BY EXODUS BROWNLOW
This piece is part of the Relationship Issue. Read more here.
*The Big Chop. Date: February 2008
It’s the sounds that hit you first. To your surprise, they’re not the stereotypical “snip-snip” kind but something completely different, something that’s soothing yet absolutely terrifying at the same time. A sort of clean-sounding crunch. It’s an experience that I can only describe as paralyzed allure. Like a deer caught in headlights. Or, like being Mowgli in The Jungle Book when he’s in front of that big, slithering sinister snake. It’s knowing you should run, but being too hypnotized to do so, and suddenly you don’t remember what it feels like to have legs or to have choices.
“Are you okay?”
I nod my head quickly, trying to convince myself more than her. “Mhmmm. I’m good.” And it starts back up again.
I continue to listen to the sounds. The TV is on but I can’t seem to recognize what’s playing on it. My butt is beginning to hurt from sitting on the floor and I realize that I should’ve been blessed more in the bottom department.
It falls on my shoulders, fragments of my overly-processed follicles, and float to rest on my bosom. I stare at it and realize that the color is a much lighter brown than it used to be.
When she is done I turn around and she is grinning at me. I can’t decide if it’s because she likes what she sees or if she’s some kind of madwoman who just had the time of her life butchering my head. The scissors are still in her hands as if she’s about to strike, and I impulsively back up a little.
“Well, we’re all done,” My ma said.
“Yeah,” I choke out, almost in a frightened-laughing kind of tone. I see the hair and I know that it’s done, but I refuse to touch my scalp. Maybe she’s left me a little…
“Are you gonna go look in the mirror?”
“Uh...I don’t know. You think I should?”
“Definitely. I think it looks really cute.”
I’m tempted to tell her that she has to say that because she’s my mom, and that in reality my hair probably looks like a nightmare but I leave it alone and smile. I stand up, relieving my sore bottom, and I retrieve my disconnected strands. They’re still mine.
My walk to the bathroom is not a slow one, and before I know it I am in front of the mirror and staring at a reflection that simply cannot be me. There, on the other side, stands a 15-year old black boy with the same caramel-skin as I and a ‘fro that’s thicker than sorghum molasses. It’s eerie how much he looks like me. We are both wearing the same clothes. Have those same famous Brownlow eyebrows. And like me, he too has a birthmark on the bottom corner of his chin.
He’s staring back at me, this boy, and he’s wondering what the hell has he just done.
When my inspection is over I put on a black hair bonnet and I grab my hair and take it with me to burn. It’s February, and wisps of winter weather are struggling to remain in existence, so the fireplace has been lit tonight.
I tell myself that I want to burn my hair as a way to further disconnect me from my relaxer ways, and also to prevent myself from somehow figuring out a way to glue the butchered bone-straight strands back unto my clearly African mass of 2-inch black cotton.
Tomorrow it will not matter, I continue to tell myself to keep down the post-cut panic, because my grandma is coming down to press my hair with a hot comb. And the kinks will disappear. And the naps too. And, to my surprise, my matted mess will transform into a surprisingly 4 inches of black, straight, and silky goodness. And then after that, it will be braided using extensions. No one, not my classmates, nor my teachers or friends, will learn of the nappy-headed black boy lying underneath.
*The Perfect Black Girl Formula: Tips & Tricks to Help You Get Wifed*
A lot of people of other races wonder, why the hell does hair matter so much to the black community? Well, it’s wrapped around a history of oppression and prejudice, and a whole bunch of stuff that would take another essay, extensive research and a PhD to thoroughly explain. But, to put it simply, it represents your worth. For further explanation of what good hair and bad hair means to black folks, please refer to the following:
Good Hair: Loose Curls, Waves or Straight Hair. Good hair means that you are clean, professional, valuable and if it’s long and or curly, exotic. Celebrity examples include Tracee Elias Ross, Teyana Taylor, Mariah Carey (circa 1990), and Real, the recently deceased reality star from I Love New York.
Bad Hair: Nappy-Negro-Slave Hair. Kinks or Tightly Shrunken Coils/Curls. Celebrity examples include any of the brothers from The Jackson Five, Jill Scott (circa 2000) and Viola Davis (but this is mainly because she has short hair and is dark-skinned. I’ll explain later).
If you are a black woman the importance of hair is especially true as your quality can determine an array of things, but these terms don’t necessarily apply to black men the same (as they could have bad hair but still be able to thrive prominently within their community). However, if a black man does have good hair, he certainly has a lot more choices as to whom he can mate with (you know, because black women love black men with good hair so that they can produce babies with good hair. It’s science, people).
