Archive for September, 2010

I Am Not My Hair

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2010 by Raqiyah Mays

“You like my weave?” I usually ask this question when standing in front of someone who hasn’t seen me in months or years. Twirling my long, straight hair with one hand and patting itchy stitching with the other, I’ll smile as they stare in frozen disbelief.

“Y-you cut your dreads?” Something about this weave makes people stutter.
“Oh yeah, they’re gone,” I’ll say nonchalantly.
“All of them? I mean, are they under there somewhere?”
“Nope, I look like Celie under this hair.”
I start cracking up. They usually give an awkward laugh before saying,
Awkward silence.
“What made you do it?”
I’ll sigh, suck my teeth, and say, “It was time for a change.”

And boy, did people change…

Month #1 with The Weave. Raqiyah Mays Facebook Fanpage comment:

Kimberly says: “I cannot imagine going from natural to well…synthetic and pressing/flat ironing my hair…the look, the smells, the message… everything…No judgment…to everyone her/his walk but it will “neva” happen for me…all the best Raqiyah…”

But I didn’t do it for you, Kimberly. I did it for me.

Growing up, the hair styles I wore, like most young girls and some adult women, were decided by the celebrity I wanted to look like. I remember wanting a lopsided haircut and door knocker earrings like Salt N Pepa. To me, they were bold and cool, pushin’ it real good. But since my mother wouldn’t allow me to cut my hair short on one side, I was relegated to two corn rolls down to the nape of my neck. The kids at school made fun of me. They said the back of my head looked like a butt. Damn those bullies…

When I was old enough to get a part-time job at Dress Barn, I snuck off to Newark, NJ, waited two hours at a salon, and had my hair chopped off to look like Halle Berry’s bob-cut in the movie Boomerang. I was fly. And for the first time, I felt trendy, confident, and proud that I’d finally done something to my hair without my mother’s approval.

In college, when I couldn’t afford a new perm, I decided to get braid extensions to fulfill my dream of being LL Cool J’s around-the-way-girl. I had fantasized about it for years singing LL’s lyrics, “I wanna girl with extensions in her hair, bamboo earrings at least two pair, a Fendi bag and a bad attitude.” Once I got those extensions, I was that chick…almost. I had a Gucci. I had long, skinny braids. But in reality, I was one of those in-the-house-good-girls with knock-off door knocker earrings that were about half an inch long. Corny.

The one thing that gave me cool points, was that my braids made people say I looked like Brandy. I liked that. She was cute, rich, and at the time had hit songs on the radio. But it wasn’t long before the extensions, braided a little too tight and kept in a little too long, began thinning and nearly balding the edges of my hair. Brandy had the same dilemma. We started to look like our hairline was receding. So I took the braids out. And the poor college student in me was forced to go with the ghetto girl look – a pony tail about two inches long with hair sticking out the back of my head. I’d rub loose strands with one hand, trying to push them up into the elastic band, but my hair wasn’t long enough. I looked like a rooster.

Still, I refused to get a perm. Not only was it too expensive for my $0 budget, but the stinky chemicals made my hair fall out. So instead of burning my scalp, I chose to stand in the mirror, looking at my jacked up doo, crying, trying desperately to make something of the growing puffy mess on my head.

I bought a pick and tried rocking an Angela Davis afro. But instead of having a nice, round, 1960s mane, my hair looked like the outline of someone’s hand. I’d groan and cuss every single morning, while slowly starting to hate my hair. Frustrated, I stormed to some random salon, plopped in the chair, and said, “Cut it off!” The hair stylist leaned closer to make sure she heard me right. “Yeah, all of it,” I said. “I want a Caesar.”

This drastic change into a boyish look had nothing to do with me wanting to mimic Meshell Ndegeocello’s style. And I hadn’t turned into a militant lesbian. I just wanted to be free. Vindicated from frustration. Released from having to do the doo. And I loved it. In the morning, all I needed was a few seconds of brushing and I was good. The wind would blow off my head whispering a digression from stressin.’ The confidence in my looks grew over the years and built a strong wall that deflected and cared less about what people thought about me, including negative comments from silly high school boys on the A train giggling, “Yo, she bald.”

I mean, I wasn’t that bald. Damn. I had a man who didn’t mind (at least he didn’t seem to). And even if I hadn’t had a boyfriend to rub my round, barely hairy head, I would’ve still been content. But no woman stays happy with her hair forever. As time passed, I went from Caesar to short fro, to coils, back to the baby afro, and finally to what I’d been building up the courage to grow – dreadlocks.

