That Good Hair
When I was younger my mother used to brush my hair like she did my sisters’ hair except that for the girls she would use a comb. Me, I got a brush. A turquoise colored plastic brush with stiff nylon bristles. I would sit on the edge of the bed and she would rub a large dollop of Blue Magic hair grease, that pungent miracle salve, onto my scalp and I would feel the coolness as my follicles absorbed the Magic. Then she would run the brush through my hair, yanking my curls backwards, straightening them until they snapped back into fusilli spirals.
To this day I blame my mother for causing my hairline to recede. She meant well, but all of that yanking, brushing and coercing had to be the culprit because it couldn’t have been genetic. I can’t remember if my brother, three years my junior, received the same treatment but if he did it didn’t take. My brother has a perfect hairline. It starts a few inches above his brow and not past his temples like mine. His hairline allows him to go to the barbershop every Friday to get “edged up.” The barber he goes to knows him. They have a fraternal relationship like in the movies. My brother’s hairline makes him one of the boys, it makes him accepted.
As children we mostly let our hair grow wild, curly afros that folded in on themselves, our biracial hair not being coarse enough to support the full weight of a ‘fro. We would sometimes pick it out, but our hair would shrivel back into large coils if touched by perspiration or water or if we just sat around for ten minutes or so. Once in high school when I was talking loudly in class, my Spanish teacher Mrs. Campbell jokingly threatened, “Be quiet or I’ll put you out in the rain and make your hair even curlier.”
Our first regular barber was a woman named Lucy who ran a salon on Orange Street, a north to south street, that stretched from downtown Redlands to the North Side of town where the housing projects had been built in the 1950s. The North Side was the relatively dangerous part of town, but nothing like San Bernardino or Fontana or Rialto, the surrounding cities that boasted real gangs and actual violence.
Lucy was a Hispanic woman, possibly Mexican. A statue of a musical note stood in front of her salon. It marked where the Wyatt Opera house used to be. A Stater Bros grocery store was across the street, built on the former site of the Casa Loma Hotel. The Casa Loma Hotel was torn down years ago even though it had been visited by President McKinley in 1901 and later President Roosevelt. We learned all of this on a “civic pride” field trip we had to take in the third grade.
The shop smelled like a salon, not a barber shop. The kind of barbershops I visit have a single bottle of barbicide but this place had dozens of differently colored bottles full of chemicals, each with their own specific function; even now I can only guess what those chemicals were for. The shop was equipped to carry out the various procedures required by Lucy’s clientele, mostly older Hispanic women. The heavy chemical smell and the bright neon sign and the florescent colors of the bottles and the patterned clothing of the matronly women slouched in salon chairs flipping through magazines as they waited the requisite six hours for the process they were undergoing to be finished, the whole thing made Lucy’s place seem like it existed on another planet. Pancake-faced women teetered unsteadily out of chairs with six pounds of crimped, pressed and permed hair and stumbled out of the neon lights of Lucy’s salon and onto Orange St like extraterrestrials entering Earth’s atmosphere for the first time.
I wondered how my father had found the place. He owned a small construction company so he worked with a lot of Hispanic people, but I couldn’t imagine him asking them for tips on where to get his sons’ haircut. More likely he had exited the 10 freeway and driven past the storefront in his blue pickup truck, covered in dust from one of his jobs, and seen the giant “$8 haircut” painted on the window in hot pink bubble lettering.
The haircuts were straightforward, a one guard or two guard attached to the clippers and pushed across the expanse of our craniums. She trimmed our hairlines, but nothing like the aggressive edge ups we would receive when we were older. Occasionally she would etch a few parallel lines into our hair on the side of our heads; that was as fancy as she got.
I remember one time when Lucy cut my hair she told me that I had anger problems. I was ten years old, but she was right. She said she could feel the pressure points on my head. I still don’t know if this was true or if she had observed something about me in passing and decided to lie about her ability to read personalities through touch. It didn’t seem like she had received special training, especially not the kind that would help her read pressure points.
For the next eight years my hair might as well have ceased to exist. We stopped going to Lucy’s salon and we started cutting our hair at home. The reasons may have been economic. My sisters started college when I was 11 and we never had much money in the first place. My brother and I embarked on eight long years of hair purgatory.