The sad thing is that even with movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackGirlMagic and so on and so forth, a lot of us still follow these definitions in order to appear physically acceptable to society. To be a black girl born in the 90s, 80s or further on back, there is a certain unspoken formula that dictates the attractiveness of the features that you are born within. Once again, please refer to the following:
If you are dark-skinned, you must therefore have the following physical aspects to become a valuable member of our society: No African facial features (The more European the better) + A Good Body (I’m talking, Beyonce-like) + Good Hair (Relaxed, Naturally Loosely Curled, Wavy or Straight, but absolutely no short and or bad hair)
If you are caramel-skinned, your opportunities are still better than your darker sister, but you too have a formula that you must uphold: Some African features are acceptable (For example, Big Lips.) + At least a 6.5 body + Good Hair (Can be medium in length, but has to be relaxed and styled. Naturally loose curls and waves are a bonus as it will add to the exoticness of your physical appearance)
Finally, if you are light-skinned, you pretty much have your pick of any man (including NBA ball players, billionaires, doctors, lawyers, astrophysicists etc) and or opportunities that you desire: African Features (including a big nose) are acceptable but the skin must be very fair (European facial features are more revered) + at least a 5.5 body or better to increase chances of success + Good or Bad Hair (because the lighter the skin, the more bad traits you can get away with)
These are the ways of my people. These are the lessons that have been instilled within almost every generation of black families across America. It’s a deep, mental wound that neither man nor his reparations can heal. It’s a condition that can only be resolved by the hands of God, or at least God-serving people.
*When Your African Roots Push-Through/The N-Word*
It is my sophomore year of high school, only a few months before my big chop in February 2008, and my hair resting underneath the safety of my braided hair extensions is flourishing well. The new growth is a sight that I have grown to love because it is proof that my hair is indeed growing (a treasure that any black girl welcomes).
I am undergoing a stage called transitioning. It is a process that all girls who wish to go natural must undergo, and it can be done in two ways: 1. By either cutting all of your hair off at once and letting it grow out naturally, or 2. By giving up relaxers and other chemical processes completely, and letting your hair grow naturally while gradually cutting/trimming the chemically treated hair off every so often.
To big chop takes a lot of guts, especially for black girls who rarely opt to rock relaxed short hair; Therefore, natural short hair is definitely out of the question. I had been convinced to go natural by an older cousin who I was very close to, and my mother. They both were starting a new loc (we refer to them as locs and not dreadlocks because there is nothing “dreadful” about locs) journey themselves and I was told repetitively how easy it would be. How, I wouldn’t have to cut all of my hair off and that I could still get it flat-ironed if I wanted it to be straight. And because of the fact that my own hair was breaking off and was lifeless and damaged beyond repair, I thought why not. Their words comforted me, and I felt safe underneath the protection of my braids and the promise of the growth that I saw.
“Ew, girl. What’s wrong your hair?”
I am sitting in my World History class. I am early because I don’t like to be late and run the risk of getting wrote up. My friends surround me and we are all laughing and talking about something that I can’t remember. Her words startle me.
“Huh,” I ask? I am unsure of what she just said and I need confirmation.
“Girl, you need to get that re-done A-SAP.” She’s staring at my roots, I note. My healthy, thick roots that I have grown to love more than my relaxed ends. They are the most noticeable part of my extensioned hairstyle, and because of them it makes it look more real. “It looks like spiders are crawlin’ in yo’ head,” She continues.
“I wash my hair every week,” I announce! It is a statement full of meaning as black girls who relax their hair wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing. Water messes up their temporary european tresses.
She disregards my words and walks to her seat, but not before saying, “You need to get your braids re-done. Yo’ roots lookin’ nappy.” It’s her final piece of advice and I sit back in my seat, unsure of what to do with the words or how they make me feel.
A few weeks after that, I am in the cafeteria line. I am still showing off my African roots because I don’t care for freshly done braids and how long it takes and how much money it costs.
A classmate of mine, a white boy who had always been a playful menace to my existence, is smiling at me and finds it in his heart to tell me about the nappiness of my roots. The smile is not a vindictive one, but more of a “I can’t believe I’m seeing this” one.
I quickly reply and tell him that it’s racist to call black girls hair nappy.
He tells me it’s not racists if it’s true and that hair is just hair.
We argue our points until the line continues to move, and words get disregarded for food. Hungry-eyed highs schoolers are sandwiched together, waiting for a sandwich, tater tots and an ice-cream-pop that makes up for the mediocrity of the meal.
I often think of these two occasions as the tests that determine if I had what it took to continue my transitioning journey.
Nappy is bad.
It is confirmed by one male and one female.
One black and one white.
Two different people of different races and different genders.
It must have been true. But I still continued.
While they both essentially told me the same thing, it is only now that I am able to finally see the differences in their statements. And while the black girl expressed her thoughts boldly, it came from a place of that same insecurity that I once had. She knew about the black-girl formula for attractiveness and in her own rude way, she had been trying to look out for me.
