Doubt and Insecurity and Back-handed Compliments... That's What Some Little Black Girls Are Being Made Of
My First Relaxer
My nose got pinched more as a child than my cheeks did. Minus those obligatory Sunday mornings at my church home Franklin St. Johns, that is. And when someone wasn’t pinching my nose they were instructing me to pinch it myself. It was a chore that became part of my routine much like brushing my teeth, saying my prayers, and washing my ass.
“Why?” I would ask my mother, my grandmothers, and my assortment of aunts.
“Because you need to shape it,” they would respond.
I’d bring my small hands to my face standing in front of the mirrors I came to hate, examining and wondering exactly what kind of shape a nose was supposed to have. Back then I didn’t know the components of a nose other than nostrils. I knew a nose was for breathing. Sneezing. Picking. Blowing. But shaping? One of my grandmothers loves to tell the story of how she would pinch my nose as a baby.
“Every durn day I would pinch that thing,” she would declare with pride while stripping me of mine. “And it’s still flat and wide just like your grandfather’s.” So much for family pride too, I suppose.
“You know you could’ve killed me right, Grandma? You were essentially cutting off my air supply.”
“Shiiiiit,” she’d say with her Alabama drawl stretching out one syllable words defying the laws of diction. “That’s what you open your mouth for. You didn’t die, did you?”
Only on the inside, Grandma. Only on the inside. She was Chang before The Hangover.
As I grew into my adolescence, the focus of my undesirable nose was compounded with a focus on my hair that apparently wasn’t “good” and “didn’t behave well.” I suppose my Bible thumping family found another mistake God had made… Apparently, my hair was by extension just as rude and disrespectful as I heard that I was. My background is Afro-Cuban, German, West Indian, and Slave Trade African Ameri-CON. To the women in my family’s dismay, I have hair that is more Afro than Cuban. I did not get the loose, long, and manageable West Indian “Coolie” hair. The German in me was apparently in name only. When my hair was described like an unruly child, I often found myself wondering if hair could be put on time out or grounded. Apparently it could. First there were the straightening combs AKA “Hot combs” that would be placed on an open flame on the stove every Saturday morning waiting to “fix” the problem that was my hair. My grandmother would sit me in the cramped kitchen and drape a tattered towel over my shoulders. Then she would hand me a jar of what looked like lard that she would use to grease my scalp and instruct me to sit still and hold my ears down so I wouldn’t get burned. I always got burned. My grandfather would intermittently come into the kitchen—I’m assuming to make sure my grandmother wasn’t murdering me as the sounds of my screams alluded to. He would then shake his head and leave just as quickly as he had come.
HISS! went the sound of the hot comb making contact with the damp rag. POP! went the grease melting into my hair. After all of the life had been taken out of my hair and my coils burned into a flatline of submission, then came the corn braids. For those of you that don’t know, corn braids are the braids that the Kardashians have made suddenly societally and fashionably less urban. If I hear one more person call them “boxer braids,” I will most likely physically assault them. Funny how when black women wear those braids they are considered ghetto. But a white woman wears them and they’re all the rage. But I digress. Now here’s the funny thing about my corn braids… my mother couldn’t stand them. She would prefer to fight with me and my tangles in the mornings before school than have her black daughter walk around looking, well… black. So every Saturday, my grandmother would attack my head like it did something to her. And every Monday morning before school my mother would unbraid my too ethnic hair, wet it, slap some gel in it, and secure it with a bow. Preferably pink. My favorite color is blue.
When I was five-years-old my Aunt Ros got married. I and my cousin Zipporah were to be the flower girls. Yes! I was so excited. Although I had never been to a wedding before or even really knew what it meant other than that my Aunt’s extremely handsome and friendly boyfriend Mark was now going to be my uncle, I was ecstatic. The preparations for the wedding let me know it was a big deal. There were dresses to pick out and DJ’s to book and honeymoons to plan and photographers to be hired. There were cake tastings and caterer food samplings. Family was coming from all over that I either never met or would get to meet for the first time. I was essentially getting a whole new family too. This was all too amazing to my five-year-old self. And best of all as important as the day was, my Aunt Ros chose me to be a part of her most special day and for that brief moment I felt special, too. Then everything changed.