We received haircuts at home from each other or our sisters or mother or a Black friend who claimed to know what he was doing. Our Black friends got their haircuts in one of the surrounding cities. Those cities had a higher population of Black people: Highland, San Bernardino, Rialto. These people didn’t have any more money than we did, but being “full Black” made finding a barber a priority. With our hair we had the benefit of being biracial. No matter how unkempt our hair was people would marvel at it. In Wal-Mart old White ladies would ask if we were Samoan. At fast food restaurants people would ask what relation the short White woman at our table was to us. When we told them that she was our mother we saw them struggle to hide their surprise. They had assumed we were Polynesian or Tongan.
Our father had his reasons for keeping us out of the adjacent cities. He was very particular about the type of people he wanted us to associate with and he wasn’t going to shuttle us into a town full of “them negroes.” My father never used the word “nigger,” but one could surmise that his assessment of “them negroes” wasn’t any different than Chris Rock’s. My father had come to California from small town Louisiana, moving directly into Los Angeles, and I don’t think he ever got over the shock of some aspects of the inner city. He didn’t want the idleness endemic to some of those areas infecting us. He wanted us to understand the value of work.
I vaguely remember that he found a Black barber, but not a Black barber shop, within the Redlands city limits for himself at this time, someone who could give him a bald fade and an edge up, but someone that was like him: Black, hard-working and not at all willing to suffer fools. I remember accompanying him to the barber shop and watching him fall asleep as the barber cut his hair, exhausted from working 60 hours grading foundations, pouring cement, building a church, whatever job he could get.
At the time I didn’t want to get my curly ‘fro cut. During my sophomore year I let my hair grow to about eight inches in length. I was going to have it braided into cornrows like Allen Iverson or Latrell Sprewell. I had always played basketball, but as I got older basketball became more and more of my identity and along with basketball came hip-hop. I was steeping myself in Black culture.
How could I be the only (half) Black kid with a bad hairline and goofy hair?
By that time my brother had started to get rudimentary edge ups from his friends, but early on it was apparent that my hairline couldn’t be tampered with by an amateur. In an effort to straighten it, I was scared they would push it back to my fontanel. It wasn’t my imagination; my friends had noticed it as well and had taken to calling me “Recede” Wallace, a play on the nickname for University of Kansas’s power forward that they stole from Slam magazine.
I saw cornrows as a way out. I would get my hair braided and be one of those Black guys. Like Bob Marley or Busta Rhymes. If you have braids or dreadlocks you’re allowed to be a little different. Braids are both undeniably Afrocentric and individualistic. If I had braids it would be easier for people to process my game-show-host-voice, devoid of any Blackness I was told, and my nerdiness.
I graduated high school the year before Kanye West dropped College Dropout. Black nerds in the mainstream, cool ones that is, weren’t a thing yet. But weird Black guys with braids or dreadlocks were definitely a thing
My cornrow dream was killed by a White person. A White guy on the basketball team got his hair braided and wore a doo-rag to practice. As he shot the ball I could see how he pulled his arms back into himself, like he needed to cover up, like the tightly wound braids had unexpectedly opened him up and made him vulnerable; letting his arms freeze in midair, as was natural when shooting a basketball, was leaving his person exposed. All of his mannerisms were extremely self-conscious, his movements were stunted as he tried to be natural all the while attempting to catch how others were reacting to him. I could only imagine the automatic recoil I would activate if I braided my hair. Given the size of my head and the starting point of my hairline I figured I would look like The Predator. It was a non starter.
My junior college basketball team featured Black guys from every region of America: Queensbridge, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Pensacola, Connecticut, Minnesota, Louisiana, and of course California. Three of the guys on the team had braids and everyone else had short cut hair, edged up with waves. Nobody had a mess of curls flowing over their ears. Even James, who talked like a valley girl and, like me, was made fun of relentlessly, even he had an edge up.
I had enough problems integrating into my junior college. It was bad enough that I was wearing Banana Republic long-sleeve button-down dress shirts (trying to be like Jay-Z in Dirt Off Your Shoulder) and Mavi Jeans (trying to be like Kanye and wear clothes that fit) and listening to Jimi Hendrix (trying to branch out from hip-hop) and that my coach had told my teammates my SAT score which became my nickname (the four digit number plus the word head to drive home that I had a big head). The last thing I needed was bad hair.
