their stories came out of how they had longed for curly hair! How their children had been born with beautiful curly hair, which soon became limp and straight. Who would have known that these Malaysians wanted what I had been covering up for so long?
Black women support a billion dollar industry of hair extensions and products. Indian and Brazilian women of all ages sell their hair for very little money. Whilst wearing braids, I had wondered if, even though it was described as synthetic, whether it was, in fact, the hair of a cousin or sister of one of the many south Indian people who live in KL
I reminisced on my years of having locks. Large unruly beautiful locks in a time when locks were worn as a covenant with the most high. My cutting and disassociation from that community came after years of watching domestic violence and disrespect. My son was born and there was no rasta man I wanted him to emulate. The locks could have been transformed into a ‘hairstyle’ but, that was not my attachment to them. They had to go.
I still watch admiringly now at the many who wear locks. There are sista locks, ‘false’ locks and lots of different colored locks. Some people feel that it is a mockery for all of these Asian, Caucasian and others to be wearing locks. I reflect that mocking can only take place if people don’t know their power. If we don’t collectively know our power.
At the end of my UK trip, I let the Antiguan hairdresser straighten my hair. I loved her energy and we both had lessons to learn. Me about the healing I and my loved ones needed. She about her health choices. As she used the hairdryer and straightener, I was fascinated as it smelt exactly as those early morning hot comb quickies had. The hair looked lifeless though. My already thin hair hung and even though she tried hard to convince me that it looked ‘wonderful’, I wasn’t persuaded. As I left the salon, we hugged. Something special had been planted between us.
It took two hours for the humidity in Malaysia to kick all of that straightness out! My afro returned whilst all of that straightening and serum simply disappeared. But hey, the fro looked good and Viola Davies and many other black women before her continue to empower as we celebrate our natural hair.
There are women who work in countries and/or organizations where their natural hair and/or the wearing of braids is illegal. The growing movement of black women who are wearing their natural hair continues to challenge those systems and to empower women’s right to have this choice.