TABLE OF CONTENTS
I avocado, 1 fully ripened banana, 1 egg, and equal parts castor oil to coconut oil. I combine the ingredients and massage the mixture into my wild locks. My hair is thick, like the mane of a lion. But I am not a lion, and my hair does not need taming. My roots are thirsty, longing for love and affection that I did not give them for many years. The gentle caress of the hair mask against my curls breaths life into them again. Dry hair, a side effect of living in a dry climate during the winter months. But dry is just a temporary state, and 20-30 minutes later my curls are restored.
Beads, chains, ornaments, and jewels. Along the West Coast of Africa was a dazzling array of elaborate hairstyles, rich with culture and infused with melanin. The Fulani women of West Africa wore their hair like halos around their heads. Weaved like a glorious basket, a woman’s hair would have elaborate decorations either imbedded in the hair or hanging off touching the edges of her face. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the hair fans out away from the face. Braids weaved together with other objects in order to shape the disc that surrounds the woman’s delicate features. Braids, curls, shaven heads, and cornrows. Hair was a symbol, a beautiful display of elegance and status. The hairstyles and natural ingredients varied from group to group. Nonetheless, it is demonstrative of the people’s use of natural elements in elevating their beauty.
I was 3 Years old when my aunt put a chemical relaxer into my hair. A relaxer is a harsh chemical that alters the protein bonds on the follicle. It would change curly hair to make it straighter by permanently breaking the bonds until it hung limp and lifeless.
I was 3 years old when my aunt, with intentions only to make me feel more normal, slathered the white chemical smelling cream on my head. Her reason? They always said it was because I, at the age of 3, had expressed discontent with the delicate curls that framed my tiny face.
I was 3 years old when I was told that the hair that grew naturally out of my head was wrong.
In a successful attempt at erasing their culture and identity slave owners would mix slaves from different tribes. Languages, and customs that once united people, now kept them separate. To further this separation and to flex their control slave owners would force their slaves to shave their heads. Women were no longer decorated in the lavish hairstyles that had once graced their head. Traditions began to disappear.
Slaves where dehumanized. Their hair was compared and even referred to as “wool.” They were seen as animals less than their White owners. What once was beautiful with roots as rich as the cultures from where it was derived, was now seen as unacceptable, as bad.
“Pelo malo.” Bad hair. How could hair be bad? I don’t know, all I knew was that I have it, like a disease that needed to be kept at bay. It was a phrase that had been thrown around, like a deadly game of catch, and the only person hurt was me. My hair was in a constant battle with itself. My mom would rush me to a hair salon as soon as my roots would start to show. That just how relaxers are. They work for a bit and then once the roots would come in that part would need to be relaxed to match the rest of the hair.
“Bad hair,” that’s what I had. Hair that didn’t like to cooperate. Hair that would get so tangled that my head would throb at the end of a detangling session. Hair that had a mind of its own.
I would wrap my hair in what Dominicans called a “Tubi.” This was a method of preservation. The hair would be parted in the back and then wrapped around the head until you made it back to the start. Then to sleep, the hair would be put inside a cap. I remember one time I tied the cap around my head so tight it hurt, I even felt a bit light headed. But in the morning my hair had never looked straighter.
Far from the natural hair remedies they used in Africa, slaves were reduced to bacon grease, butter and kerosene as hair products, and even using wool carding tools to comb their hair. The darker they were, the kinkier their hair, the less they were worth at auctions. The lighter skinned slaves with “good hair” had a higher price tag. How could one not internalize this bias that promoted the idea that blacks with those less desirable features were ugly, unattractive and unwanted?
Emancipation came and went yet still all were not equal. “Good hair” became the barrier for many black women when it came to attending churches, and being a part of different social networks. Natural hair became a method of “othering” black women. They faced pressure to assimilate into white culture and try to emulate white beauty standards. Metal hot combs became common in the states and were used to straighten kinky hair.
Picture perfect models dance across the screen in a way that I could never move. Golden locks flowing from the conveniently placed fan right below her on the catwalk. A type of beauty that I could never be. I would do countless hair treatments, hours in the salon and all in the hopes that my “bad hair” could be fixed. That somehow, by some miracle my hair would be straight and soft to the touch by the end of the 3-hour appointment.
