Mine starts with a square afro. I was seven years old when my father decided my hair was too much trouble and cut it all off. He was an unsteady barber at best: lopping away chunks of thick curls until my head was an uneven puff. Before this, my hair was long enough to sit on. In kindergarten I kept it in a long braid that collected paste and fuzz and paper clippings from our afternoon art projects. My mother would diligently pick these things out of my hair piece by piece as we sat on the front step of our apartment; my siblings and the neighbor kids running around the small plaza of grass outside our place. I learned quickly that I was tender-headed: the rough sweeps of the comb pulling at my skin like a slow, revengeful scalping.
“If you…would just…keep this…out your hair…it wouldn’t hurt,” my mother said, trying to keep the slow rhythm of the metal comb catching each knot. If I moved too much, she ripped the comb from my head to paddle whatever bare skin of my arms or legs she could reach.
I also learned yelling didn’t help. Our immediate neighbors consisted of other lower-class, children-should-be-seen-not-heard traditionalists who praised my mother on her patience with us. Most of the other mothers had their own comb-swatting techniques to keep their long-haired, squirming girls in check. As one of those kids who more scared what would happen if I made a scene, I sat through it, lips pursed and tears flowing.
I figure my father was tired of my whining or my mother’s complaints of how much time it took. Here’s a truth about mixed kid hair: it’s a lot of work. There’s a mix of textures up there, from rough brillo to baby soft, all fighting for space. It’s not the defined curls of the models in TIME magazine’s glossy spread of the New Mixed America. My hair was pretty…when it was wet. Heavy with water, my ringlets hung loosely around my shoulders, the deep brown-black color of coffee grounds. Every time, I was convinced that it would just stay this way if we left it alone. Untouched, my precious curls would uncoil upward and outward, matting together. Like a good roast, without the prompt slathering of oils and marinades, it dried out and frayed. My post-shampoo moment of beauty ended when the jar of product appeared on the bathroom counter.
I was my father’s first white baby. He met my mother after he had already made his first family. From this first family I had five older half-siblings who carried his same light brown skin and high forehead. If he wouldn’t have left, they could have been picture perfect. I still don’t know that story, but I know he came out West with something to prove. I was one of his statements. The high-yellow, “you so pretty with that soft hair and freckles” kid. Eyes the streaky brown of a coconut shell, skin a buttermilk cream, he paraded me around and sent back photos of his half-breed wonder. I got older though. My skin caught the sun like a biscuit browning in the oven, and my hair grew bigger and more tangled.
I guess my novelty wore off.
I have no memory of the actual hair-cutting. I imagine I would’ve cried or run away from the vibrating buzz of his hair clippers. I can’t remember whether it was outside on our square backyard patio, or in the upstairs bathroom that always smelled of that Rogaine dye he used to cover his grays. Maybe he was trying to get my hair to look like that lady on Murray’s pomade jar – a haloed afro that might make me look more like his kid.
My mother says she was gone when it happened. She said she tried her best to shape up the new ‘do with the sharpest scissors we had: the ones that came with the kitchen knife set.
I don’t remember the first day back at school with my new hair; whether I was teased or what my friends said. There’s a few pictures left over from this time that show the square ‘fro from different angles. The top was shorter than the sides so that it was going outwards similar to your average circus clown. My hair had the shape of a cigar box. It was the mid ‘90s, so I accessorized my look with floral print leggings and Girl Power t-shirts.
It was the first time I became aware of my body and the way people would question me. The square ‘fro ripped me from the world of passing into the in-between space of whispered comments. Unsolicited nappy hair care advice. Stares. This is when I became a mixed kid.