New Growth: What My Sister Taught Me About Hair, Courage, and Growing Up

I knew what was supposed to happen that day. I woke up with it on my mind. My way of preparing was to take my umbrella to school — though the weatherman hadn’t said anything about rain. I brought it just in case I had to use it to knock somebody in the head. I’m not a violent person but it seemed as if the entire school were anxious for a fight. It was supposed to be between my friends and another group of girls who hung as tight as we did but who hated us more than we did them. I didn’t hate anybody. I didn’t really know those girls. Although we went to the same high school, I’d never had a class or even a conversation with any of them. I know I didn’t like the way they stared and then cut their eyes at my friends, or their sly little comments behind our backs, but that was typical high school stuff. I really didn’t care that much. But OK, we were expected to fight, so I feigned interest.

The whole boring school day went by without an argument, scuffle or sideways glance. My friends were worried about nothing, I thought as the bell rang, signaling the end of another uneventful day. I met up with my girls, eight or nine of us, by the side doors. We would all walk home together, as usual, but we would take the long way. We didn’t want it to look as though we were hiding from anybody by cutting through the field to walk the back streets, like normal.

When we reached a fence that separated school grounds from a Woolworth’s parking lot, I thought something might be up. There were dozens of kids there, just standing around, waiting. I kept walking but looked at their faces and, I swear, I hadn’t seen some of those truants for so long I thought they’d dropped out. Something important had to have brought them back. Oh yeah, I remembered, the fight.

The hater girls we had anticipated emerged from the crowd flinging insults and pointed fingers. Before I knew what was going on, my friends reciprocated. I, the quiet one, stood silently on the edge, across from the throng of onlookers, the shouting match between us. My heart was thumping. I’d never fought before and didn’t want to. I needed to figure out what to do. It was probably too late to appeal to reason, I thought. I wondered what other option I had. Then, to end all deliberation, a blow from behind knocked me to the ground.

I was in a fight. I knew that, but nothing else. I couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t feel anything. I wanted to get up but something was keeping me down. The blackness, silence and numbness seemed to last just momentarily and then the nothingness was gone; the fight was over. I pushed myself up from the ground and brushed away gravel that had become embedded in my palms. As my vision returned, I saw one of the hater girls holding my umbrella. I scanned the screaming teenagers for my friends and they, in turn, checked up on me. They, along with students I didn’t even know, kept walking behind me and looking at something out of my view. When they faced me again, I could see shock in some of their eyes, in others, rage or pity.

Suddenly, my younger brother burst forth from the mass. He was on the verge of tears. He yelled the first thing I heard clearly since being thrown to the asphalt: “Who did this to my sister?” Then again, pleading, in a shaky voice, “Yo, who did this to my sister?”

He was embarrassing me. I knew I’d lost the fight but it wasn’t that big a deal; I’d live. I led him away from the crowd and soon, we were back inside our school. Once there, a classmate, who somehow wasn’t one of the ogling kids egging on the brawl, approached me.

“Did you know some of your braids are on the ground outside?” she asked.

It was only then that I realized my head was throbbing.

About six weeks earlier, in October 1996, I had gotten my hair done in dozens of elaborate “silky locks.” That’s what the caption in the book of hairstyle mug shots called the braids tightly wound with fake hair, forming instant shoulder-length dreadlocks. I got them to help grow out my perm and go natural. As a senior, I planned to cut my bob into a short afro so by the time I got to college, my hair — and hopefully my self-confidence — would have sprouted, healthy and full.

While the extensions were being put in, it felt like my scalp was going to separate from my skull and fall into pieces with the way those two, and sometimes three, Senegalese women in the Hempstead, New York hair braiding shop pulled, tugged and tightened to get them just so. But I’d had them in for a long time, and perhaps the braiders hadn’t done such a good job after all. I wasn’t surprised that some locks fell out during the fight.

