By Ava Marshall
A significant portion of my childhood was spent sitting on a pillow in between my mother’s legs, as she pulled and tugged at my hair. “Ava, hold still!” were the words that had become synonymous with getting my hair done. You see though, I could never stay still. I was too jittery and too eager for the next thing. My eyes, widened, were ready to explore the wonders of the world, or at least the realms of suburban Louisville, Kentucky. In the nook between my mother’s limbs, this hummingbird energy was rewarded with a light smack on the head; yet, in the ins and outs of my life, that readiness vibrated throughout the colorful beads dangling from my braids.
But I grew out of the beads. I got too old for the nook between my mother’s legs. As my hair journeyed into relaxers, I journeyed into to a similar straightening: The light that once glistened in my eyes had turned gray, as the only thing I seemed to value was the acceptance of my peers. The burning that penetrated my scalp, as I lied through my teeth saying, “Oh no, it doesn’t burn,” to Miss Nichelle, was almost a reflection of the passive-aggressive dissecting of who I was and my cosigning of that. I was no longer a safe vessel from the world that I once was in my childhood. I was on display and felt like I was living for other people.
The days my relaxer would get old and I’d have traces of my natural texture were the days I’d give in to my passion, look up from my phone, and watch MSNBC with my mother. I lived in this bubble — this bubble that only had limited oxygen. I was holding my breath, tightening the seal that locked my mouth closed with every comment by a “friend” who told me my conflictions made me an “angry Black girl” and my looks were “pretty for a Black girl” or that any mention of mine or my skinfolks’ struggle was playing the “race card.” As the chemicals broke off the strength in my hair, the pieces of me that remained continued to be chipped away, as well. That feeling is one of being suffocated, but having to act as if your breathing is perfectly fine. This made internal acceptance seem as distant as the sun during a thunderstorm.
Like hair growth, it took time for me to be okay with me. Even if I didn’t know who “me” was. I got braids put in, and I grew out my relaxer. I cut off the straight pieces that hung on to my coils, weighing them down. I didn’t cut my hair off impulsively. It was a yearlong process, one enabled by experimenting with braids and twists. In this time, I separated myself from all that limited me. I learned to seldom silence the voice I was blessed with to appease a standard that would never accept me without alterations. The twists that met my coils and curls, and the gel that smoothed my nappy edges were the brakes I removed from my ambition.
Yes, my hair is a manifestation of my culture, something I will never place on the back burner, as who I am intertwines with the spirals that frame my face. But that is not why I am my hair.
I am my hair because, like my hair, I am ever-changing and uncertain. I am carefree like the little girl with cornrows I see in pictures but seldom remember. I am introspective like the girl with the relaxer who was not broken, but needed direction. I am the girl with braids and the tiny afro pushing and pushing myself to be unapologetic and outspoken. And the most beautiful part that I selfishly yield pride for, is that I am all of these things and more. And like my hair, I will keep growing.
We, as Black girls, are not merely accompanied by the strands that age as we do; we are assisted by these tresses that exist in the mold of our choosing. They take on our journey with us, a journey informed by both the sorrows and triumphs of our existence. We cannot deny them their admission, guaranteed in the strands that spike from our scalps. Let us admire, respect, and care for them. Yet, most essentially, let us listen to them. In doing so, we learn, with the tether between our hair and our being, that listening pays homage to the voice we’ve always held.