On the other hand, that white-boy classmate of mine had no idea what it was to have nappy hair, or what it meant to have it as a black female. To him, his statement, said in a tone that I refer to as disgusted-fascination, had nothing to do with his concern for me.
The truth of the matter is, is that the word nappy can either be a good or a bad thing and that it all depends on who says it and how it is said, much like the n-word. It makes a whole heap of difference when the word is spoken from someone whose ancestors created it to hurt you, to make you feel unworthy, and to divide you.
The hard part is not transitioning, or the big chop or even the amount of criticism that you will get. The hard part is having to re-learn something entirely, and study its structure and how to properly care for it. The switch from low-maintenance, relaxer-straight tresses, to a bush of kinky-coily curls is certainly a bitch. But again, and coming from a more knowledgeable perspective, this is not because of the texture of natural hair itself, but because most of us have become so accustomed to how to care for relaxed hair that when it comes to our own textures we feel completely lost.
Natural hair is not washed the same as relaxed hair.
It is not combed the same.
It is not styled the same.
Heck, it doesn’t even dry the same.
Imagine that in an impossible alternate universe, you learn that the way that we are supposed to see is not with our eyes open but rather with them closed. Imagine having to learn how to do that from scratch. Imagine having to trust your other instincts to do so. Imagine how overwhelming it would be to know that everything you’d learned before was nothing but a lie. This is the best metaphor, however poorly written it is, that I can provide for what it is like.
Around the same time that I went natural, a lot of other girls and women were starting to reclaim some small but significant part of their African heritage and history too. Despite the fact that the majority of us don’t know who we really are, or what we could have been in a different life, the step towards self-acceptance were very significant. If you look in popular magazines today such as Allure or Vogue, you will see that ads for natural hair products exists within them. If you watch TV and you see the kinds of melinanted-beauties being represented, you will see heads of hair with a variety of curl and kink types. If you pay attention to the stock market, you will know that it was only several months ago in September 2015 that Bain Capital became a minority owner (non-controlling investor) of Shea Moisture, a black-owned company and the most recognized natural hair care brand out today.
Relaxer sales have gone down.
There are aisles in Walmart, Target and Walgreens dedicated to us.
Those steps that we took mattered (matters), and the world is recognizing that what we have is valuable.
I envy the black girls who will grow up in the era of #BlackGirlMagic, because they have the opportunity to skip over all the bullshit and self-hatred, and be able to embrace all of their African features without any self-consciousness or doubt. I envy them, because they will grow up in a world where the word nappy has been redefined to mean beautifully coiled and styled by Mother Nature. I envy them because I didn’t receive that chance, nor my mother, nor my grandmother but while I envy them, I also feel a strong sense of pride. The next generation of black women will undoubtedly be boss.
Apparently, The Revolution Will Be Televised
During the halftime show of Super Bowl 50, Beyonce performs “Formation”, an unapologetically, black anthem, alongside dancers who are dressed in modern-day black panther attire. She praises her husband’s big nose. She boasts about her daughter’s afro. She says the word negro to 111.9 million viewers.
On February 15, 2016, seven-time grammy award winning artist, Kendrick Lamar, announces to an audience of predominantly white people that he is a “proud monkey”. He is dressed in classic prison attire reminiscent of the kind Michael Jackson wore in his “They Don’t Care About Us” video. His hands are wrapped in chains and for the rest of the performance he continues to say a whole lotta stuff that pissed a whole lotta people off.
These statements are made for the black people who still don’t believe that we have something of great worth. They are made for those of who need the help of popular celebrities to point these facts out, and who never thought to love their dark-skin until Kendrick Lamar rapped about it. They are performed for those who are reluctant to make the change, and to wake the rest of ya’ll asses up. They are created for those who put those doubts in our minds in the first place, and to let them know that they can no longer be used to destroy us.
These statements are not the reparations that many of us have requested, but it is the start to mental reconstruction.
Seeds of Change
Last summer on my 23rd birthday (August 28th, 2015), I celebrated it by going out to eat with my mom and stopping by one of my favorite stores in Jackson, Ms, Whole Foods.
Now, if you have never been to Whole Foods before, it’s basically an organic, non-gmo version of Super Walmart. However, what also adds to it’s appeal, are definitely the folks that work there. I’m talking about all kinds of people with different agendas, orientations, ethnicities, and beliefs. It’s actually quite something to see if you live in the south, where to see a collective group of variety is truly a treasure.
So on my birthday there are two things that must happen no matter what my plans are. One, I must have on something fly (usually this takes me several months to plan ahead as I try to create a newly-themed look every time). And two, I have to bring out the ‘fro.