Everybody on the team paid a lot of attention to their hair. Kenyatta’s waves were perfectly composed sine curves with short amplitudes and long wavelengths. His hair never looked bad. Ever. Jabar, Smoke and Sam had braids and got them done once a week. Rummel was the resident barber who cleaned up (note: not edged up, that was professional’s work) Kenyatta and Tommy’s hair and occasionally Dwayne’s. Dwayne and Greg were special cases, however, because their hairlines were even worse than mine. From recent photos on Facebook I’ve seen that they’ve both gone skin bald now, while my hairline hasn’t quite retreated into that cold dark night.
“Nigga when you gonna get a taper?” That was the main question from one of my high school friends, White Delight. He approached me after I made the junior college team. He was the only White person I ever knew who could get away with dropping the term “nigga.” From that moment up until a few years ago I assumed taper as it pertained to hair was used exclusively by Black people. And White Delight.
White Delight took my brother and me to the Black barbershop in Colton. Everyone in the shop was some shade of brown; there were even a few Dominicans and a guy of Pakistani descent that had come to feel culturally Black. You could buy Pro Club White tees next door for seven dollars in a shop that also sold Arizona Green Tea for 99 cents. Plenty of dudes had Swishers in various stages of being turned into blunts. The shop itself had something like seven conversations going on at once. 106th and Park played on the TV. I had finally arrived. I was 19.
Mike cut my hair that first time and I went back to his chair every time after that. He was a “high yellow” Black guy (maybe) and he had curls like mine but each curl was even longer and his hair was of a finer consistency like Mexican hair. He was probably Puerto Rican, but I never asked. It took forever to get in his chair. At the barber shop everyone had their guy and they would call and make “appointments.” They would call or chirp directly to the barber’s cell phone and ask how many he had in front of him and then the barber would tell him how many people were waiting or lie and tell him no one was waiting if he knew the guy really well. White Delight was known around the barber shop but didn’t have a guy, so we had to wait an hour and a half to get our hair cut.
The haircut itself lasted thirty minutes. He spent about twenty minutes pushing back and straightening my hairline, a process so sensitive it might have been more effectively done with tweezers. He tapered the sides of my hair and the back, a high taper, so that my curls slowly rose from the crown of my head and crescendoed into a gelled tangle. Mike had applied the gel expertly like he would to his own hair and then he let me look at myself in the mirror and I finally got it. That was what all the fuss was over. My hair actually looked good when it was all cleaned up and styled. I could even understand why someone would call it good hair.
That phrase had always baffled me growing up. Good hair. I liked my White friends’ hair because it was versatile: You could spike it, slick it back, grow it shoulder length, put it in a pony tail or do the bed head thing that girls seemed to like. And I liked my Black friends’ hair because it was perfect: You could make tight braids, a perfectly shaped ‘fro, an angular edge up with or without waves. I couldn’t see any use in having hair like mine. It was messy. It couldn’t grow up into an effective afro or down and straight, plus with my hairline it couldn’t be shaved off and edged up. Even if I had a good hairline, I would never be able to get waves, not like Kenyatta. I could buy six cans of Dax Wave and Groom, a brush and a doo-rag and work on my hair for hours, and I would never get it to lie down and be wavy.
How the hell was that good hair?
With a taper and curls, however, I understood. I even noticed some other Black friends that had the same cut. I had seen it a hundred times before but never noticed it until I had it myself, like when you learn a new word and suddenly see it in the newspaper and hear it on television as if everyone discovered its existence at the same time.
I had always felt hamstrung by my hair, not only by the limitations on different styles but by my hair’s intrinsic nature. Styled curls, and to a certain extent naturally curly hair, are cute. It makes men look like little boys. To this day, at the ripe old age of thirty, 200 pounds and over six feet tall, I have a who calls me cute instead of handsome.
Regardless of my feelings about it, my hair did produce results. The first day after I got my taper I went to basketball practice and every girl there looked at me differently. The guys made various remarks; I believe the name Al B. Sure! was floated out there. The general consensus was that it looked good, but when our strength and conditioning coach (Coach I’m-not-a-Muslim-but-I’m-down-with-the-Nation Hebert) saw me he said, “See, they think that looks good. Good hair. That’s slave shit.” This was before I was listening to BlackStar and Dead Prez; Coach Hebert blew my mind with that.
