what a haircut taught me about racism and black culture

He was an Alabamian intellectual. He was the only black kid in his high school graduating class. His skin was a dusty, semi-sweet dark chocolate. My step-father kept a wiry short afro well until it greyed in his fifties. When my mother married him, he held a bitter attitude toward blackness and black history--understandably so. He had lived the fifties, watched the marches, drank from the colored fountain, peed in colored urinals and sat at the back of the bus. He was done talking about it. He was done with blackness and the negativities associated with being a negro-nigga-nigger. 

Chopping off my hair taught me how to engage in the conversations of racial and social justice instead of sweeping them under the rug and becoming a whiteness pacifier.

Because of his history, when my step-father decided that my brother and I should be home-schooled (when I was nine), my education of black history was shut down. There was no black pride, no learning of culture, nor conversations about the importance of black people to the advancement of American Society. I didn't know anything about the Triangular Trade until I was 20 years old, sitting in an Africana Studies class in college. Well into high school, I had become a confused and lazy black person whose cultural rhetoric was just as fierce as a confused and lazy white person's.

In a lot of ways my step-father taught me to try hard to avoid my blackness by managing the ways in which I wore my clothes, did my hair, and spoke to strangers. He would often say things like, "Speak like you have some intelligence about you," and "If you want anything, you're going to have to try three times as hard to get it, but don't ask for it." Rap, rnb, and even some kinds of gospel were banned from our household. We were not allowed to watch Tyler Perry movies, or any other "black" movies for that matter. Most of our friends were white, or very culture-stripped black people--like us. However, none of this mattered because there were days when the word “nigga” seared strongly into the back of my neck. The new growth on my scalp was unavoidably kinky (no relaxer could fix!), my hair strands were too course, and gel never worked well enough to tame my edges. My effortless enunciation and knowledge of Damien Rice and British literature weren’t enough to keep me privileged in white circles. I was very black, and I knew nothing to prove why this was a good thing.

Photography by  Josh Collins

Photography by Josh Collins

After my first year of college, I gave my white roommate the scissors and asked her to chop off my hair. Time dragged as I watched the hair fall. At the end of it, I was almost bald. I felt a tinge of sweet rebellion while holding the locks that once grazed my shoulder blades. It felt so good to quietly observe a part of myself that I’d never imagined seeing—my natural hair.

The little brown curls that were hidden beneath my attempts at "whiteness" revealed to me not only the importance of history and culture, but how beautiful black people are. Chopping off my hair taught me that our standards for beauty have been drowned in the cultural rhetoric that is racism, prejudice and colorism. Thus, I learned to engage in the conversations of race, beauty, and social justice instead of sweeping them under the rug and becoming a whiteness pacifier. The take away? Black is beautiful, our history is rich, and our culture is a valid, flourishing, and necessary piece of Americanism as a whole. No amount of ignorance can shut that down.


"All-Black Heroes" photo credit: All-Black Heroes via photopin (license)