Once inside a school bathroom, I raised my hand to the back of my head to feel the unraveled braids that the skirmish had caused. But I didn’t feel anything. There was no silky lock. There wasn’t even any hair. There was just an empty space about the size of my palm where hair used to be.

My fingers trembled, then pangs of pain paralyzed each one with a hurt only fear could produce. I finally understood: Somebody had ripped out my hair. She’d grabbed me from behind, forced me to the ground and yanked it out by the fistful. And I didn’t notice. I didn’t even remember being hit.

As I fixated on my bluish reflection in the bathroom mirror, refusing to turn on the light despite the darkening November sky, I wondered if I had even thrown a punch. I have to get back out there and stomp on the girl who did this to me, I told myself, but I wasn’t even sure who that was. So I stood there staring, contemplating the hours I’d been at the hair braiders’ mercy for that style, sitting in a salon chair with my legs aching from immobility; I thought about the nearly two months I’d spent prepping myself and my hair for a new look. It was all ruined.

I looked ugly. I was bald. I cried.

The last thing I wanted to hear was the “you’re-beautiful-no-matter-what” pep talk I knew my mother would give, or anybody else’s obligatory words of encouragement. My big sister, Aliya, was the only person I’d listen to. She’d been in her share of fights throughout school, was an expert on hair and always gave me good advice.

“You’re just going to have to cut it all off,” she said when I got home. Not exactly the advice I was looking for. But I trusted my sister.

When she and I were just girls, our mother treated us like twins. She gave us rhyming names: Aliya and Sufiya, sometimes dressed us in different colors of otherwise identical outfits, and almost every day, she gave us the same hairstyle. A part ran straight down the middle of our short, nappy hair. Two thick cornrows — one on each side — twisted from our foreheads around the contours of our heads and ended in tight little braids, rough enough to chafe, near the napes of our necks. The style was quick and easy but terribly old-fashioned in the age of barrettes, bubbles and scrunchies. It was Little House on the Prairie in black. We named it “the two-braided.”

Our mutual hatred of that hairdo is how we first bonded.

“It’s the only way your hair will grow back evenly, Feeya,” Aliya, or Leeya as I called her, said as I held aside the remaining silky locks to show her the damage. Tears dripped from my chin onto my blouse. She admitted that shaving off what was left of my hair would be a bold move, “But you can pull it off.”

I wasn’t so sure.

“When the bald spot grows in,” Leeya said, “I’ll take you to get your hair cut.”

2.

As kids, Leeya and I had a nighttime ritual of lying in our beds face up, lights off, while we chatted across the room to each other about whatever exciting thing happened in our days until we fell asleep. I told her about the punishment our brother got for throwing a football through the living room window and Leeya, who’s five years older, told me about who was kissing whom in Coes Neck Park.

She exposed me to other things, too, like fashion: I got her hand-me-down Marithe et Francois Girbaud jeans and sometimes borrowed favorite pieces I could fit. Clubs: she got me into the twenty-one-and-over Palladium in New York City when I turned sixteen. And hair.

Hair to us was never just hair. From the time we were old enough to protest sitting for painful morning combings, we were told: A woman’s hair is her crowning glory… It is to be shown off and adored… It is a source of pride… Girl, you better get over here and let me comb your hair.

Yet, to many black girls, our hair is a source of shame. It’s never long enough, or straight enough, or blonde enough.

When Leeya was one of two black girls in her private elementary school, her white classmates with free-flowing strands questioned why her hair was stuck in the same position every day. She came home and cried. My mother comforted. And my mother, whose own hair had gone from an Angela Davis afro, to khimar-covered, to CeCe Winans-straight, taught us both to feel good about how God made us. She armed us with the sense that “black is beautiful” and sent Leeya back to school the next day wearing the same two braids, with a red ribbon tied on the ends.

3.

No one knew about my plan to go natural, not even Leeya. She had been wearing natural hairdos for a few years by the time I reached twelfth grade.

