A Portrait to Forget
I've always had issues with my hair. Since I was a small child with his Afro being pulled and picked at by his mother or combed and braided by an aunt, it has been an almost unbearable burden sitting at the top of my head. It makes sense now, that I wear my hair in the wild fashion I do, letting it poke up and out in every which way, refusing to comb it other than the occasional pluck of a pick in the morning (after a long nights sleep my ‘do is usually flattened to my head in a big, black, nappy clump). And I cant shave it bald, which would be the most efficient and acceptable way to unleash myself from its hindrance, as I learned at an early age when I instructed the barber to do just this, shave it all off, and unveiled the awkward, almost frightening shape of my unfortunate skull. So I have had to deal with the trials of keeping my hair at an acceptable length while still being relatively self-sufficient enough to not be a bother. This has proved tiresome, to say the least.
It is well known that although the barber shop has developed into a haven for black folks over the years, proving a comfortable asylum for all ages to congregate, share stories, offer advice, and engage in general shit talking without the judging eye of “the other” watching over them. Still, given this fact, it is even better well known that black people, especially the men, have developed a seemingly natural skill to cut hair themselves. Once a black kid hits the age of 14 or 15, he socks his barber shop money away and relinquishes his tuft over to the skilled hands of a friend who, with a cheap clipper set brought from the local Walgreen’s, expertly shapes his head into the most current fashion, however difficult that may be.
My first non-professional haircut was from one of the kids I lived with in a group home. At first I couldn’t trust my hair to a non-professional, especially one my age. How could he know how to cut hair? Surely he would shave me bald, revealing the horror that was my unshapely cranium, or possibly just lop off an ear, either way I was doomed if I subjected myself to his amateur stylings. There was no way!
But alas, we were located in an all white suburb right outside of San Francisco at the time, and I’d gone to almost every barbershop within walking distance only to be rejected at each one. I’d open the door, not fully walking in, my nerves rattling each time by the ringing bell that would alert a new customer to the awaiting, mostly old, always white, barbers in attendance, and point at the raging mess of naps atop my head with a pleading, questioning look in my eye. And each time I got the same response, a shrug of the shoulders and a shaking head. They wouldn’t even try to tackle the mayhem that was my hair! The very look of it reduced them to cowardice; the buzz of their electric clippers just a weak whimper, their scissors and shears dull and ineffective. We would hardly even exchange words, it was just open, ring, point, shake, defeat, and leave. This, at every barbershop in a 3-mile radius. Brutal. So I gave in and let him, a kid my age, cut my hair (his name was Melvin and he had a severe overbite, but his hair was quite the beacon of afro style, so he had that going for him). It turned out great.
And it seemed easy enough. He didn’t take the patient, precise approach that a professional would have, but took the attack the hair like you are taking revenge on it for something it did in the past approach, but it worked, and when he was done I looked and felt like a newly confident teenager (which is not easily attainable for a 14 year old, let alone a black 14 year old in a group home in an all white suburb with the ghost of his schizophrenic mother haunting him). After that I got my hair cut exclusively by friends, all of which seemed to have some innate ability to shape and structure my untamable Afro into something resembling a decent, modern hairstyle. It wasn’t until I moved back in with my mother that I began cutting my own hair, a process that yielded mixed results, especially when I tried to get creative. On a few occasions I had to go to school in a hat, covering up various bald spots that my heavy hand had dug into my finely shaped flat top, but these were small potatoes compared to the assault my mother would give me years before, prior to the simple $8 trims I got from the local bargain barber and the elaborate shape ups I received from my friends.
The last and final time I allowed my mother to cut my hair I was in the 4th grade; nine years old. I suppose when you are at that age you just don’t argue with your mother, regardless the ridiculous acts she proposes, but I’d long before realized my mom was “not right” in the head, and her erratic behavior continued to reinforce this deduction. Yet, when I cornered her in the kitchen and pleaded for the money to get my haircut before school picture day, an event on the calendar that meant as much to a 4th grader as the last day before vacation or the promise of a substitute teacher, and she gave me that sigh of an answer that I recognized as saying “we cant afford it,” then broached the unthinkable, cutting my hair herself, I was so confused by this notion that I, in an uncertain haze similar to what one experiences when they are informed they have acquired a winning lottery ticket but must wrestle an alligator to get it, agreed without much hesitation.
I should have known things were going to turn out bad the minute she told me to sit down and grabbed the scissors. Scissors? Anyone of any even remotely African ancestry knows for a fact that an Afro cannot be cut with simple scissors. The texture and density of our hair is primed for the most efficient electric clipper, and that is all. So it was almost a natural action for me to recoil in horror as she began stabbing at my head with the dull paper cutters in her hand.
