Isabella Higgins

The Crown Act

Do you remember the night you and I learned to fear hands? A Tuesday at the sports bar I worked at as a hostess, coiling my way through crowds made thick by drunken people, laughter, and spilled drinks. I found my body walking one way with my head caught going the opposite. Trapped in you were five fingers as if you were a public excavation site followed by the drunken whisper that tore down my shirt, I wish I had hair like yours. At fifteen, I wondered how I had been caught with a smile on my face and ice in my bones, unraveling you from a man and his friends and the eyes of fifteen others who would never bat an eye at a Black girl stuck at the end of a thirty-something white man’s hand. I laughed, Thank you. Thank you, have a nice night.

I used to think that you were funny like that, you know? That you couldn’t help but draw people to you. You were beautiful and enticing in the way that people thought you weren’t—in a way that they liked to turn you inside out: How do you manage that mane? Is that really yours? What did  you do to get your hair that curly? No, but really-that can’t be yours! Let me touch it. Can you feel me pulling it? Do you even brush it? Let me touch it. Let me touch it. Let me touch it.

Burning you quieted the questions and the picking and the cold eyed disapproval that you could be so big and just so you. The first time I straightened you when I was nine, you were watered by the looks and the compliments and the fingers grasping at silken, pin straight strands–and yes, I would say, they are my strands and yes, it is like I am a totally different person, a beautiful one who beautiful words are said about–just a beautiful girl, with beautiful hair and the constant nauseating lingering scent of fire licked plastic. How beautiful.

And on the days that you couldn’t muster beauty, at least you could be funny. At twelve, I thought that if God blessed me with gravity-defying hair then so be it. I will wield it, and I will make those white girls wish that they had a comedy show attached to their heads. I would make you stick up, down, diagonal, this way, that way, and whatever other way that kept me in front of the joking and you behind it.

My father always said “you can’t take yourself too seriously.” I needed to be able to laugh at myself, and in turn I laughed at you. With the teeth of the comb to my throat, I had to admit that you deserved better.

Last year, I bought you your first bonnet and then a second and a third, and two durags, and a few scarves here and there, and braiding hair–so much braiding hair! My first time doing box braids on a Tuesday in August, not counting the two and a half hours that Monday spent parting, and twisting into bantu knots and doubting whether you and my arms were up to the challenge, was an act of love. And not the kind that makes you want to smile and sing out, but the kind that breaks you down and builds you back up again. Eight hours of just me and you until me and you became a we, a realization that we always were and we will always continue to be. Two days, ten hours, six bundles of hair,  a cup of tears and carpal tunnel and the nagging feeling that that was only the beginning.

At twenty-one, I realize most of our years have not been kind to you. I have not been kind to you. If now my words and my gifts don’t make up for the years of burning and screaming and earthquake tantrums of pulling and yanking and crying and calling you ugly and wanting to kill you, then hopefully my hands can make it up. Make it up in the way I wash you, section by section, curl by curl, in the way I hold my body still when we can’t seem to work. In the ways I let people touch you, and in the ways I let myself. In the winters that leach us dry, I will house the sun for you to make up for the cold and the rancid perspiration from memories of prickling palms when people turned you away, when you were prodded like an animal, when men sank their claws into you for a turn of  head.

And to every unwelcome hand and every hairdresser that laughs at the thought of dealing with you and to every label of unprofessional and messy and unkempt that you receive that not so cleverly disguises what they really mean, that we are too black and too big and too bold, I wish the sweetest fuck you. I do not exist to appease and comfort fragility and antiquated tastes for monotony. I will never be their blonde-haired, blue-eyed American baby doll because as Maya Angelou once said, “Your crown has been bought and paid for. Put it on your head and wear it.” And I intend to do just that.

Isabella Higgins is a senior English literature and psychology double major graduating from SUNY Geneseo this coming May, 2021. She is a member of the Concerned Students Coalition that has issued a List of Demands to the Geneseo administration (more information can be found on their instagram @dobetter_geneseo). After graduation she plans on working with AmeriCorps and eventually pursuing a law degree at her dream school, Howard University.