The Internet can be a cruel and unusual abyss of half-cocked opinions and bargain basement analysis, especially when it comes to Black wom...
So we sat next to each other at my mother’s house because one of our ‘village’ elders was in town and my mother had recommended that we seek counsel. He was a divorced, single father of two young sons and I was a single, adult college student. We were best friends and all the time we spent together built quite the cozy nest beneath us without us realizing until we noticed we were looking at each other through eyes of the googly sort. It confused us and riled us up, surprised us and comforted us. It took some time to figure out what to do with this thing that had developed between us, including some angry rants and some attempts at sabotage, before wondering why there was space between us and decided to close it. Literally. After a weekend at his apartment, preparing to return home to start the week, he stopped me and asked, “Why do you keep leaving? You don’t have to leave; I want you here.”
That beautifully unexpected moment from a man I’d later discover struggled with decision-making was the beginning of a conversation that would eventually become a proposal. I think the discovery I was being asked to never leave was more monumental than being asked to be his wife and, subsequently, the other mother to his boys. I cried real tears of joy and got my things as soon as time would allow.
Two years later we were being referred to community elders to offer insight on the best ways to get and stay together. My side-eye game kicked in at the ‘get’ part because we’d already passed that stage. We were being told we’d done it all wrong and needed to press rewind, to moonwalk our way right out of our current set-up and dismantle the band. The man I loved looked like wisdom had rained down on him from the heavens and I knew he was feeling the suggestion that we stay together but take up separate residences until we worked through our stuff. He drank whatever liquid substance substituted for Kool Aid because we didn’t drink that at my mother’s house.
At the time, I was clear that if we put physical distance between us we were destined for doom. If we couldn’t figure out how to stay together while together, how would we ever figure it out apart? I didn’t trust it. More than that, I probably didn’t really trust him, or me, and I couldn’t figure out how I’d explain this to people who loved us. It never crossed my mind that there was no cause for these specifics to even be a point of discussion for anyone else because it was none of their business. I was afraid of not looking the part and convinced myself that my insistence that we remain under the same roof was about us fighting for what we had, seeing the separation as throwing in the towel.
Some months later I graduated from school and from our relationship. It was a few more months after that before I left his apartment because our friendship kept creating these awkward spaces that we named compassion. The physical space gave me time to search for an apartment and put furniture on layaway and have pillow talk with my best friend turned ex fiancé about how amicable breakups meant more humane separations. Oh the ways humans kid themselves.
That relationship ended 9 years ago. I’ve been in another relationship for nearly 6 years and over the course of this 1, I’ve had a chance to grow in perspective. I now have the good sense to know that there are as many ways to do relationships as there are relationships. It is insane that any of us believe that 2 very different people could come together to live and love in the same way as 2 other very different people. I don’t know what writer penned the rules for relationships and marriage but someone gave some Christian HIM great power over all of us. As my significant other and I continue to work through what Us looks like we’ve had some difficult conversations about our true to life needs.
It may seem trivial but discussing one partner’s disdain for sharing a bed in a construct that expects that people typically sleep side by side is not easy. Snoring is disrespectful and I’m not here for it. It has led to conversations about options from sleeping in separate rooms, perhaps on separate floors to even separate locations. But this exploration is symbolic of all the difficult deliberations we have unflinchingly tackled. The learning outcome—forgive me, I’m a former teacher—is that we must be bold enough to use a magnifying glass to search for the ways we’ll fight to hold onto what’s important to us.
We realize that we could require a home with 2 kitchens to support different blood type diets or be open to living in separate states for career moves or abandon the U.S. altogether to add layers to our quality of life. We know that we may have to add grandparents’ quarters to our childless home to accommodate the people who made us, and to be open to other considerations the average couple guards against because it looks too nontraditional. And nontraditional is the virtual unknown. These considerations are not easy and the conversations usually aren’t fun to have, but we love being together enough to endure some discomfort sponsored by the collective before one or both of our individual needs or goals overtakes us. We have decided that only we will dictate the terms of our relationship, which means we cannot and will not ever be molded in your image. Or yours.
Watch us move.
Four years ago Gabby Douglas had her figurative edges snatched by folks wondering about the quality of her literal edges. I know without surveying that 99.56789% of those engaging in this ‘conversation’ were Black and the great percentage of them were women, young and old. How do I know this? Black women tend to be the only ones who know about ‘edges’ and the only ones care about them. Ask a white woman what an edge is and see what she tells you.
Here we are 4 years later and Gabby’s edges are under attack along with the edges of her Black teammate, Simone Biles. Before Biles and Douglas are addressed together, let it also be acknowledged that Gabby has caught heat for her unpatriotic appearance on the medal stand for not having hand over heart during the singing of the National Anthem. It was not enough that she stood there wearing a whole USA sweat suit after competing (performing) in the name of a country that has historically disregarded and dehumanized those who look like her or that she too has to find ways to reconcile daily images of versions of herself being gunned down by the state without just cause. This is important because the concept of patriotism will be tied in with this hair thing shortly. Bear with me.