“What are you doing?” I exclaimed.
“Cutting your hair,” she said, then with her strong grip she twisted my head to the side and with one motion clopped off a huge chunk of hair. I watched in agony as it fell to the floor. I had to stop this madness.
“But you cant cut my hair with scissors,” I said, trying to dodge her advances as she struggled to keep me still, “that’s not how the barber does it. You’ll mess it up!” I was incredulous, paranoid, virtually on the verge of tears. This couldn’t be happening. There were many, many reasons why my mother shouldn’t have been holding scissors, and ‘to cut her son’s hair’ was at the top of the list.
“I wont mess it up,” she said, “now stop complaining.” She twisted my head in the opposite direction and took another whack at my innocent Afro, “I know what I'm doing, I used to cut your uncle Josephs hair when he was your age.”
I thought about this for a second and then grimaced in pain. My uncle Joseph had the most unruly head of hair on the entire west coast. It was no wonder he never married, had a girlfriend, or even any friends for that matter. I’d finally figured out why he was so quiet and distant, always lost in his western fantasy novels or buried in the engine of a car, because my mother had cursed him with her god-awful shears of terror.
“But mom!” I whined to no avail. It was no use, she had already massacred half of my head already, and there was no saving it by that point. I sat back on the cheap vinyl chair, watching as huge patches of hair fell to the floor in alarming volumes. When it was over I didn’t even want to look in the mirror, I could tell by the smirk on her face and the curiously sympathetic look in her eye as she said, “There, now you look very handsome,” that my head was the equivalent of a toddlers Crayola depiction of a galactic supernova.
The next day I put on my best shirt, a pink polo affair I’d gotten from Goodwill not too long before (possibly with the money that could have gone to a barber), and trudged to school, avoiding eye contact from any other students I may have passed on the way. I wouldn’t be able to avoid my friends when I got to the schoolyard, but I’d be damned if I was teased on the way there.
The minute I stepped onto the schools black, kickball asphalt, the taunts began.
“Hey pinkie! Why don’t you comb your hair?”
“Dang, did you sleep on your head last night?”
“You know, its picture day. You should tell your hair.”
“Damn! Yo’ shit is fucked up!”
It was what I had expected so I didn’t let it sink to deep. I tried patting it down on one side and picking it out on the other, but the various shapes she had manicured my head into refused to agree with any sort of resuscitation. I was at a loss, and then my friends arrived. I don’t know if it was that they didn’t tease me and instead felt sorry for my situation, or if that the realization that not only did I have to spend a few weeks waiting for this cranial atrocity to grow out, but that at its most offensive, the image would be captured for a lifetime in 4x6 images sent to all my family members, but the dread of the circumstance filled me up and I could hardly bear the humiliation through those few minutes on the yard before the school bell rang.
Bless my friends for being understanding though, of course, their hairstyles were finely manicured quaffs of salon expertise, so they had nothing to worry about. One friend tried combing the back and side while the other went about furiously patting and shaping the top with his palm. When they were finished they both stepped back and, biting their lips said, “There, that’s much better.”
It wasn’t, but I appreciated their efforts.
When I finally got the pictures back and took them home to my mother, she opened up the envelope, pulled out the large, 8x10 that we would usually just tack onto the wall, unframed, in our hallway next to a succession of school pictures that, I assume, she hoped would stretch from one end of the house to the other by the end of my high school career, and beamed in pride. She turned the picture to me and, smiling wildly, said, “You look gorgeous!”
I looked at it and for the first time saw the horror of my head that day. It looked as if she had tried to carve every single geometric shape she new into my small, barely blossomed Natural. Pentagons on the sides, hexagons on the upper corners, octagons lining the back and decahedrons peppering the bottom and front. It is remarkable that, with all these shapes, she couldn’t execute a simple circle, which maybe would have been a reasonable design for a head of hair. But no such luck, my frizzy mane was in all manner of angles, jetting up here, sloping down there, a strange, jagged section in the middle. Aside from the stain on my pink polo and the huge, gaping hole in the front of my mouth where a tooth had recently escaped for better pastures, I could see nothing else on the picture save the mountainous black mound of hair striking up from my head.
And then I looked at her. At the unhinged sparkle in her eye. She didn’t see it, she really didn’t see it. She was lost in delusions, one of those being that she was a hairstylist of sorts, and another being that I was on board with that particular delusional idea. She tacked it on the wall, like she had the other ones, and admired it for a moment before walking away, giggling. Sometimes I wonder if that giggle was just another act of maniacal behavior on her part or if somewhere, deep down, she was laughing at how appalling my hair in that picture was. Either way, that was the last time she ever cut my hair.