When she left for college as I prepared to enter eighth grade, she got thick extension braids à la Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice, then lopped them off, along with her perm, to sport a close-cropped Caesar cut. Even with boyishly short hair, Leeya seemed to have a new boyfriend every month. Later, she dyed her black hair a rusty brown. It seemed she couldn’t find an unflattering style. Months after that, she grew her once-again dark tresses into small twists and appeared to start a trend. Everywhere I turned, girls were donning “starter locs,” as they were called. Then she decided to color them platinum blonde.

Leeya and her best friend, home from college, bought a box of beauty-supply-store dye and retreated to our bathroom to apply it. I wondered how blonde hair would look on someone the complexion of coffee beans so I waited, watching TV in the living room until they were done. When I heard Leeya wail, I knew that my suspicions were right — it looked awful.

The color turned out more yellow than blonde and the chemical had loosened the coils of her hair. The curly, neon yellow afro that resulted resembled a clown’s wig. She immediately tried to dye her hair black again but instead, it turned a chalky forest green. I covered my mouth with both hands to stifle my laughter. My sister had to wait a day before she could try again.

Leeya might have been impulsive, but she was fearless. I wondered if I could be, too.

Natural hairstyles were only just beginning to gain traction then in the mid-nineties and I wanted to be among the first, at least in my school, to embrace a love of my roots. I decided to shield my intention to grow out my chemically-treated hair under cover of the silky locks. Then I’d have a safe exit strategy from the drastic haircut idea should my backbone begin to wither. That is, until my options were snatched away.

4.

When I was in grade school, my mother often told me and Leeya that we were beautiful just the way we were. It was her way of countering the taunts she knew we received, aimed, usually, at my gapped teeth or my sister’s dark skin. My mother’s encouragement was good to hear but hard to believe given the beauty boot-camp she put us through every day.

I squirmed most mornings as I sat on the living room floor and my mother on the sofa with her thighs squeezed tight as a vice around my shoulders while she yanked a black plastic comb, branded with “Goody” on the spine, through my knots. Each pull was so violent it felt like she was punishing me for neglecting to vacuum the rug, or rummaging through her dresser drawers or worse, talking back. The strokes battered my head and forced my body to snap back and forth, straining to stay upright.

I had the thickest, hardest to deal with, break-the-teeth-out-the-comb kind of hair of anybody I knew. I hated the combing but liked my hair. It had a reputation all its own. I’d snicker when I’d hear my mother bemoaning its strength to her friends on the phone or when my grandma, unaccustomed to its stubbornness, gave up trying to style it while she babysat on weekends. My hair was perplexing. It would not lie down when coaxed, or gather in cutesy elastic sections of fat twists. It stayed short no matter how much “Hair Food” was greased onto my scalp, and looked dusty even when just washed.

Sometimes, particularly on school picture days, I longed for different hair: Straighter, longer, shinier, anything that would look prettier than the photographs that my parents and grandparents would carry around in their wallets. But since all the other girls in my school wore some form of fancy ponytails or pigtails, I was the different one. Even with the same style, my hair differed from my sister’s; mine was browner, kinkier and thicker. So my hair made me an individual. That’s what I liked most about it. Especially when I was able to loosen the customary two braids and let my hair take the shape of butterfly wings that flew freely above my head. Of course, I was never allowed to go outside like that but I made plans to do my hair in that sort of undone way when I got old enough and told Leeya and my mother so:

“When I grow up, I’m going to wear my hair any way I want!”

5.

I felt like a child after the fight, again limited to a single hairstyle — that time the ponytail — while my bald spot recovered, hidden beneath. I’d wrap my ponytail holder extra tight in the mornings, fearful that it might fall out while I was running to class or that someone would playfully flick my hair the wrong way, exposing my hairlessness and me to ridicule. In the hallways, I walked with one shoulder against the wall so no one could slip beside me unnoticed. When I stopped at my locker, I refused to fully turn my back, constantly wary of who was passing by.