At the end of these appointments, there was only one rule: never get it wet! So on days when the sun shouted in my direction, I was not allowed to sweat. If it ever started to rain I would run under cover until I could either find an umbrella or an empty plastic shopping bag that I could put on my head as a protective cap.
I remember one summer my mother felt bad for me and she bought me a swimming cap. She wrapped my hair like she would with a Tubi and snapped that cap on. I was elated and definitely took advantage of that cap. I was finally able to get into the pool and play with my cousins and friends, instead of watching from the sidelines. When it was time to go, I got out of the water, and carefully I pulled off the rubber hat that had stuck to my hair and skin. The hair underneath was soaked, and I had to go get my hair washed and straightened again.
The civil rights movement became the time of unapologetically black. Afros burst out from scalps as signs of pride and rebellion. Angela Davis and her Afro became an icon, helping to empower more black men and women to do the same. In the 1970’s Cicely Tyson brought cornrows into fashion. Black women were empowered through these newly accepted styles created by their people for their hair. At the same time people were being fired because their Afros and cornrows where not “professional” enough.
The last half of the 20th century and the beginning of the next one the rise (and fall) of styles like the Jheri curl, flat tops, side fades, wigs, weaves, dreadlocks, head wraps and most recently natural curly hair. Slowly, piece-by-piece the eras of hair hate were being cut off. New love and appreciation was growing from these roots.
I am liberated. It’s my hair again. My limp dead and damaged hair hung around my head like shackles. And I cut them off. Little by little I trimmed the dead ends while nourishing the new growth at my roots. I had heard about the natural hair movement before and I decided to try it. My hair was curly once before, who is to say that it couldn’t be like that again?
I spent so much time rejecting who I was born to be. Rejecting the proud curls that would grow out of my scalp, and screamed to the world that I am of that seed. Yes that seed. The one they tried to suppress and quench. My hair curled up the sky in the unapologetic way that those before me raised their fist in solidarity.
We are the liberated children of men and women who were brave enough to proclaim and reclaim their identities. We are liberated. It is our hair again.
The seat shifted under her weight. The booth was reminiscent of 1950’s soda shops, where the waitresses all wore rollerblades. She started shaking her leg, a nervous habit she picked up as a kid.
Paloma reached into her purse and drew out a notebook she kept on hand to distract her while she waited. Back at home, she had a completely full drawer of notebooks full of doodles and fragmented thoughts she’d hope to one day turn into full-length stories. Her current unfinished piece was about an old terrorizing decorative Santa Clause who uses a sharpened candy cane as a weapon… safe to say she was looking for new material for the start of her next fantasy horror novel.
The flipping of pages gave off that wonderful old book smell. She absentmindedly started a sketch of the empty seat in front of her, her thoughts migrating from one plot line to the next. Maybe there will be a quaint little diner with a twist, they are hiding aliens in the freezer! … or wait no that was an episode of the Twilight Zone, wasn’t it?
“Hello, my name is … “
“OH!” The waitress barely had time to look up from her own notepad as Paloma visibly jumped dropping her pencil on the ground.
“Oh sorry dear” the lady gave out a sweet and musical laugh. “I didn’t mean to startle you.” The woman was heavy set, with thinning brown hair and a smile like a warm cup of cocoa, which was especially pleasant on this cold New York day.
“Oh um” Paloma slightly shook her head, taking a moment to get grounded back in reality. “It’s alright.” She gave a tight smile as she reached down to grab her pencil off the ground.
“Haha I’ll just have to throw in a pie on the house to make up for it. What’ll it be dear?” The waitress wore an off-white button down shirt with a black apron tied around her waist, where she kept a handful of straws. Right on her left breast was a nametag ridiculously designed to match the diner theme, with the name Janet.
Paloma smiled back at her. “Thanks, Janet. Just two cups of coffee for now please.” Janet nodded her head
“Annd are we waiting for someone?” Her southern roots exposed in her cautiously drawn out question, Janet glanced over at the empty booth across from Paloma.
“Yeah,” she cleared out her throat, “It’ll only be a minute … I think.” Her words trailed off into an indistinct mousey octave.