If I could have traded in my hair I would have. Much later, when I transferred from junior college to university, I tried to get dreadlocks, rekindling an old dream of being an eccentric black guy now that I was in film school. I remember going home for winter vacation dressed in a green Jimi Hendrix shirt that my first girlfriend gave me. My hair was half a foot in length and floppy; at the time I had given up on working out and I was smoking copious amounts of pot. Dreads were sure to complete the counterculture transformation man.
I told my father my plan as we sat in the living room watching the Lakers. He muted the sound on the big screen television and looked at me in all seriousness. He said, “Boy, if you get dreadlocks you just be careful that that hair don’t wear you.” He laughed and turned up the game after that. I think he knew that I wouldn’t go through with it. For one thing you’re supposed to start your dreads with short hair, not with long hair, something I knew but chose to ignore so that I could tell myself I was going to get dreads. But after my father told me that the dreads would wear me I couldn’t stop thinking about the White kid with cornrows from high school, a memory the marijuana had helped repress. I never mentioned dreads again after that.
I wanted to do the opposite of young Malcolm X and un-conk my hair; I wanted it to be Blacker. I didn’t want so-called good hair. It was on a list of things I couldn’t change. I couldn’t change my voice, I couldn’t change where I was from (growing up poor in the suburbs got me no sympathy from the guys on the team who grew up poor in the inner city) and I couldn’t change my neuroses.
I became somewhat of a regular at the barbershop, but I never really felt comfortable there. Whenever I had to walk in and ask Mike how many he had I was always self conscious of my hair and voice. Everyone else in the barbershop had strong, Black voices and I sounded like Pat Sajak. But this shouldn’t have bothered me. My voice, head and hairline were made fun of constantly by guys on the team, guys I grew up with and even my family.
But it did bother me. It felt like a demarcation even if it wasn’t. It felt like I was being judged for having good hair. Hair that I didn’t even want. It had to be a projection though because what about Mike? He was biracial, or Puerto Rican or something and nobody ever gave him grief. Or what about my biracial friends, they didn’t seem to have a problem going to the barber and getting a taper. My own brother with hair similar to mine went to the barber twice a month.
Rationalizations notwithstanding, beginning in my second year of junior college I went to the barber shop less and less.
In the end it was work that rescued me. After university I spent a year in Los Angeles wallowing in self-pity on my sister’s couch before I finally got a job at a restaurant. A few weeks later my manager made it clear that I had to get a haircut. My brother-in-law took me to a Black barbershop on Pico Boulevard. I would have never been able to go alone.
The next day at work a server jokingly told me in reference to my hair that she would take me home and buy me breakfast the next morning. God bless the taper.
As I worked and the pot cloud from college slowly dissipated things started to click in my mind: It was I who was insecure about my hairline and my curly hair. It was I who was insecure about my voice and my body. It was I who had developed the neurosis of being uncomfortable with another person touching my head, a problem which persists up to the present. The problem was and is me.
Coach Hebert often told us, “You don’t love yourselves.” Those four words meant so much. Love yourself and take care of your community, love yourself and work hard to make something of yourself. Love yourself and take responsibility for your behaviors and the way people treat you. Don’t hate your complexion or your skin tone or your curly or nappy or coarse hair or your straight hair or your spiked hair. Love yourself.
It took years for me to internalize this message. For a long time I didn’t realize that the world would include me as long as I included myself. There will always be people who try to ostracize, intimidate and exclude, but mostly people are inclusionary. They want you in their fold. But if you don’t love yourself, how can anyone else love you?
That good hair, that product of being biracial; what better way to embrace myself than to embrace the coif? My hair and my voice weren’t going to get any Blacker. And my hairline was never going to come back. I was always going to be a person with an angry disposition as Lucy had somehow known. I am these things. I cannot change that.
I still don’t feel comfortable in barbershops, Black or otherwise. I feel pressure to explain what I want, and I don’t like chit chat. I don’t mind the basics, but when a barber becomes familiar then it gives the relationship life. Every time I see him we continue our dialogue, we have a shared history. I don’t want that, so I go to new barbershops all the time which results in strangers touching me, a new phobia to replace the anxiety about my voice and hair. There seems to be no solution.
I think I need to do what my father did. Put my head down and work, work until I’m too tired to keep my eyes open, and when I reach that state I’ll walk to the barber shop and ask for a taper and then I’ll sit back and let him cut my hair while I fall asleep in the chair.
Bobby Wilson lives in China where he teaches English and writes. He spends most of his time reading, writing, studying languages, and cooking. He is married with a cat.