We Are Burning
For years and years and years and years, I relaxed my hair.
As a kid, when I looked at my natural hair in the mirror, my young and impressionable brain said awful things to me. “Your hair is so disgusting. You’re so weird. Why is your hair so messy? You look gross.”
I asked myself again and again, why won’t my hair act like my white friends?
I grew up in Oswego, New York. And if you know anything about Oswego, you know it’s white. And if you don’t know about Oswego, let me tell you. It’s whiter than the lake effect snow that buries us every winter.
In Oswego, I was raised in a single parent household by a white mother. Neither of us knew how to handle my hair. It was long, thick, and impossible to brush.
I remember once, my mother was trying to comb out my hair. It was so knotted that every time the comb caught another knot, my breath would catch in my throat.
Every knot, another deep stab into my scalp. Another sharp sting and another moment I couldn’t breathe. Every knot, another of how different I am, how no one around me understood me.
It was easy to believe that me and my hair were the problem. I know now that the problem was just ignorance. Neither of us learned how to take care of my hair. But for so long, I thought the problem was me.
It didn’t help that all my friends were white, pretty much by default because of the demographics of the area.
I stuck out like a sore thumb. And sticking out apparently repeatedly being asked to be pet like a zoo animal. They tried to run their hands through my weird, tangled mess while I stared in envy at their long, light, silky locs.
They could do anything they wanted with their hair. They could do anything they wanted with their lives. I imagined their mothers combing through their hair with ease, laughing at the lightness of it all.
How could I be anything but ugly?
And every time someone wanted to touch my hair, I felt more and more isolated. More and more different.
And so I relaxed my hair.
If you don’t know what it’s like to get your hair relaxed, you’re lucky. Relaxing is basically putting chemicals on your hair that strip the texture from it and turn curls into pin straight hair. When I made the decision to relax my hair, I was so desperate to have perfectly straight hair and to get rid of all my curls that I wouldn’t tell the hairstylist when the chemicals were starting to burn my skin.
I remember once in middle school I let the chemicals burn me so badly that I had scabs on the back of my neck for weeks. I may still have scars there. I damaged my skin and hair like this for years.
Then, I started high school
I started to question why I kept doing this to myself instead of just embracing my natural hair. But every six weeks I went back to try to achieve the long, straight hair that I saw my classmates had. Without fail.
Then, during my senior year of high school, the pandemic hit. Everything shut down. I was alone more than usual. I had a lot of time to think.
“I’m going to go off to college at the end of the summer,” I’d think. “ I’m going to have a fresh start, the beginning of my new life.” A chance to express myself in ways I never had before.
Again, I considered letting my natural hair grow out. I still couldn’t take the plunge. But the next time I sat in the salon chair, it didn’t feel the same.
Then, I watched George Floyd die on TV. I watched him suffocate to death under the knee of that cop dozens of times.
Then, I watched the protests that started in Minneapolis, spread across the country, and then across the world.
I saw hundreds of thousands of people my age in the streets fighting for racial justice and equality. I saw the speeches, and the protest signs, and the vigils.
I’ll be honest, I felt most empowered by watching the things others condemned: the burning buildings, the smashed windows, the damaged police cars. And as I watched those buildings burn, I thought of all the years I let my neck burn to erase the part of myself that I never embraced. I wanted so badly to support those in the streets that were willing to risk physical harm to fight for racial justice, but how could I do that when I wanted to hide the part of me that wasn’t white?
So, I made my decision.
On August 7, 2020, I got my first protective style.
And now, every time I wash my hair, every time I look in the mirror, every time those curls I once called weird and messy stare back at me, I feel…
I wish that my head was full of those curls. I want so badly to see how they’d frame my face, thick and bouncy, full of the part of me I was never comfortable showing. How funny it is that I now want nothing more than to be able to flaunt what I was once so insecure about.
But because of my choices for years and years and years and years, I have to wait.
At least now, I’m excited about what I’m waiting for.