‘I hate it!! Why can’t it be like yours? ‘ Words I can remember yelling at my grandmother, as I sat with my head locked between her knees, tears rolling down my cheeks. I must have been 5 or 6 at the time and we were going through our usual early morning routine, getting ready for school. My grandmother was a southern African woman of mixed, upon mixed heritage and her short dark hair, was always in place. Neatly and carefully manipulated into curlers every night, to give it some bounce, she had hair of an ‘angel’ in my young eyes. It was as soft as feathers and silky smooth and never out of place. My hair on the other hand was crazy! The colour for a start was some shade between golden wheat and dusty brown, it was curly in some parts, straight in some parts and just plain kinky and course in other parts. All of this diversity, on one head. My hair hated being combed or brushed and then painfully smoothed into two tight long plaits that stuck out from opposite sides of my head. I hated the process just as much as my hair did and often caused so much drama and emotional meltdowns, that once, while my mother was away on a flight (she was an airhostess) my grandmother just cut it all off into the cutest ginger tinged afro ever… much to my mother’s disapproval!
Back in Zambia in the early 80’s and probably most of the 90’s and 2000’s, natural afro hair was seriously frowned upon, especially in a post colonial era where the more ‘white’ you were, the more you were revered. Both my mother and grandmother could easily ‘pass for white’ with their pale skin and straight hair and light eyes. Then there was me… Kinky-curly-gingery-brown me, probably in part from my biological father’s genes holding strong or the cocktail of my ‘African/European and a bit of everything in between’ heritage showing itself in its full glory. My skin was pale like my mother’s but that’s about it. I had eyes so dark brown that they looked mostly black, I had full lips and a small button nose and to top it all, I had this crop of ginger/blonde/mousey brown, mix textured, unruly, crazy hair on my head and no matter how well intentioned those suffocating plaits were smoothed and tied up every morning, by the time I came home from school, the front had managed to escape and would stand up straight out of my head, proud as a crown framing my little face.
Like many young black girls, when I was about 11 and heading to my first year at boarding school , the battle with my hair was lost to chemical straightening. Obviously, in my mother’s eyes, I was deemed incapable of keeping it tamed and looking ‘presentable’. So my once crazy crown of unruly hair was beaten, hanging limp and lifeless and damaged, by chemicals that burnt sores into my scalp that weeped for days after but… it stayed in place and didn’t cause too much bother for anyone, including me. Just like me.
What has this got to do with my life journey? Until 7 years ago I would have asked the same question. So what? Most black women have gone through this journey and still do today. What I didn’t realise until recently was how much my crazy head of hair was a true and direct reflection of my spirit.
For many years my spirit was tamed by outside expectations, I was always told to know my place, to not bring too much attention to myself, to conform and be like everyone else and if I didn’t, no one would love me. And all we want is to be loved right? Just like the chemical straightening that left my hair limp and damaged, the mask I had to wear to fit in, was slowly suffocating me and damaging my spirit. Just as my hair was judged to be unacceptable in its full natural glory, I judged that little voice inside me that said ‘ Be yourself’ and battled with every kink of originality and every curl of authenticity. There were occasions where, like my hair between relaxer treatments, I would rebel in my own way, tattoos well hidden so my mother couldn’t see them, a nose piercing when I felt really rebellious and the odd unsuitable boyfriend or two. It was my spirit trying to shine through but scared and secretly rebellious. A true paradox. I was a rebellious people pleaser.
I won’t go into the full details about the 30 odd years that I was under my mask. That’s a story for another day but where my ‘journey’ truly began was in the years I started to transition from my chemical straightened ‘lifeless’ hair to my natural hair. This period taught me so much about myself and my hair. It definitely wasn’t a smooth journey, there were tears of frustration as I had to learn to love and care for my hair, all the while simultaneously learning to love and care for my spirit. There have been many trials and errors in wash day routines and products and the same trials and errors in which paths to take to realise my purpose and goals. I have a dresser covered in hundreds of pounds worth of half used hair products and a bookshelf littered with dozens of self help, religious, spiritual and goal orientated books. There have been many ‘big chops’ where I have had to start my hair journey all over again and the same number of ‘fresh starts’ in the self discovery journey. Mostly because of a total lack of patience with myself and my hair. This has taught me that there are definitely no wrong turns, just detours and you can always restart every journey you choose to take. Give yourself some time to see around the next bend. You could be closer to your destination than you think, even when it looks like a dead end.
Early into my hair journey I felt like I didn’t quite fit into any particular box, 3c, 4a, 4b hair types, yes, I had them all but many of the regimes and products were not suitable for all the types mushed together on a single head. Frustrating. It’s been the same for my self discovery journey too. The boxes on forms, black, white, mixed black and white, Asian, Mixed Other? What on earth is a ‘mixed other’ but, Yes, I tick all the boxes but where is the single box that applies to all of me. Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, yes, I tick all those boxes too but where is the ‘I’m just trying to be a good human’ box? I know my experience of life as a black woman living in the UK is different and just like my hair I need a mix of different things at different times. Something to strengthen me when I feel brow beat my sexism at work. Something to soften me when I am dealing with a difficult teenager at home. Something to make me shine when I feel less than shiny! Something to calm me down and tame my temper when I want rant at my partner for simply not understanding my experiences. How can he? He isn’t me.
My hair and I are still on our journey and we probably will be for a while yet. Sometimes, I still hate my hair, especially when I’m having one of those days or weeks or months where it just won’t do what I want it to do and no matter how many types of lotions and potions and routines I try, nothing seems to work. That’s when I learn to let go of the reigns a little bit and relax and just let it flow. I take a break from overthinking the whole process by having my hair braided so I don’t have to deal with it for a while. I take a similar break from trying too hard to find direction in my life too. That was hard. You see I’m a researcher and a self confessed perfection junkie and I figure if I look hard enough or try harder I will solve every problem.I have to remind myself often that it’s OK to take a break from the constant pressure to have all the answers right now. Just coast for a little while and see what comes up.
When I take my braids out, I rediscover why I love my wild, crazy, non conforming, slightly ginger-tinted afro. When I take a break from trying so hard to find purpose and meaning and the drive for the perfect answers in my life, that’s when I rediscover why I love my wild, crazy, non conforming, passionate spirit.
I have also learned that I don’t need a single box to feel like I belong. I am all of the boxes and none of the boxes and that’s perfect. I am a blend of everything and uniquely me, just like my gingery-brown, now with a splash of grey, wonderfully glorious big afro.
I still get the looks of disapproval when I wear my afro out in all its glory, but I don’t let that phase me! If I can give just one other mixed up, no box ticking woman the courage to step into her crowning glory, figuratively or physically, then I am living my purpose, even if it is just one tiny light at a time.
I am truly my hair and my hair is truly a part of me.
Talja is Founder of Ubuntu Leadership and a certified Transformation Career Coach, Happiness Facilitator and Yoga Instructor. Click here to find out more about Talja and her amazing work!