“No rush dear” Janet placed a gentle hand on Palomas back and squeezed for reassurance and walked away. Instinctively Paloma felt a twinge in her heart for that woman. She must be a grandma.
Paloma’s booth was pressed against the wall that had a long window facing outside. The window had grown foggy with condensation as the outside world turned into an impressionistic Monet. From her view, she could barely make out the bus stop that was only around ten feet away from the store.
“Here you go dear,” Janet said placing the two cups directly in front of Paloma. “Anything else?” Somehow her sentences never ended with a period, they always ended with a bright smile that tugged at the center of her face pulling it to either side.
“No, no that’s fine. Thank you.” I like this. Paloma liked old, worn and lived in places like this. To Paloma, the diner smelled like how old doo-wop music feels. If nostalgia had a smell that would be it. It was like how the home cooked meals to warm up your stomach on a cold day, all the rice and beans, the fried salami and plantains, that’s how this place smelled. She remembered to write that down in her notebook for later use in her unwritten novel.
The bright sound of a bell, from the opening of the door, had rung parallel to the earsplitting thunder that crackled from the blustering storm outside. Impulsively Paloma looked up, expecting the stranger she had agreed to meet with but regretted it as soon as she did. The small world that existed in that tiny restaurant was transformed. The people around her were encased in glowing orbs that thinned out behind them into a small silvery thread. The aura and the lifeline.
The ‘invisible strings’, as she called them when she was younger, the thread that connected us all together. Paloma had tried to talk to people about this but as far as she was aware, she was the only person she knew who could see the glowing thread. The threads were our connection to this world. They are the very cores of who we were, are, and would become, a timeline of our lives.
They couldn’t be touched. Phasing in and out of objects and appearing and disappearing, it was almost as if they weren’t real, almost as if they were a figment of an overly imaginative writers mind … almost. You see, to Paloma’s knowledge no one could touch these threads, no one but her. She never knew why they appeared to her, they just did. Maybe she was the chosen one in this version of the Matrix. Maybe she was baptized in the right church as a baby. Maybe she is the reincarnation of the Fate’s from Greek mythology. Who knows? All she knew was that like faded memories from a life that was not her own the threads appeared and she knew exactly what to do when they did. She just knew. Like how a bird just knows where to migrate. She just knew.
Paloma remembered visiting her grandma at the rest home. Her grandmother was spritely and smelled like café bustelo, a Hispanic coffee staple. This smelled especially good to Paloma who compared it to the smell of death that lingered in the air.
“Bendicion abuela” Paloma said kissing her grandma on the cheek.
“Que Dios te bendiga, y que vie con alegria!” A traditional catholic maternal blessings with her grandma’s own twist. Her grandma raised her hands up with enthusiasm, the skin hanging off her bones shaking with fervor.
After parting ways Paloma rushed out the door eager to escape the home her parents confined her grandma to. But some fates where not so easily dodged.
She saw the lustrous bonds of the silver threads materialize. That’s how they came. First nothing and then all at once, and only when they needed to be cut. It must have been a hundred threads that reached from the doors of the rest home towards Paloma, as if they were trying to drag her back. One thread stood out to her, it was glowing red, the sign of a lifeline that has reached its end. And, like the bird who knew where to migrate, Paloma knew what she was expected to do. It was like an instinct, she couldn’t help herself, she had already done it to strangers before. Without thinking, she reached over to grab his glowing red thread. She rolled it in her hand between her fingers it almost looked celestial … almost. She yanked until the thin thread broke and vanished. She later that night found out from her bawling mother on the other end of the phone that her mother, Paloma’s grandma, had died of a heart attack.
Paloma reached down and smelled her coffee before taking a sip. She missed her grandma. She spotted the twin cup of coffee across the table. It was so cold outside; he would definitely want something to hot to warm him back up. Her stranger. She assumed the cryptic message she had received was from a ‘he’. Someone who knew of what she could do, and knew how to stop it. It was his idea to meet up here, in this hole in the wall diner: hidden enough that they would have some privacy but busy enough that she felt safe.
