Charnell Peters, When They Ask About My Hair

I.

 

Freshman year of college and my head is in a sink. Sounds: pad wrappers crumpling, the moan of struggling showers, bounce and bang of stall doors, and always, shrieks and laughs in the hallways below, striking like lightning in one brilliant burst before crackling into smaller branches. Through the water’s rush over my ears, it sounds something like a carnival. I hear the spectators smile as they question my friend Shannon: “What are you doing?”

As her hands massage organic conditioner into my scalp, she gives them a general explanation: She’s washing my hair. Meanwhile, our conversation swirls with depth and specificity, words I only hear when I am with her or a few other girls on campus. She’s going on about mango butter, denman brushes, and tea tree oil. I’m proposing Cantu, activator, and fist-adorned picks.

Cream-colored water streams from my cheekbones to the tip of my nose. This part’s familiar, where I’m folded over a sink, watching arcs of water stream into the drain. I’ve been doing this since I graduated from lying on a kitchen counter with a rag over my eyes as a child. But here, at a predominately white institution, washing hair in the sink is a spectacle.

“What are you doing?”

Washing my hair.

“What are you doing?”

Deep conditioning my hair.

“What are you doing?”

My hair.

I am a woman with an afro, surrounded by an audience I don’t care to inform. Water drips behind my ears, slips beneath my t-shirt. The beads plummet between my breasts and farther down.

 

II.

 

Back then, I tried not to flinch at the click of the lighter, the exhale of the released flame. Mom melted the loose ends of the braids into waxy nubs. Then, I had a few months of luxury. No blow dryer blasting my ears red. No straightener smoking my hair. No curler rounding out my stick-straight ends. With those final seals, I was free, but not free from the questions:

“How did your hair get so long?”

“Do you do that every morning?”

“Why can’t my hair do that?”

Why can’t your hair do this? I don’t know. Maybe God wanted you to want something. Maybe instead of being followed in stores, singled out in class, and called a nigger in PE, your lot to bear is looking at me with braids halfway down my back that, poof, happened overnight.

What do they know of aching backs, of hours between mother’s knees, necks bent at every angle? What do they know of flames, boiling water, and the tangle of synthetic hair between your toes? What do they know of popping ibuprofen like mints?

 

III.

 

In grade school, I practiced in my room sometimes with my neck pulled back. Breath held, I swayed my shoulders and felt for the tiniest bit of my ponytail moving. In the air, their hair floated. When they walked, it brushed their backs and shoulders. Their bangs danced in the wind and stuck to their lips. Their bangs fell in front of their eyes over and over again, and they didn’t even care. They just pushed their hair back minute after minute, day after month after year.

 

IV.

 

Years pass, and now I am a college junior, gripping the side of a boat off the coast of Scarborough, England. The water sprays up from below, splashing my glasses and my grinning face. Wind gusts into my nostrils and rushes out my mouth as I laugh.

Over my afro, I wear a cream-colored head wrap I bought in Venice a few weeks ago. My friends in the boat swat at the hair that flips across their faces and into the drag of the wind. I don’t need to shake my head to clear my sightline or hold back anything to see. I see everything—the North Sea, blue and gaping, the coastline, a smooth yawn of fine sand. White dots of people meander where water meets land, and they amble further inland to the restaurants and storefronts.

The wind carries my laughter the entire spread of the coastline, miles and miles. I am my own vessel, my own way of movement through time and space. Unaware, shopkeepers and schoolchildren breathe in my smile. From this boat, I laugh into the world’s blue mouth.

My hands, atop my head in wonder, feel a freedom settle in.

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