My hair began to lock right around the time when Lauryn Hill dropped The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. With ten Grammy nominations, worldwide fame, and offers for leading lady roles in a slew of blockbuster movies like The Matrix (which she turned down), Lauryn had my heart and respect. Not only was she a fellow Jersey girl, but this sista was progressive, fly, strong, busty, and had the ill hip hop flow that rivaled most of the males in the game. Regal and sensual, Lauryn Hill made having dreadlocks sexy and acceptable to the mainstream. She was my inspiration. And I felt like a queen with my locks. Happy to be nappy. Kinky and cocky. Having dreads made men more respectable when approaching me with lines like, “Hello, my Queen.” The Rastas would touch their heart when I passed by. And I didn’t need a shower cap to wash-up. I was free. But after a decade of living, breathing and wearing the dress code of dread-stuy, Brooklyn, things began to change.

It happened about 7 years into my NYC radio career, after I began gaining popularity as a personality. I posed for promotional headshots and suddenly realized I had an “image.” People made quick (and partly accurate) assumptions on who I was because of my hair. “Oh, you the black power sister,” they’d say. “Oh, you the crazy militant.” “Oh, you the rebel.” And yes, minus the crazy part (depending on the day) I was a little of each of these descriptions. But there was one comment that nearly changed everything for me. “Oh, you can’t cut your locks,” one VIP said, after I mentioned I was tiring of my look. “Your locks are who you are. You wouldn’t be Raqiyah without dreads.”

I believed this man, nodding in agreement on the outside. Questioning what was being said within. I embraced that belief for years. And for the first time in my adult life, I cared what people thought of my style. On the outside, I’d do my best to exude confidence and self-esteem. But my inner dialogue said something different. “If I cut my hair what will people think? Who will I be? What will I look like? What will I do with my hair? What will the radio station say about all those promotional photos they just paid a photographer to take of me? Will people think I’m selling out to pursue this acting thing?” I felt trapped by my thoughts, a slave to my hair, job, and life decisions. It was depressing and I wanted to be free.

Careful what you wish for. You just might get it.

I lost my radio job in September 2009. Afterwards, I’d sit at home on Facebook, planning my next move, looking at old pictures of myself from 5 years prior. And there I was, in an old flick, sporting my tired, fuzzy dreadlocked hairstyle – parted to one side in need of maintenance – rockin’ the same sporty t-shirt that I’d worn a few days prior. In early morning solitude, embarrassment rushed through my cheeks. I had to change my look, upgrade my style, and revitalize my energy. It had to start with a look that I’d never worn before. It had to be something that no one would ever expect to see me rock.

Oprah talks about those “Ah Ha” moments….

Watching Beyonce on the TV screen, I never fully understood what she meant by “Pat your weave, baby.” That line only made me wonder what it would be like having a weave, especially since they seemed more acceptable these days. Shoot, even white girls have weaves. I remember going to the beauty supply store and buying a long black wig for one of my scenes in the play “Auction Block to Hip Hop.” I secretly liked the look after struggling to pull it over my dreads. I loved the positive “Ooh” and “Ah” reactions from my castmates. Before then, I’d only joked about getting a weave like, “Me get a head of fake hair? Never!” I was a black militant. Power to the people! But over five months, rocking an assortment of fedoras, I grew my locks out with no firm decision on what I’d do when it was time to cut. I still wondered if people would think I was a sell-out for trading in my dreads for two bags of silky Indian Remy hair. But I was determined to break new and it had to begin with a hairstyle I’d never had — a weave or Jeri Curl. And I wasn’t interested in taking it back to the 80s, and greasing up people’s couches like the Soul Glo family from Coming to America.

So I confronted my fear of selling out and focused on the truth: I’d done and will always do my share of community work, speaking out, walking in protest, and standing up in a way that speaks my mind, evokes emotion, and encourages intelligent, independent thought and dialogue. I’ve done enough work for people to know what I stand for. And if they don’t, it’s time I stopped worrying about what my fans, peers, and fellow natural hair loving progressives think. Early one morning, when few could witness and talk me out of this personal transformation, I let my weave expert, Jakera, chop off the locks. I closed my eyes with each snip and turned away from the mirror as she braided the remaining fuzz into cornrows. With the precision of a seamstress, she used black thread to sew 12 inches of hair onto my head.

At first glance, I turned my nose up and yelled, “Damn!” My hair hadn’t looked this straight since I was born. I was in shock over the look of having a head full of some mystery Indian lady’s hair. The surreal moment was captured by my cell phone memory, which filled up with varying shots of “The Weave.” That’s become my name for it. “The Weave.” That itchy stuff hanging from my head that keeps sticking to my lip-gloss, getting into my mouth, my food, shedding on the bathroom counter, clogging up the sink, my brush, and clinging to anyone who gets too close: “The Weave.” It’s alive!

