A woman’s hair is her crowning glory. So said my Primitive Baptist grandmother, Mama Bea. My crowning glory has graced several different cultures and transformed from frivolous to practical.
I attended one of those high schools where every day was a fashion show. I dutifully permed my hair about once a month and styled it, using the latest fads: teased, crimped, flat-ironed, gelled around the edges and shaved along the neck and temples with plenty of humidity-defying hairspray. Just about everything but artificially coloring it since I liked the colors of my naturally sun-bleached hair.
All that fashion show crap went out the window when I attended college. No time to be cute. Plus, looking a little “granola” was the “in” thing, which meant I’d even stopped wearing makeup and ironing my clothes on a daily basis. I used to roll my hair at night, but discovered a ponytail would do for most days and the curling iron worked for those special occasions. Besides, fashionable hair didn’t make me any smarter.
In my senior year, I suddenly realized that the collegiate gravy train was just about over. Not wanting to get a real job nor enter graduate school, I applied to the Peace Corps. On my application, I wrote that I wanted to go to French-speaking Africa. Basically I wanted a payoff for studying that language for six years. When Peace Corps told me I’d have to wait nearly a year for such a placement, I agreed to go to an English-speaking African country since I could leave the States much sooner.
When I arrived in Tanzania, an East African country, I stayed with a host family for the first two months during my training. As I showed one of my host sisters some pictures from home, she exclaimed, “Oh, you’re the African American!” They had heard one black person was among this Peace Corps training group. Of course she could hardly tell I was black. My hair was freshly permed and in a French roll. Also I was very light-skinned compared to the average Tanzanian. As a matter of fact, when I walked around the community, some Tanzanians yelled, “Half-casti, half-casti, half-casti!” (half-caste), which I found a little strange since both of my parents were black.
I assumed since Tanzania was an African country, I’d easily find suitable hair care products. Well, yes and no. They were available, but very expensive, for both the average Tanzanian and Peace Corps Volunteer.
For the first time in my life, I discovered how precious freshwater was. I developed a preoccupation with it. For drinking, bathing, washing my clothes and hair, and cooking. I visited one beauty salon during training to get my hair washed, dried and braided as a work around for securing freshwater.
Once I moved to my permanent site, I’d either wear my hair in twists or have one of the housegirls to braid it. Yet, I never justified spending a small fortune on a perm. The real fortune in freshwater was more costly. One time, I washed my hair during a bucket bath and rinsed it over the toilet in order to flush it. Water was in short supply and I needed to accomplish both things.
A few months later, I started my dreads. Suddenly I was free. With a low-maintenance hairstyle, I didn’t have to perm it, use a lot of water washing the perm out, curl it nor worry about blow-drying it straight. This gave Tanzanians something new to shout at me: “Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman!”
While vacationing in Kenya, one enthusiastic guy yelled out extra loud, “Rasta Woman!” By this time, I was so used to ignoring obnoxious screaming that I showed no outward reaction to what he’d said. A few seconds later he said much quieter, “Rasta man?”
Granted, I was looking pretty Peace Corps shabby by that point. I’d bought one of those oversized cloth caps to tuck my dreads in and sported worn-out mostly clean pants with oversized T-shirts. So, I could understand his confusion about my gender.
When I returned to the States, one of my sisters lovingly pruned my dreads, cutting out all the knots. They had never looked so good. Despite this, all my female relatives who were at least thirty years older than me hated my hair. They collectively harassed me worse than excitable Tanzanians. They offered to cut them off, reverse them, pay for the trip to the salon, and some even referred to them as “nigger naps.”
In their younger days, these women had been subjected to the vaudeville stereotypical depictions of blacks. They had been rewarded by racist, including intraracist, society to look as white as possible. Hair was not to be worn naturally, unless as a short Afro for men or pressed with a hot comb to appear straight for women. Even the notion of “good hair” meant a black person did not have nappy hair.
The two worse culprits were Mom and Mama Bea. Mama Bea took me aside at one point and confided that she’d never told me while I was growing up that she thought I was her prettiest granddaughter. Adding to the guilt trip was the look she gave me as she shook her head over my insistence to wear dreads.
Mom persisted for nearly twenty years, trying to convince me to undo my locks. Part of her argument was I just kept them out of spite. Granted, we had clashed when I was growing up since our personalities were too much alike although she never acknowledged it. Just kept wondering aloud where I got my attitude from. She’d offered to reverse my locks herself with the help of detangling shampoo and conditioner, not really appreciating what “locked” meant.
