This Throwback Thursday is brought to you by Ebony Williams. “Happy Hair Days” is an excerpt from her novel, How to Build a Ragdoll.
We have happy hair days to celebrate the hours that turn into full days at the hair salon. I tell people this and while I don’t want to call it a black thing, it’s a black thing. Picking a hairdresser is like picking a best friend and a therapist all at the same time. A salon is a place where you go to keep up with recent happenings among the community and where you had to be willing to share some of your own dirt in order to be considered trustworthy, seen as belonging. It was an all-day event. It was important to arrive early, nine in the morning was preferable, especially on Saturdays, so you don’t get pushed behind someone else who had been coming there longer but arrived without an appointment. If nothing else, hair salons were a place of seniority. The loyal and long-lasting customers usually went first.
We go to Gene on hair days. She is our confidant, a therapist of sorts, our gossipmonger that sits, claws grasping the very top of the grapevine. Very rarely do they talk about hair during those Saturday morning sessions. My mom, no doubt, speaks of issues at work or the current complications with my father now under court visitation orders such as late child support. As for hair, things were much more straight- forward, to do list very clear, relaxer, leave it in for a few minutes then wash out. For so long, hair days, for me were about Shirley Temple. Were about her lovely curls. The way they bounce with each sweet dance move. She exists as this icon, before I understand what an icon even is. Then, she translates into the embodiment of love. Her curls were like warm bodies that might easily embrace me. They weren’t bodies that might easily embrace me. They weren’t the tight fists that were unruly and uncompromising.
Gene often spent some time trying to convince me to make smarter, more informed hair decisions. It is my mother who always has the last word; the cash was coming out of her pockets and even then, I understand the best choice for us is the practical one. The one that lasts longer. Requires less repeat visits but I want, with great determination to look like Shirley Temple. I beg my mom, at the hairdresser’s chair, while the white acidic paste is being washed out of her hair or while she sits under the dryer.
“What did Gene say?”
“It won’t last.”
“Ok. So then?” she often replies matter of factly as if the rest of her statement would include, “What do you want?”
I simply reply, “So can I get them? I’ll make sure to wrap my hair.”
This was not something that I did often. It’s comparable to a chore like washing dishes or, according to most kids, brushing your teeth. It started with moving a brush in a cycular shape around my head and then tying a scarf around it. Wrapping my hair was an ordeal that helped the edges of the hair stay nice, smooth, and manageable. To get the hairstyle I wanted I would promise to take care of it.
At her look of severe doubt, I add, “Every night. Promise.”
There must have been something in my voice. Something in my tone. Maybe a twinge of hope, of a sort of childlike excitement she doesn’t often hear.
Mom lowers her eyes, glasses resting on her nose. She says, “Fine,” shrugging her shoulders and returning to her book.
My feet can’t carry me fast enough as I make my way over to Gene’s chair and plop in.
“She said yes.”
I think they shared a glance. Gene’s disapprovingly. Mom’s was one of, “What can it hurt?”
When my hair breaks. Begins to fall out, clump together in the spikes of my comb or fill up the spaces between the bristles in my brush, they share glances. They speak of stress. Of “poor child’ as Gene puts it and I find a tenderness with her with me. Find that, at times like this, she handles my hair with the embrace of a hug that lingers lovingly. When my mom can’t afford to pay Gene for a few weeks, Gene understands and when she is all done with my hair, Gene brings me her bowl of candy and offers me one. I feel accomplished. I feel pretty.
I wonder what comes first. My hair breaking or my fascination with cutting off the hair of Jasmine, the one Disney doll that is a woman of color when I was growing up. I wonder if I try my experience on her or maybe I try to fit her experience into my life and into my body. When I do her hair or I am playing, I am engaging in a land of bodies, of meaning, of messages and as a child, I don’t know this. I just beg my mom for a Jasmine doll and I cut her hair shoulder length. I take a straw from the utensil drawer in the kitchen back to my bedroom, take the shade off my lamp. Quickly, I place it on my desk, yank off the lampshade exposing the light bulb. My fingers work feverishly yanking the synthetic strands of Jasmine’s hair around the plastic straw. I wonder if this is what Gene feels like. If this is the job I give her. One that comes with the expectations that she will tame my tresses; the expectation that by any means necessary her hands will push and pull me by the roots of my hair for my good. The expectation is that she will make me worthy of the world. She will make me beautiful.
At first, I attempt to bob Jasmine’s hair using the straw as one larger curler. The electrical heat emanating from the light bulb is like the dryer at Gene’s. It is required to reshape hair, to keep curls in place. I figure this will hold Jasmine’s style in place so the smell of synthetic hair burning surprises me. I never think this might be the product of working with such “nice” hair. Jasmine’s long flowing hair is so beautiful, it has to be tamable, curls have to be possible. I think Gene would be able to do this.
From then on, I secretly begin to collect straws. Alter the type of curler I use to reach my desired outcome, the Jackie Kennedy bob. I remember watching movies or reading books with images that showed Black women with straightened and curled into a bob. I recall being told that in those days Black women couldn’t really find jobs unless their hair was straightened. Maybe these images date back to the 50s. Maybe this is where my love for Mid-century modern comes from, a time of clear, crisp tailored look. Maybe the bob was the working woman’s hairstyle of choice. A neat acceptable look. Never a feather or a strand or hair ruffled. This was my interest in Jackie O., my post-Shirley Temple exploration or attempt at adopting whiteness.
I cut straws into eight pieces. This is Jasmine’s collection of rollers. I try to use bobby pins and other accessories from my mother’s hair bag to lock Jasmine’s curlers in place.
They were all too big.
I go through six Jasmine dolls at least and I believe the only reason I give up is because the Jasmine doll begins to have too many versions; there is a sparkling princess, a holiday version, a married Jasmine doll, and a Jasmine that sings. I prefer my original canvas to work on.
I imagine I begin to understand, on a basic level, what it means to have a body through her body. In the world of Disney, she looked the most like me. I could also see how through her body, I learn how to live in the world with my own, taking on the shape of history’s expectations for me. The scary part is, I continue doll after Jasmine doll to make her into something she is not. I am determined to tame her hair. To give her a bob no matter how much she resists it. I burn her body to achieve a type of beauty that seems compulsory. That is consistently rejected. I don’t do this to my white dolls. Don’t do this to the male dolls. They don’t appear to need molding. Don’t seem to need alterations.
At the end, the Jasmines were always unattractive, mutilated. Hair burned down to the spot where, if she were made of flesh and bone, brain might overflow from, if exposed and melted by a light bulb. At the end, she is visibly void of external beauty. Is striped of what she was in an attempt to make her something else. They sleep under my bed in the wicker basket my mom used for me when I was a baby. My collection of Jasmine dolls sleep atop, between, or underneath the other. Bodies strewn about like corpses, abandoned and forgotten peaking out from time to time demanding to be remembered.
Usually we might not leave the hair salon until after the Carvel store, a few blocks over, had long closed but on days when we both got out to greet the sun before it set, my mom and I walked two blocks to buy a small ice-cream cake. The fun excitingly awesome part was deciding what to have written on our fourteen-dollar treat. “Happy Hair Day” usually sufficed and coupled with our newfound beauty, we felt revived, renewed.
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