The Social Experiment

When I felt brave enough to step on the street and reveal my new look, I could feel an immediate change of perception, mainly among the men. It was like a sudden rainbow coalition of diversified testosterone shining upon me. Now let me be clear: I never had a problem turning heads with dreads. And despite the statistics, I’ve never been one of those black women that can’t find a man. But my new store-bought hair has attracted a different kind of boyish attention. Within the first two weeks of having The Weave, White, Black, Indian, and especially Latino men, smiled and glared, saying things in Spanish as they rode their delivery bikes. They said things I couldn’t understand, that I’m not sure I wanted to understand. Some guys said I looked Dominican. A few dudes felt comfortable entering my personal space. Uninvited, they felt bold enough to grab my hand, arm, or jump centimeters from my face, hot breath touching my nose saying, “Can I come with you?” This was the first and only time, in my life, that I’d been approached by a man in such an over the top, aggressive way. Before The Weave, I only had to deal with sexually harrassing words from afar. After The Weave, the in the face crap from black guys and the occasional white dude with tats, has become the norm.

Typical conversations between the men & “The Weave”

“Yo, you look like Nicki Minaj.” No, I don’t.

“Yo, you look like a super model.” Oh, thanks.

“Hi, I’m Raqiyah Mays, you may not recognize me, I used to have long dreadlocks.” The man will pause for a few seconds, face slowly morphing from questioning to pleasing.

“OH!” His mouth drops.
“Whoooa.” He hugs me tight.
“You look good, Mami!”

According to an exclusive Essence Magazine poll, 56% of brothers say they are bothered by weaves and “fake” hair. “A weave says you are insecure and ashamed of what God has given you,” says Nate P (Age 30) on page 116 of Essence’s October 2010 issue.

But aren’t we supposed to judge a man by his actions and not his words? After 90 days of having my new hair, I’ve made the observationally researched finding that most men who say they don’t like weaves are liars. Some of the males expressing this are obviously lacking self-awareness. Since I’ve gotten my fake hair, I’ve seen the side of man who may say he doesn’t want his girl having a weave, but his actions show that he likes the look. It’s because of seemingly synchronized reactions by a multitude of males, from all races and varying states I’ve traveled to in the course of having this hair, I am convinced of one thing: The male species is socialized or genetically predispositioned (possibly from their caveman ancestors) to be turned on by a woman with long straight hair, in a way that they don’t realize or understand. And if this woman is lighter than a brown paper bag, the appeal is stronger.

Some suck their teeth and say, “This bitch…”

The women react a little differently. Some give gazes of resentment when I walk in with super high heels and the short skirt I occasionally choose to wear. When first meeting the new me with the new weave, ladies from my past have given awkward hellos and tried to carry on strange “How ya been” conversations, all while staring at my hair and avoiding long-held eye contact. I’ll giggle on the inside, waiting for them to stop the BS and ask what they really want to know. But they rarely do. Many of these women usually walk away leaving an echo of loud internal thoughts that scream truths through their eyes and body language. They think (or hope) I don’t pick up on their failed attempt at keeping a poker face. But I usually do. I mean, I’m a former journalist – we’re always watching. I’m a psychic Scorpio with an intuitive Pisces moon. Plus I’m named “Raqiyah” which means “highly empathic,” therefore I’m deemed and do feel vibes more deeply than many others. Besides that, my mama ain’t raise no fool. People can ask me anything. I shy away from no question. And If I can’t answer it in the moment, I promise I’ll get back to you later. But most aren’t brave and would rather talk about you, then to you. Never been my style, even with the fake… I mean… human hair on my head.

The hair I was born with still lives. It’s just currently at rest. After a lifetime of being exposed to the world, it’s finally hibernating, at peace, still, quiet, regaining energy from being touched, broadcasted, and judged from afar by millions of folks who felt like they knew better than me, what I should do with my hair. My follicles are under protection from this crap. They’re being guarded from the messages the world sends saying women are their hair. It’s a damn lie. Our feminine messages of expression come through our mouths, bodies, the way we walk, talk, move and carry ourselves. Our hair and how we wear it are extensions of that expression, sprouting through our scalps, connected to our brains, representing our interior, our inner being, our soul, our life. Yes, my hair is still there. I’m still me. I’ll always be a strong, confident, progressive, fish eating vegetarian who happens to love a protest, and enjoy wearing short dresses that show off my butterfly tattoo, while watching HBO, the occasional football game, or episode of “Glee,” and routinely tuning to CNN and Headline news, so I can pontificate on the economy and the state of Blacks in America.

I am not the hairstyle I choose to wear. That changes like a woman’s emotions. It’s as unpredictable and flakey as a hormonal teenager on her period. It’s multidimensional and often cataclysmic when it shifts. It’ll forever transition, forever evolve. And even when it does, I will still be me – even when I’m patting my weave, baby.