But even after weeks, it looked like my hair hadn’t grown back at all. I feared my head had been permanently mutilated. Leeya picked out a natural hair care salon in Brooklyn where I could get proper professional attention for my scalp.

“I don’t want everybody staring at my bald spot,” I told my sister.

“How else are we gonna find out if your hair can even grow back there, Feeya? You want it to grow back, right?”

“Yeah,” I said softly. But I couldn’t let some stranger gape at my massive baldness among the beautiful shoulder-length silky locks. I decided I would cut the extensions myself first, and then go to the salon. It was my way of regaining a little control of the situation that to my disappointment, I did nothing to prevent. Plus, even though I had no idea what I was doing, I figured a haircut that was meant to leave me nearly bald was impossible to bungle.

6.

My mother started working full-time when I was in third grade and left Leeya, then thirteen, with the hairstyling duties. She began to give orders: “Hold your head up.” “Put your head down.” “Tilt your head — no, the other way.” “Hold your ear down.” Despite her petite frame, Leeya was a tyrant.

Normally, she loved to laugh. While she was doing my hair, though, she didn’t even smile. She assumed my mother’s serious attitude and heavy hand. My head throbbed and my neck contorted under the pressure of her brushing. But since she was just Leeya, I felt free to whine, protest and even get up and take breaks when I felt she was being too rough on me. Eventually, because Leeya’s styles were more creative than my mother’s — ponytails, bangs, she even managed to squeeze my hair into a banana clip — I learned to deal with the pain silently. Occasionally, though, I couldn’t help but cry out.

By then, I was old enough to sometimes get my hair pressed with a hot comb. I cringed those weekend afternoons sitting in the kitchen on a black metal stool with a heavy iron comb heating on the stove. Looking at that thing with its narrowly spaced teeth, I wondered how it was supposed to comb through my hair. This contraption would be a much more worthy opponent than Goody, which was now sporting a few gaps in its teeth because of me, but ultimately I’d defeat it, I thought. During one mighty battle, the hot comb got stuck in one of my most vicious naps and for a couple of seconds, both Leeya and I feared that my hair would singe off in its grip. Luckily, I got away with just a few minor burns on my ears and neck. I didn’t know whether to thank Madam C.J. Walker or scorn her.

By fifth grade, I was ready to take a chance on getting a perm. Girls often told horror stories about getting one. “Don’t leave it in too long,” they’d say, “or your hair will fall out.” I pictured my head completely swathed in a creamy white mess, then clumps of hair dropping into the sink when the stylist went to wash it out. But I knew if my hair were straight, I wouldn’t need to wear braids anymore. And since the hot comb was torture, and I didn’t know how to cornrow my own hair, a perm meant I could finally do my hair myself. But the real reason I wanted one was because Leeya had heard my diatribe on how to do someone’s hair without breaking her neck one too many times. She insisted, loudly, on several occasions, that I just do it myself.

7.

While high school was out for Christmas break, I locked myself in my father’s bathroom and, under a row of bright bulbs, stood before the vanity mirror with an open plastic bag atop the sink and a pair of scissors in my hand. After needlessly unbraiding a few, I snipped off each extension braid — and my hair with it — near the root, leaving an inch or so of new growth atop my head. There was no ceremony, no fanfare, no tears.

When I was done, I winked and smiled at the girl with the short afro in the mirror. She had just the style I wanted, save for the bright splotch of scalp amidst the dark cluster of coils elsewhere on her head.

“Couldn’t I just keep it like this?” I asked Leeya. But that puzzling void amongst my dense mass of hair answered the question.

The next morning, Leeya took me to the natural hair care salon. I wore a hat on the train ride over and when I removed it, it seemed as if everybody in the shop — braiding, twisting, locking, washing, drying, cutting — paused momentarily to witness the perils of me failing to defend myself. They grimaced and gasped and looked away.