After a while, everyone else in the immediate family was on my side and told Mom that she needed to get over it. Then, Mom announced that I’d agreed to cut them off if she’d stopped nagging me. I told her that she must have been dreaming. Given the fact that no one else had witnessed this so-called conversation, she was finally convinced it hadn’t happened.
While Mom nagged away about my dreads, I continued traveling and teaching around the world. My next teaching assignment was in Seoul, Korea, where I looked so exotic, most Koreans assumed I was Filipina. At least there was no aggressive heckling, just a lot of “wah!” as I walked by. Yet, I felt somewhat empowered since a stern teacher’s look would silence them to look away, nervously giggling.
For this teaching assignment, I had a new set of adult conversation and writing classes every month. On the first day of class, I used to allow all of my students to touch my locks. I met my lifetime quota of that after about three months.
The fiercest Koreans were the ajumahs, the grandmothers. These older women were beyond the age of giving a damn about personal space or social graces. Foreign men, who towered above most Koreans, walked through crowds with both hands protecting their family jewels since they knew the probability was high an ajumah’s elbow would strike them if these men were in her way. These same women showed no restraint to cop a feel of my dreads if I sat in front of them on public transportation.
I often visited museums and art galleries. If I stayed in one spot too long, looking at something, a small crowd of Koreans would form around me as if I was on display with a few ajumahs slowly reaching up to touch my hair.
At one of my lowest points of living in Korea, I had been waiting at a bus stop. Instead of zoning out, I happened to look up at the people on the bus in front of me, all staring. Starting with the back of the bus, I made eye contact with each of them while giving them the finger, a meaningless gesture in that culture.
Yet, I got my comeuppance some time later while walking around an unfamiliar shopping district. I turned the corner and jumped back with a scream. Standing before me was a mirrored building, reflecting my own image. I laughed then understood how jarring it was to come across me among a sea of Koreans.
Afterwards, I moved to Denver, CO where more white people had dreads than black. I’d never lived in such a dry climate before. Previously, I’d had an illusion that dreads were indestructible. I learned too late that when they’re not properly moisturized, dreads thinned out like ropes. For the first time I had to chop them down to one-third their length. Looking back at pictures of myself from that time, I looked attractive, but I remember how ugly and ashamed I felt over the loss of my hair. I’d finally internalized Mama Bea’s crowning glory belief. Of course, Mom couldn’t resist telling me I should cut them all off.
When Dubyah stole the 2000 election, I went into exile by getting a teaching job in Egypt. My Egyptian students just knew I’d be the laid-back math teacher since I had dreads. They confided to another foreign teacher that people with dreads smoked marijuana; so they’d all have A’s in my class. Imagine their disappointment when I turned out to be one of their strictest teachers. I guess no one had told them that most math teachers were almost as exacting as equations.
Then I moved to Monterrey, Mexico. My blonde blue-eyed principal marveled at how well I handled all the attention. I laughed and told her that that was nothing compared to the attention I’d received in all the other foreign countries. No heckling, no over-the-top animated nonverbal actions, very little copping a feel although they always went for the hair in the back. I guess the logic was if I didn’t see them doing it, then I wouldn’t know they were doing it. This despite the fact that my hair is attached to my scalp.
In the three years of living in Mexico, the only Mexican who managed to piss me off was at a book fair—of all places! When I’d finished looking at a group of books on a long narrow table, I walked off, not realizing that she had reached across and entangled her curious fingers into my mop of hair. I screamed, more out of shock than pain. Once I recovered my hair, a swell of other shoppers had come between us. I gave that woman a deadly look as she nervously smiled at me, waving in a friendly manner. I turned on my heels and stomped away.
Following Mexico, I taught in Honduras for three years. I hardly ever walked anywhere among the general population. At that time, Honduras was the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere. There was preoccupation among my rich students and my colleagues about being robbed. My American principal assured me every week that I’d eventually be mugged if I kept walking the three blocks from my apartment to school. After two months, I’d saved up enough money to buy a reliable used car. I immediately got the windows tinted. It’s amazing how I used money to sequester myself, but I swear it was only for safety. I don’t think anyone would have mugged me because of my dreads, but my watch, cell phone and money were different stories. The only mildly annoying reaction my dreads caused was some parents referring to me as “Jamaican.”
Finally, I moved to Austin: the land of tattoos, piercings, unnatural hair color, mohawks, flattops, unisex bald heads, where women dressed up to go out and the men simply rolled out of bed. Honey, I’m home!