The morning of the wedding, all the ladies got together at the beauty parlor to get pampered and ready. I had never been to a beauty parlor before. Not if you don’t count grandma’s kitchen. The sights and smells were overwhelming. The fragrances of expensive perfumes and hair products danced in my nostrils. I saw hairstyles being created that somehow seemed to laugh in the face of gravity. Makeup was expertly applied, enhancing already naturally beautiful faces. I saw Zipporah across the room sitting in a stylist's chair, propped on two booster seats. She waved at me as she got her long ebony hair curled into cascading Shirley Temple curls. I was next. A hairstylist walked me over to her chair and introduced herself. She asked me if I was excited to be a flower girl.
“How did you know!?” I squealed with a child’s delight.
“All flower girls are very pretty. So you must be a flower girl,” she replied, boosting my little ego. “What are we going to do with you today?”
Before I could reply, my Aunt Ros yelled from a few chairs over, “Oh, you’ve got to relax that head!”
Relax my head? I felt perfectly relaxed. I could feel my stylist's body tense up over me.
She looked down at me and asked me if my mommy was there. I said no. She returned her conversation to my Aunt Ros.
“Are you sure you want to relax her? She’s a lot younger than most of my relaxer clients. I don’t think we should.”
My Aunt Ros dug her heels in.
“Listen, we don’t have time for all that it’ll take to tame that head of hers. And I don’t need her sweating out a press and curl and looking all kinds of crazy in my photos later. Relax it. She’ll be fine.”
The stylist let out what seemed like the deepest sigh ever and proceeded to drape me with a cape and began the most un-relaxing process in the world. First she put a whole bunch of vaseline around my edges and my ears and the nape of my neck. Then she separated my hair into what I would learn later were called quadrants and fastened each one with some of the tightest clips in the world to a five-year-old. After that she left me. Dripping with melting Vaseline and instructions not to rub or wipe it. Soon she returned with what looked like a bucket of paint. When she opened it, what was inside smelled just as bad, if not worse. I peered into the container. It was thick and white and smelled like old boiled eggs. She then put protective gloves on her hands. I pondered on why her hands needed protection but I didn’t. She then proceeded to give me my first relaxer. Black women like to call this process a perm but a perm is something completely different, used to create curls, not take them away. As I watched in horrified curiosity at my image in the mirror as my stylist smoothed away my coils with the back of her comb, I began to feel a pain worse than the hot comb getting me. Dear Lord, I was on fire! Not actually but I was burning with no smoke. My scalp, my ears, my forehead, my neck. Everything felt like it was engulfed in flames at once. What the hell was happening? What was this devil’s goop on my head and why was it forsaking me? I looked to Zipporah for help but she, having easier-to-manage hair, had already finished getting styled and was off to the church. Immediately, my tiny hands flew to my head.
“Don’t touch!” the stylist admonished me.
What? Don’t put a fire out? Are you crazy, lady? I jumped out of my chair and headed straight for the mini refrigerator that housed free water for the salon's clients and stuck my chemical coated head in as far as it would go before I was yanked away and back into the chair by my Aunt Ros.
“Girl, if you don’t get your little monkey self back in that chair.” I never understood that open-ended threat. I was, however, smart enough not to challenge it. And why did I have to be a monkey? I walked back to my chair with my head down, tears streaming down my face. Who would set a child on flameless fire? I was told that because my hair was coarse, I had to sit with the stinky goop for 25 more minutes. I learned to tell time that day as I stared at the wall clock, willing the hands to move quicker and wondering if the second hand was purposely going slow. Finally after what seemed like an eternity I was ushered to a sink and told to lay back. The cool rush of water somehow both relieved and stung me like a swarm of bees at the same time. Suds turned from pink to white. A deep condition followed and then I was brought back to my chair. Through some magical sorcery, my hair had grown. My mane of coils was gone but I had length I had never seen before. I was both impressed and confused. But at least Casper the fucked up ghost fire was out of my head. The stylist proceeded to take out a collection of curlers and rolled my hair, stretching the strands as far as they could go.
I then sat under the dryer from hell for another eternity getting yelled at each time I poked my hot head out and asked, “Can I come out now? I think I’m done”—a question I would ask and a hopeful lie I would tell to many stylists thereafter over the years. At long last, I was done. My hair had been set in fluffy curls and secured with white lace barrettes with blue ribbons.
My stylist removed my cape and told me, “Don’t scratch your head, baby.” Then she whispered the softest and almost inaudible, “I’m sorry” to me before returning me to my Aunt Ros and my late-for-the-party mother who was more pissed about permission than the perm. They both for the very first time looked at me with approval.
“Now you look like a real flower girl, Kryssy Poo!” my Aunt said to me as she pinched my nose.
Thanks. But am I pretty?