Firstly, Black women’s hairlines tell a story. The stories are all different but judged by a similar rubric. Our edges and our kitchens tell the story of lineage. They serve as silent confirmation of miscegenated roots and an escape from peasy kitchens (nape of the neck) and the ability to lay one’s hairline as smooth as a baby’s. Our generationally gifted hair standard lies in connections to white people or Native Americans and babies who are still womb wet or, as some are still wont to identify, that good hair.
In an attempt to disguise the hair follicle fail in the genetic crapshoot, Black women reach for all manner of lye and lye-like and lye-light products to whip and tame their hair into a personal hair apology. Madame CJ Walker’s hair advancements were based in meeting the needs of those deeply burdened by the kinks and coils that grew wildly from their scalps. And Black women rejoiced so much that we have burned our collective edges clean off with pressing combs, relaxer kits, and flat irons. Clowning a Black woman’s lack of edges is layered, and essentially laughs at the lengths she—or her mama—have gone to in order to apologize for the lack of slave master rape and Native American mixing in their gene pool. We have developed unhealthy hair habits in an attempt to meet a European aesthetic. Patriotism.
Black hair is a challenge, no matter what kind we have. It requires work in a way that those with straighter textures just can’t understand. In its kinky coily state, it must be kept moisturized, not washed too much so as not to strip the natural oils, and detangled, detangled, detangled. These things are time consuming and require a great deal of love. All that is before you even get to braids and the like that have mysteriously been renamed as protective styles. If keeping long hair isn’t desired, regular appointments with a GOOD barber are required. Locs, twists, extensions, and weaves require maintenance as well. No matter how we maintain our hair there’s something of a dance we do between our hair and our lifestyles. With anything other than a short cut, I planned club nights and anything that could potentially involve smoke around wash days. Wash day always came the day after whatever revelry so that the style destroying effects of sweat and smoke could be handled right away and get me ready for the next 2 weeks. As a dancer I had to find ways to work with the sweat so as not to be taken down by it and made to look raggedy all the days of my life. Sweat isn’t hair-friendly, no matter what kind you have, but certainly unkind to the type of hair that shouldn’t be excessively washed. This has lead to a great many of us abandoning exercise in favor of maintaining our fly.
Now that that’s out of the way, lets return to Gabby and Simone; and forgive me for addressing them by their first names as though I know them but I claim them for sure.
These 2 young women have lived between the gym and competition since the age of 6. That’s a lot of buckets of sweat between them. On top of that, it’s far more hours of commitment that they don’t have to give over to hair—assuming they care, because they don’t have to. But lets go a step further for a minute. Have you taken even a passing glance at the ‘look’ of gymnastics? And not to distract from gymnastics, but cheerleading and ballet have something in common here as well and it’s important to identify it. There are 2 hair options in these 2 sports and the 1 dance form: straight or straight-ish hair in a ponytail or straight or straight-ish hair snatched into a tight bun. Edges aside, have you paid attention to the bone straightness of the loose or hanging hair of Gabby and Simone’s ponytails? That’s not their natural texture and requires manipulation. Gymnastics has made no bends, pun certainly intended, to accommodate the Black aesthetic within the sport. It has not said that their very talent is in and of itself enough to compete on the national and international level without submitting to the required European aesthetic. Even from within a sport that continues to subtly invalidate them, Simone Biles and Gabby Doublas keep showing up in their red, white, and blue leotards—albeit to show out in their brown skin—for their country. Patriotism.
Through all of that, we have the gall to clock their hair.
So, before you speak or type another word about your discomfort with their hairline, I challenge you to count your Olympic medals, hell, even your ribbons from all that competing you’ve done in your life. Insert side-eye here. I challenge you to find your footnotes in history. I challenge you to reflect on what your own hair habits are rooted in and if even your edges are or have been tested by the aesthetic you subscribe to. I challenge you, whether you live inside or outside of the hair straightening reality, to apply the love you apply to your own tresses to those young ladies and thank them for sacrificing their edges to help balance the narrative of the various pathologized images of Blackness shared en masse internationally on a daily basis. They are carrying YOU on their petite backs, paving the way for your children, if not you, to stand up and BE GREAT at whatever you or they choose. And if all or any of those considerations are too much for you where you happen to stand in your truth today, I challenge you to simply shut yo ass up.
Disclaimer: this writer has had natural hair the majority of her life. She has also been an athlete and a dancer and has an understanding of the effects of these activities on Black hair. Even with that, this writer is not personally concerned with the individual hair choices people make as much as hoping those choices are made in full self acceptance and done in a fashion that is minimally damaging to hair, hearts, and minds.