Paloma could feel the life radiating off of the threads around her. The laughter, the joy, the sadness, the pain, she felt it all so strongly in that one diner. One string began to glow red. Her hand intuitively reached over, making sure no one would notice. Maybe the strange man would never show up, maybe it was all just a ploy to get her here to this location. But why? Her hands tightened around the string. She locked her muscles in place refusing them to budge. Not this time. But the unconscious drive that controlled her was stronger. The fight had been lost and there was nothing she could do.
Before yanking, Paloma turned her head, wiping her stinging eyes with her arm unable to free the hands that were seemingly glued to the responsibility that was bestowed upon them. This time she didn’t want to know who it would be. She gave a quick tug and in seconds the string broke.
In an instant all the strings were gone and so was Paloma, tip left on the table that would never be taken, both cups coffee still hot.
The car jumped up and down under the rough terrain. City cars weren’t used to this much dirt and grass in one place. The sun hung low in the sky, tired from its 9-5 and ready to retire until the next days work. The small rolling mountains of the Catskills in Upstate New York smelled like wet moss through the slightly cracked window, a smell I only know because of summer evenings spent playing in Central Park after it was doused in a healthy layer of summer showers. Petrichor. I remember that smell was called petrichor from one of those science YouTube videos I spent hours watching after school.
In its descent behind the jade mountains, the sun left streaks of orange and yellows, some pinks that dissolved into a rich maroon. I took out my phone to capture the colors but the car was moving too fast and there was only so much that the old phone could actually capture. The phone wasn’t mine of course! It wasn’t even connected. It was my dad’s old phone that he didn’t need anymore since he’d upgraded. I was just using it for photos.
The jolt of the stopping car startled me out of my daydreaming stupor. We had arrived at the campsite.
My dad loved camping. There was a time when I loved it too. I was a couple years younger and the living incarnation of a female version of my dad. I would eagerly walk in the steps my father made for me on the muddy ground. I remember when I asked for a pair of multipurpose convertible pants. There was an ugly shade of beige and had two different zippers: one near the ankle to make them into capris, and one near my knee to make them into short. My dad had owned an exact pair.
Since then I have replaced those pants for skinny jeans. Does anyone remember when skinny jeans became a thing? When did we all trade in our boot cut low-rise jeans for skin tight ones? I swear it happened overnight. One day I just came into school and my regular jeans that I’d had since the fifth grade just weren’t cool anymore. My sister told me this would happen, a moment in my life where I would trade out comfort for fashion. A time when I would resemble the girls on TV more than my dad.
It’s not that I didn’t love camping anymore. If there were no bugs, comfortable sleeping bags, and the ability to keep my hair in perfect condition, I’d go camping all the time!
This trip was my dad’s idea. My mom wasn’t the outdoorsy type but she dealt with it as long as she had phone service to call the ladies from church and gossip. My dad opened his door to get out of the car. He threw his hands out into the air and took a giant deep breath of air, turning to look at me expectantly. I forced a smile, but I knew I wasn’t that convincing. I’ve since learned after years of dealing with people how to better mask my displeasure.
The set up was fairly simple, something I had done many times before. In the past my dad never let me unroll and set up the tent. He’d always just toss a long bag full of poles that needed to be connected together to make bigger and longer poles. I love this job, I loved feeling like this structure over our heads that was obviously protecting us from hungry bears and evil forest witches had some markings of me, that I was an indispensable part of the process and without my pole connecting expertise this tent would not be up.
My dad was in his element. He was the happiest he could be out here in the woods. He piled up some dry wood by the light of his headlamp and crouched by the fire pit. He must have tried to show my ten different ways to set up a fire. I lost interest by method four. But before long the wood crackled and the fire dances up, licking the sky with its flames.
When I was young the world seemed so grey. Everything was always one way or the other. My way or yours. But that night my dad brought me out to the open field and told me to look up. The sun already sunk into the deep belly of the earth, before it was swallowed up whole, only to be replaced by a black blanket with billions of holes. Holes that twinkled to the naked eye. Holes that were light years away, a time frame that my young mind could not grasp no matter how many videos I tried to watch, but that didn’t stop me from pretending like I did.
My eyes grew wide from this epic cosmic sky. The phone I had used to catalog memories no longer on my mind. That sky was etched in my mind. My eyes, like paint, brushed, painted a trail connecting each dot, following the shooting stars. This is what my dad wanted me to see.