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Black Hair

Going Natural: How My Natural Hair Journey Helped Me Be a Better Husband

My hair is a coarse jungle of curls interwoven so tightly I can lose things in it. And I have; I’ve ruined more than one pen when I realized, too late, I was detangling in the shower. The coils coil on themselves, forming natural locks at the slightest provocation. Knots form at the ends when I neglect it, but the dense kinks have a natural symmetry that reminds me of the geometry of nature. It is not quite black, but not quite brown, a Coca-Cola blackish brown, with a very few slivers of gray hairs, wiry unlike the rest of it, poking through and asking to be seen. My hair is my hair, a unique and sometimes untamed wilderness of myself.

And I might never have gotten to know it.

For years, most of my life still, I abided by the Caesar maxim. Every two weeks, three or four if I was really up against it, I got a brush cut haircut and veered from the perils of nappiness back to respectability. Most of my experimentation was confined within this rigidity; sometimes I’d get a taper and a slightly higher cut, sometimes I’d get a near-bald sleek cut, sometimes I’d go for the even-all-around dark Caesar when I was feeling my waves. In my family and professional experience, all of this was ok. As long as I kept it below a certain length, “maintained it,” and had a good line-up, I could do what I wanted.

Even the few times I went beyond the standard length, I still kept to a very narrow view of what was acceptable for my hair. A few attempts at an Afro were all disasters after I ended up with a sore scalp and thinned spots after losing so much hair picking it out everyday and trying to keep the perfectly rounded and orderly shape. Even when I grew it out, nappiness was taboo. Anything suggesting disorder could not be abided.

The coils coil on themselves, forming natural locks at the slightest provocation. Knots form at the ends when I neglect it, but the dense kinks have a natural symmetry that reminds me of the geometry of nature.

My parents and family were the original gatekeepers. My father instilled in me early the importance of what I call the “Black Barber Countdown.” I knew that every haircut had a shelf-life, and I had an implicit countdown from the moment my barber turned his clippers off until the next haircut I’d need. I saved money to be as crispy and fresh as possible when the countdown ticked too low. My father taught me that the key to survival as a black man was to avoid all suggestions of unkemptness, the first of which was my hair. So, I took the never-ending task of becoming a reverse Samson to heart, and (almost) never looked back.

Aesthetics becomes survival: girls in my family were expected at some age to forsake their natural hair and I was never allowed to see my own. The black struggle against ever being seen as unkempt in the eyes of white culture defined what my father, mother, sister, aunts, and uncles, saw as desirable. For most of my life, I thought that growing my hair out of my head the way it grew out of my head was ugly, after a very limited point.

The turning point in my hair journey came while supporting my then-fiancee-now-wife K on her own. She had been debating going natural for months, but the anxiety of the Big Chop and the unknown of never having seen her own natural hair made her understandably hesitant. Almost as a joke, I agreed to grow my hair out—this time fully and without reserve—for the first year with her as a form of solidarity.

She got the chop. I gave her tips on how to use durags, and she helped me get through the weird 80s police officer mini-fro situation. We both experimented with dozens of products and techniques, arms and eyes burning after twisting each other’s hair while watching YouTube videos. We had good days and bad days, she yelled at me for using up her stuff–until the tables were turned and she used up mine. I reassured her through times of doubt–her hair was beautiful to me and the process of watching it grow and watching her grow confident in it was as well. And she reassured me when I just wanted to cut mine back off. We got married a year later in curly blissfulness and sent our wedding photos to Murrays with hopes of being on the next can. Seriously. I hope they email me back soon.

I realized that I was afraid of my own hair, for some of the same reasons that she was. I was afraid of the gaze of my family, my workplace, and I had a deep ingrained fear of unkemptness.

Through seeing her journey to embracing her God-given hair I was able to see my own anxieties for what they were. I realized that I was afraid of my own hair, for some of the same reasons that she was. I was afraid of the gaze of my family, my workplace, and I had a deep ingrained fear of unkemptness. I was unsure if I’d be accepted as a serious professional with a nest of curls atop my head. And I shed those anxieties the same way she did–a follicle at a time. In these realizations, I not only connected better with her, but I think I began to better understand the anxieties that black women have about their hair. I realized to the fullest extent how harmful I’d been to her and other women in my life with my preferences, expectations, and jokes about black hair. And I endeavored to be a better ally in her fights. Our ritual was one of casting off versions of ourselves and creating better ones.

And so in growing to love my hair, I grew to love and understand her more.

I’m not sure if and when I’ll ever cut my hair again. It’s been years now, but I suspect my hairline and the peculiarities of genetics will force the issue before I willingly do so. But regardless of what happens, my hair journey has been a path to self-realization. It’s also been a path to becoming a better partner and ally, a path I hope to continue for as long as I live. One day, when time has done its ravages and the luxury of hair seems far off, I’ll be able to revel in this bit of rebellion.

By Vann R. Newkirk II

Vann R. Newkirk II is a writer at The Atlantic and contributing editor for Seven Scribes, a startup publication focused on millennials of color.