The woman who would be my hairdresser, and another who must’ve been her supervisor, listened to Leeya’s description of what happened to me and what she wanted them to do to my hair. I had a lump in my throat the size of a pinecone and couldn’t do much more than smile and say “Uh huh” and “Uh-uh.”

When the talk ended, the hairdresser draped a black smock over my shoulders and fastened it around my neck. She spun my chair away from the mirrors, turned on a pair of electric clippers and went to work. While the clippers buzzed around my ears, I watched clumps of my fluffy dark hair fall to the ground and roll away like tumbleweed. It occurred to me that I was again losing my hair and doing nothing to stop it.

But I trusted my sister; she wouldn’t set me up to look like a fool. Leeya had guided me through many hairstyle choices before and I was pleased with each one. Through her hair mishaps, I even learned what not to do: no greasy Jheri curls, no sleeping without a scarf on, no light-colored dyes. I let her lead me that one last time because once my hair was all gone, I couldn’t look to her for how to style it anymore. I would have to figure out for myself how to fashion the person beneath the head of missing hair.

When the hairdresser twirled my chair back toward the mirrored wall, I was surprisingly pleased with the result. I had waves on top; the edges were soft and feminine; I looked stylish. But Leeya and the supervisor soon swarmed me with disapproving stares. My stylish little waves on top did not match the large problem spot at the back of my head. It was obvious that the hairdresser had to cut further.

8.

I got accustomed to the world of touch-ups and trimmed ends in junior high when Leeya began bringing me along to her hair appointments. While she was being styled, I’d eavesdrop on her comfortable banter with Donna, her Jamaican-accented hairdresser.

“How ya boyfriend?” Donna asked. And Leeya answered with a drawn-out script of a reply complete with dialogue, plot twists and lively accounts of their comings and goings since her last appointment. Donna chuckled all through the story and I saw that Leeya’s response served a lot better than the “He’s fine” I would have given if asked the same question.

Still, when it was my turn in Donna’s chair, I’d sit in silence. Even when I tried to carry on conversations with her while she gave me a bob, a flip, or finger waves — more mature styles than the one-sided ponytails and gelled-down baby hair of my peers — my attempts always crumbled. I blamed either the blare of the blow dryer, my unfamiliarity with accents or just the fact that I wasn’t Leeya.

9.

When the hairdresser finished cutting for the second time, she left me with only the faint hint of hair of a newborn. My already youthful face was framed by stubble and my head showed more scalp than I was used to. Everything I enjoyed about my hair — the waves, the thickness, the creativity — was gone. I expected to burst into tears and maybe run out of the salon upon sight of my reflection, but I felt OK with what I saw. I hated the haircut, yes. It was forced on me. It made me weep a little. But I’d survived it. I felt like it gave me a chance to start fresh.

In the fall, I’d go off to college where I couldn’t visit the salon with Leeya, couldn’t have her do my hair and wouldn’t even see her for months at a time. Taking complete control over my hair, I, alone, would be responsible for what it said about me. The prospect was frightening but freeing. At seventeen years old, I knew it was long past time that I fend for myself. I couldn’t count on friends to protect me or Leeya to speak up for me anymore. To become an adult and a true individual, embracing the haircut was the first step.

As Leeya and I walked from the salon back to the railroad station, the bitter December air penetrated my suddenly loose hat and made me shudder. We crossed Flatbush Avenue and my big sister assumed her role, advising me on how to carry myself and explain my new look to the curious.

“When you go back to school and people ask you what happened to your hair, just tell them that you…” But I wasn’t listening.

She had told me, and shown me, what to do so many times before that I had no need to hear it again. I felt fearless with my hands in my pockets and her at my side, bounding underground for the railroad and the long ride home.

Sufiya Abdur-Rahman is a writer and teacher in Prince George’s County, Md. Follow her on Twitter @MrsAbolitionist.

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Writer, professor, wife, mother, Freedom Fighter. @MrsAbolitionist

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