Plaiting. A birthright.

September 17, 2010

Image taken from the Washington Post, from a photo gallery titled The Roots Of It.

My hair issues started early. For as long as i can remember the association of hair with pain and shame were all i knew. This carried through to adulthood.

That period around late September was a haven for the nit epidemic at school. They went rampant, feasting on a gallon of infant scalps, laying eggs and depositing waste in open sores for little ones to scratch and rub in, concocting a filthy infected wound.

It’s reported that children with Afro-Caribbean hair (wearing hair in tight cainrow plaited styles) are less likely to suffer this fate, due to the exposure of a nit with intent and increased hair density. The tight plaits are also beneficial when it comes to nit checks as it makes it’s over with in a flash.

A gaggle of five years olds lined up to determine our fate. Some were pulled out in a disgraced firing line separated from the rest of the kids and sent home for urgent treatment comprising of a foul smelling solution applied to the roots of the hair, not dissimular in scent to hair relaxer, only to return to the playground battleground and be teased by other kids (but saved by teachers stating that knits only inhabit clean hair) thus starting the retaliation of us previously redeemed as scot-free.

‘Dirty hair! Dirty hair! How come you don’t have nits? You don’t wash that’s why you look like poo!’ a mortifying taunt rings shrill.  I couldn’t explain it. All i knew is that once a fortnight (or three weeks if i could get away with it) i’d be subjected to a form of torture:

1) Shampoo – three times for luck, a rigorous scrub-scratch action

2) A conditioning treatment plus comb through – i always wanted my hair to stay like this; tiny curly ringlets that bounced when i moved my head)

3) a rough towel dry – turning the ringlets into my ‘Chaka Khan’ mane. It wasn’t appreciated at the time.

Followed by the moment i’d dreaded 4) Kneeling down on a cushion, tub of grease/pomade, agonising deeply gouge and slice of my scalp with the comb to part the mop into managable sections that would then be combed, brushed, greased, then brushed again until piles of tumbleweed styled (and sized) hairballs would emerge. I’m not talking about a peuny cat hack sort of affar, these were serious, larger than head sized hairballs that could collect on the carpet in chunks, representing the weeding i had just endured.

After the general parting came the fine parting, a scrupulous strand by strand splitting to get the intended cainrow perfectly straight. Head to mums knee, my hairstrands would be pulled so tightly away from my scalp the skin around my forehead and eyes would be taut sharper than a recent Joan Collins facelift.

I wasn’t allowed to move as mum wanted to get it just so. My nose and mouth were stuffed against the bone inhaling her scent through her hoisery. The TV audio now muffled making me yearn with intregue to glance at it to distract from the pain. I’d be crying by now, silently, as i’d be hit on the hand with the hard comb if i made too much noise- protesting only prolonged the pain.

And so four hours later (if i was lucky) it would be over.

My answer to those inquisitive taunting kids about why i didn’t endure this ritual every day was wasted. How on earth could they possibly understand, with their straight, fine European locks?

My goal was to keep my hair as neat as possible and I was ordered to wear a ‘head piece’ which was actually the top part of a pair of tights. Yes, the gusset. My mum was advised when i was six months old and having my hair braided was that this was the best way to keep my hair as new and as scraped back and frizz free as possible. So old hand me down tights that were no longer good for mum’s Radio Rentals uniform were passed to me, knotted at the feet, to put over my head before bed. They were put on as mindfully as possible, starting at the back, tucking my long plaits in and around my head, then putting the waistband of the tights wide to take in teh rest of my head without touching the plaits resting finally on the front of the forehead- the most critical area. See, the loose ‘baby curls’ at the front were unsightly. No-one wants a loose frizz ‘halo’, so it was important these were tamed and hemmed down (and still to this day done with a scarf rather than old hoisery hopefully emulating some kind of dignity)*. Removing the headpiece in the morning was as much a mindful practice. It’s a good job i wasn’t allowed to sleepovers, i would have died of shame to be seen like this by anyone other than my family.

The headpiece meant i could keep a style for longer, but it was useless unless it went in hand with static sleeping. Essentially i was trained to sleep with my head in one position, for rubbing my head from side to side would only breed frizz, regardless of the headpiece.

The problem was, I was a head-rubbing sort of child. This misfortune meant that at 8months old, the fine, jet black ‘cooley’, ‘good hair’ i was born with was literally rubbed away  at the back of my head from me habitually moving my head from side to side in the cot whilst sleeping on my back. Theories differ as to the reason for my repetative rocking but physically, it leads to one thing: Cradlecap.

My hair fell out and grew back the curly kinky mess it is today. Thick and dense like the lushest forest except lusture it lacks. It’s dry, dull and the most impossible area of my hair. The front, looser and more managable difiantly disacosiating itself from the back like a bus during the civil rights movement protested its shame. My mixed hair recipie is complete.

