Back in 1996, on a whim, I got braids. I didn’t have any thoughts about what that meant socially or politically. Honestly, it wasn’t part of our national conversation. Or maybe I just wasn’t aware. I was aware of the power of hair, at least for me as a white woman. But I had no idea what it meant for women of color. I was young. And let’s face it, my awareness, like so many of us, was shaped by my own experience.
I was eleven years old when I first discovered the power of hair. Monica was a shy white girl in the class behind me. And she had a long beautiful dark brown mane that fell midway down her back. And then, suddenly, at the beginning of the next school year, Monica appeared with a bob, falling just below her ears. Her hair was short! No longer quiet, she was now outgoing! She became popular! Her transformation was amazing. Very clearly, so it seemed to me, her personality change had everything to do with her hair change. Cutting her hair had made her more confident. I’ve never forgotten my amazement.
Not oddly, when I was in high school, I wanted to look like Jacqueline Smith after she left Charlie’s Angels. But a long wavy mane is a pain to maintain so I got a perm. The result? Classmates called me “Babs” after Streisand. Ok, admittedly, that also had to do with my nose. Sure, it was easy to care for but it was a beauty disaster.
By the time I moved to San Francisco at age 18, I was tired of trying to be pretty. I didn’t want men looking at me. So, I cut my hair short. Like, short short. For over thirteen years my hair was boy-short. I even shaved my head. Twice. The only exception was when I grew it out to travel to Germany with my father (but that’s another story).
Anyway, in 1996, I convinced my sister to travel to Venezuela for Christmas. I like to be low maintenance, especially when I travel (remember, that’s why I got a perm), so I decided to get braids. I figured it would be super easy and I wouldn’t have to deal with my hair. Because you know what? Even short hair can be a pain to maintain.
My normal Chicago bus drove past a neighborhood salon and for months I admired the photos of women in braids plastered on the windows. Yes, they were all black women. And no, I didn’t know anyone who had braids. It wasn’t a fad and other people weren’t doing it. Sure, there had been Bo Derek years earlier but I actually hated that look.
Bottom line: I didn’t get braids to be sexy or defiant or even different. Honestly, they just seemed practical, beautiful, and easy.
So, I saved up my money ($250 in 1996, which was a lot for me) and booked my appointment. The woman who worked on my hair for hours was from Senegal and spoke only French. The other two women in the salon giggled a bit. Best I could tell, they thought it was funny – this white girl getting braids. It was also a challenge because my hair was so short (approximately 4 inches on top), which was barely enough with which to weave the synthetic hair. Even with glue, within six weeks, they were falling out. My hair was simply too short to hold them.
But oh those six weeks! They were uncomfortable to sleep with but while awake, the braids made me feel regal. Like Cleopatra. A queen. They were a crown of sorts. The weight of them. The shape of them. And then, the length. Hair that brushed my shoulders! Hair that I could swing!
Today I absolutely understand this as cultural appropriation. But was it then? Phyllis was my nearest friend of color – we lived in the same building and saw each other regularly and socially. Did she consider it appropriation and was too nice to say anything? What would my black friends say today if they saw these photos? Was I grossly out of line?
Hair is a very powerful thing. Hair itself holds power, according to indigenous beliefs. And remember the story of Samson? Undeniably, hair defines how others see us. Even how we see ourselves.
I knew this power of hair when I cut mine and kept it short. I felt confident and strong. I knew this when I shaved my head. I felt fierce and unencumbered. And I have been keenly aware of this as I age and keep my hair long and dark. I can finally embrace my femininity. Maybe I knew it when I got the braids – at least in terms of some budding awareness of how I was changing myself. But I never thought about it in a broader sense, in anything outside of myself.
This is what I’m struggling with today: whether or not I committed cultural appropriation at the age of thirty. I would never do it again, I swear. But to be honest, I have to admit, I’m so glad I once did.
For six brief weeks, I had braids. And that was the beginning of a transformation for me. It took two more decades for me to fully embrace it but now I feel it, no matter how I wear my hair. I am regal. I am a queen. And that is the best “coming home” I could ever ask for.