As I’m walking down my favorite aisle, the essential oils and body care aisle, I am looking for some evco (extra virgin coconut oil). My afro has been pulled into a big top puff using an old hair tie and I am wearing a dress that I can only describe as American Horror Story: Cult (it’s long and white with psychedelic aztec-ish looking markings). The look has attracted a lot of attention, but I’m mostly satisfied because of the light and airiness of my dress, and because my hair tie is keeping my ‘fro from sticking to the back of my neck. August weather is unbearable.
A young man, white with hipster-ish hair/swag and an easy going walk, is stacking some products on a shelf. I approach him.
“Excuse me, can you tell me where the coconut oil is?”
He smiles. “Sure. Follow me.”
As we walk he turns around and says, “By the way, your hair is awesome!”
“Oh. Um..thank you,” I smile awkwardly.
When we get to the coconut oil he turns around and faces me. “I bet you get that a lot, huh?”
I choke out a laugh. “Um...on occasion, yes.”
He grins, almost as he if doesn’t believe me and nods. “Only on occasion.”
The interaction plays in my mind for the remainder of the day, and I am proud to see Mississippi’s growth. A few seeds of change have finally taken root in a soil that has been severely reluctant to accept it.
Do you know what today is? It’s My Nappiversary.
There are moments when others will make you feel guilty about embracing self-love so unconditionally, as if you’re being vain. And there are other moments of guilt concerning your straighter-haired sisters, something along the lines about dismissing them so carelessly as if you weren’t one of them just a mere couple of years ago. And there are moments when the curls are still preferred over the kinks, and women go into the transitioning process with visions of pencil-perfect 3c-curls, only to be disappointed by undefined zig-zags. And there are moments when people will ask you all kinds of questions pertaining to the relevancy of your cause.
I am here as a result of my ancestors who were kidnapped and taken to a new home 500 years ago. Even though I don’t know their names, or what they looked like, my DNA can not deny that at least one of them had nappy hair, brown skin and full lips, characteristics that I’m sure their polar opposites were eager to punish them for. My folks did everything that they could to survive, to get rid of all of the things the missing-melaninated-people detested them for, so those features were buried as best as they could.
But those traits have come to reveal themselves now, they’ve been hidden from the world long enough, and confidence has been mistaken for vanity and chants of “appearances shouldn’t matter that much” have been the war cry from others.
I mean no offense when I say this, but I severely disagree.
They matter when a black woman solely marries a man outside of her race as a way to keep from imprinting her beautiful, black self upon the product of their future children.
They are relevant when a toddler is forcefully given a chemical relaxer, and as she endures the burning itch of what will forever be her process for getting good-looking, and she accepts it as some kind of normalcy.
Appearances are important, when black girls are suspended out of school for literally wearing their hair as it naturally grows from their scalps.
I have yet to hear of these atrocities pertaining to women of other races. I do not mean to leave you out as a way to say that you do not matter, but the truth is, in case you haven’t figured it out by now, I am a black woman with nappy hair, and therefore I will speak as a black women with nappy hair. Your story, your very special story, is not mine to tell. I cannot speak from your perspective.
In response to what has been previously said, I add this. I am certainly more than my natural hair and my African features. I am not totally enlightened as result of going natural, and nor do I believe that my natural hair is better than my straight-haired sisters.
My story is not about simply going natural, but about the painful process that comes with any major transition in life, or the challenges that we all endure with self-acceptance. That’s the point. It’s about the significance of change, and the power of our choices and how they influence the world. If it were just about appearance, I certainly would not be here right now. And finally, this story is about acknowledging that even though so much progress has been made, there is still so much work left to do.
If you’re curious, a nappiversary (also known as natural-versary) is when a black girl celebrates the anniversary of her going natural. This is usually done by making a bold announcement on social media (FaceBook, Instagram, Youtube), accompanied with a really cute hairstyle and a dope outfit to match. It is February 27th, 2016. I am 8 years into my journey, but I have yet to make an official announcement nor have I celebrated it yet (because of other priorities /hairstyle-indecision).
I know that I am eight-years natural but I don’t know the actual day that my big chop was done. It is the only thing that I have regretted since going natural, that I didn’t see that occasion as something valuable enough to document, and I wish my mindset had been a lot different back then.
But, like the growth of hair...the seeds of change...the promise of progress...all things take time. I took time. Even though I don’t know what day it was that my mom separated me from the poisonous locs of my relaxed days, I am happy to still be on this lifetime path, to still be able to influence those around me, and to finally see love in nappiness.
Exodus Oktavia Brownlow is a 23-year old black woman living in the depths of Blackhawk, Mississippi where the woods are my next door neighbors and the roads are paved from dirt. I am currently a MFA in Creative Writing student at Mississippi University For Women.