*NB take care to avoid ‘head piece giveaways’ to the public. No one need know of your shame. Once said front side is upon the forehead and covering the baby curls, gently drag back the tights to meet the front hair line. Or else morning indents will reighn supreme throughout the day and you will therefore be ‘busted’.

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cumulonimbus forever

August 23, 2010

Believe it or not, i was a meriwether hair model. Barnfield college in Luton had a beauty school, and at nine years old i’d been put forward to model for the students. The first time there I was due to have some kind of perm done to loosen my hair texture (after three previous failed attempts). My hair at this point was down my back, and i was searching for any kind of solution to wear it loose and toss it over my shoulders like my mums and all the other girls i ever went to school with. No-one had hair like mine and I was tired of being the freak and showpiece.

As i sat waiting for my consultation, numerous people would stop as they were walking past awestruck at the monster of hair cascading outwards, like a billowing cumulonimbus cloud. It dwarfed me. It didn’t hang down, it was a mushroom triangle that was the bane of my existence.

‘Is there someone underneath that?’ some white guy joked. Little did he know his comment would scar me for life and send me on a quest to escape my natural hair for the next 12 years.

Of course, the perm didn’t ‘take’. It weighted on my hair but wasn’t enough to make it hang down. It still puffed and billowed. To my disgust.

So after Barnfield, i sought more drastic measures to tame my mane. That’s how i met no lye cream relaxer.

Indian dream

August 2, 2010

My auntie always used Johnsons baby oil on her daughter’s hair. Summer had the hair i dreamed of. Sleek black, loose ringlets that glistened (probably with the heavy oil lubrication, still…). She was born when I was 8. We looked similar, bar her Indian ‘cooley hair’ and my afro mess. I always felt hard done by. We were from the same family, so why wasn’t my hair good?

too much too young

July 24, 2010

My first memories of being aware of my colour were in the bath. i was attempting to scrub myself ‘clean’, or rather, white. I couldn’t understand why i couldn’t have the same hue as my mum – lily white as she described. I asked questions whilst being tucked up in bed with Simone, my giant doll (also white). ‘Darling, daddy is brown, mummy is white and that makes you coffee coloured’. Simple and to the point. However this never seemed to satisfy school peers.
During drama, obligatory family improvisation when a jostling nine year old milky bar kid lookalike (Micheal if i recall…) shouts out during my monologue, ‘how can her mum be white and she’s coloured?’

An awkward silence ensued and i was stumped. I ran the question through in my mind, unable to respond or give an adequate answer. Until the teacher stepped in;

‘Dionne is half caste. Her mummy IS white’.

‘Oh yeah‘ i thought to myself. I was the only person who hadn’t been aware. Because it didn’t matter. It shouldn’t have happened.

The hair complexities however were embedded in my experience from the start. The pain of getting cainrows was so embedded i couldn’t pinpoint a time without them. Born with a mop it was unfortunately the first thing people saw with people exclaiming as i ’emerged’, ‘the hair! the hair!’.
Behold, a full head of fine, straight (?!) black hair. apparently against my white skin i looked Japanese.
Until i had cradlecap. yep, the silky smooth fine and managable ‘good hair’ was gone, instead it grew back in various textures in different parts of my head. tough and dense at the crown, looser around the front and sides.

I spent too many years wishing i’d slept sitting up so i wouldn’t have lost the hair. If only. then i’d not have spent so many years searching the globe for products to tame. But then i wouldn’t have embarked on this journey- to meet so many others who had similar experiences.

This blog has had many past lives. Tucked deep into bookshelves, filed hurridly within books, lodged in a plethora of spur of the moment blogs posted somewhere between you and i. Somewhere in between.

Despite taking the subject area seriously (trying to tame reluctantly like snags of damp locky hair the morning after the wash before), it’s never been something i’ve managed to stick at. In fact, it’s something i’ve never really shared with anyone. In truth, i’ve been ashamed. Perhaps faltering due to self conscious reflection, not wanting to appear ‘one of those’ ; hung up on race and anything related. But it’s more than that. At least to me.

It’s about projecting a voice that was suppressed for too many years, shunted by the tutors who told me there wasn’t enough research, literature or worse, interest in this field to raise the topic, and by me being too cowardly to protest.

What inspired this reincarnation was contact with an inspirational woman, working hard to empower and give voices to those stuck in between. She enabled me to realise my thoughts and obserances  were real, and i was not alone. That my deep rooted interest was real and valid and my opportunity to voice available and never too late. I’d like to thank Sarah for forcing me to face my deepest insecurities and passions, and i hope to meet others on similar journeys of mixed thought.