My hair, on the surface, is like a tortoise. It seems to be slow to grow, slow to retain length. Like a tortoise, it seems to be slow to form and slow to move, a mass as thick as a watered sponge. It even looks like a tortoise sometimes: my afro is the shell and the longer strands of hair sticking out in all directions are the legs. I’ve done so much with it: I’ve relaxed it, texturised it, straightened it, hot-combed it, curl-wanded it, rolled it, twisted it, corn-rowed it, single-plaited it, weaved it and wig’d it. I’ve also afro’d it. But it still seems slow, and it still cuts. It’s heat-damaged in places even though I’ve only used heat on it three times in two years. Some curls are looser than others, and the sides are shorter than the middle. It can be a nightmare. It’s like the one thing you have that you can’t simply dispose of, similar to the way you can change your mind but cannot really change your nature. And in all honesty, like a tortoise inserts itself fully into its shell, its protective case, I’ve covered up my hair with other styles. This has been as much to protect it as it has, at times, to hide it. Not necessarily out of shame but out of wanting that layered, calm and sedated look on my head. It has been a way to make the hair styling process easier, to free up more hours in the day where I’m not braiding my hair so it doesn’t matt, or twisting it so it stretches. Time that I’m not spending thinking what to do with it or how to encourage it to retain length.
In the fable by Aesop, ‘slow and steady wins the race’, but does it really? Does it depend on what kind of race it is? A sprint is always about the fastest; longer races allow for slower paces, but it is always the one who reaches the finish line first that wins.
I know that the message behind ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’ was probably a more principle-centred one. The idea that in life, we do not always need to be in a hurry, or underestimate others, or become complacent, or think that we know everything. There are multi-textured strands to the messages in the fable. And there is always one more angle, always one more person who can say that the tortoise’s life span is usually far longer than the hare’s– the hare doesn’t have as much time as the tortoise. So its speed is, if anything, a life skill.
This many-layered approach reminds me of my own experiences with my hair: I toy around with it for a couple of weeks then I’m tired, I’ve seen and touched everything there is to see and touch and so decided to cover it with braids or a weave. I’ve had it for a lifetime; I know my hair better than anyone else but I don’t know everything. I can’t see the back of my head without a mirror, and I don’t know if there’s a spot in the middle of it. I’m even not completely sure why part of my hair is 3c/4a and the other is 4c. It is a complexity to me, like the complexity that exists in other things of nature.
Now I want to wear my hair out as it is. It is freeing and refreshing to feel the wind sliding through it. It is inexplicable but not unruly, it is movement but not aimless. But at the same time, I keep wondering why it sometimes feels peculiarly like a cultural or even political statement.
I got my afro out like Angela Davis.
Walking on these streets, my hair loud and proud.
At times I truly feel like I’ve ‘got my hair out’. When girls talk about people being surprised when they change their hair up or leave it natural, I nod my hair in agreement and feel like, yes, I took my hair out of the bag it’s been hiding in with all my other black juju ingredients.
But seriously, when your hair is coily and short some people will call you ‘brave’ or perhaps even ‘rad’ because you have your hair, and only your hair, on your head. I remember I read a comment underneath a YouTube video that spoke about how nowadays in society, the bravest thing is to be yourself. But the afro is not the only expression of black hair identity: the braid, the Bantu, the cornrow, the thread and many more are expressions of this identity. Like certain genres of music and styles of dressing, black hair is a Topic Of Discussion because of its ties to our history. People have their specific hairstylists or barbers, they know the people who can Do Hair, and those that can’t. They know the ones that charge the Pick ‘n’ Drop the same price as a weave installation. Like the fable or folktale, black hair always goes deeper than the eyes can see.
And there’s black hair in literature. The first time I read about a character’s experience with their hair and with black hair salons was in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah:
Even though it’s partially set in the United States, Adichie’s main female character Ifemelu is so relatable in her description of black hair salons:
‘Often, there was a baby tied to someone’s back with a piece of cloth. or a toddler asleep on a wrapper spread over a battered sofa.’
And when Ifemelu gets to the hairdresser, and one of the stylists asks:
“Why don’t you have relaxer?”
And Ifemelu replies: “I like my hair the way God made it.”
“But how you comb it? Hard to comb.”
Much of the first chapter in the book is about Ifemelu’s journey to the salon on a very warm day, her hair and the colourful characters she meets there. Adichie seamlessly weaves the narration of these events so that it feels like the process of making one’s hair is one that takes a whole day: a few minutes spent travelling in the heat, the wait in the salon, then the braiding or weaving process. As slow and deliberate as hair growth. As slow and deliberate as a tortoise.
At least I would like to imagine it in this way.