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The Disunited Nations (a.k.a My Hair)… by Petra E. Lewis

Kevin Ryan Headshot - Color

No one will mistake me for anything other than Black—my skin is a swirl of dark caramel and milk chocolate. My hair? That’s another story. One wonders, like the manna the Israelites picked up from the ground: What is it?

My ancestry is complicated, a thing of borne witness, handed down stories, and myth. The result: A head of hair that is beautiful, maddening, and complex—frequently all three at once. The vast majority of my ancestry is diasporally African (a mixture of Islanders from the Caribbean). My father’s mother, who we all called Mama (accentuating each of the “a”s in our pronunciation), died before my siblings were born. However, I saw her many times as a kid when I visited Trinidad.

Mama was a mixed woman, with curly, mid-shoulder-length hair—which meant it was far longer stretched out. Mama’s mother had emigrated from St. Vincent to Trinidad, and my father said that the father of Mama’s mother was one of two Scottish brothers, the Frasers (far more to that story, but that’s all I’ll say for now). Mama’s surname was French—Serrette—and her father was said to be the owner of a plantation, more than likely a cocoa plantation.  And it appears that, like Mama’s mother, her father was also mixed, from a family of very light-skinned creoles. Hence the handed down stories and myth I spoke about: What is true, and what is not—and where is Henry Louis Gates, Jr. when you need him?

On my mother’s side, her grandfather, Appa, was said to be a dougla—the name we give in Trinidad to people who are a mixture of Black and East Indian. My mom and all her siblings said Appa, a tall, curly-haired dandy, was the spitting image of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.  I took a genealogy test once that said that I have Asian in my background. However, it’s entirely possible that Appa phenotypically looked like a dougla, but was mixed with something else.

When it comes to describing my hair, I have taken to giving my ancestors their own signifiers: three avatars who I call Sanjay, Kunta, and Chip. There are days when it’s all love between those three: Sitting together on the verandah, laughing, playing dominoes, and lazily sipping on chai. Then there are days when my head becomes the site of a global war, as Sanjay, Kunta, and Chip claw and skirmish for territory, jockeying to become the victor who plants his flag in my scalp.

Even on my best hair days, the mixture of textures throughout my head marks each avatar’s dominance—or submission. The curls at the very front of my hair are my favorite section. I guess you can refer to them as: We are the World, where Sanjay, Kunta, and Chip seem to get along best. That part of my hair can sometimes be the most fragile, but the ringlets are perfect, long lasting, and very low maintenance.  Sanjay and Kunta coexist beautifully in a wide section right near each of my ears: thick, springy, perfect ringlets, with a smaller curl pattern that are prone to breakage when not handled properly.  The sides of my hair, towards the middle, is a love fest: Kunta and Chip as BFFs—more so on the right of my hair than the left; on the left, there are times when one of them seems to have taken offense at something, and thrown a tantrum.

Then you get to the end of the sides of my hair, rounding the corners to the back, where Sanjay and Kunta seemingly begin to raise their voices: the beginning of a brawl. The hair in that section doesn’t ringlet as much as it is a strange, thick bushy texture more akin to waves—and very prone to dryness.  The back topmost part of my hair—I guess you can call that the “crown”—is the section I call: Sanjay and Kunta are fighting.  Yes, Sanjay and Kunta are fighting. Full stop—as this posture of strife is a permanent state of affairs.  It’s also a weird, thick wavy something—and I’m pretty sure Chip sat that one out.

For a large swathe of the very back of my head, the trio seems to have called a truce—back to drinking chai, dominoes, and back slapping. The lower rung of my hair hangs in a veil of beautiful baby curls: Kunta and Sanjay finally BFFs. But just below that, wait for it… the section I call WW WTF!!! (Or World War What the Freak, as we’d like to keep this family friendly).

As most Black women know, the kitchen area of our hair is the one that most denotes us as African women.  Sometimes it curls and clumps into little balls; sometimes it’s kinky and springy—yet smooth, lying relatively flat; and sometimes it’s straight.

Depending on a number of factors (a topic for another post) that section of my hair can be either of the three—or a combination. My theory on WW WTF: I think Chip tried to jump into the mix, but Sanjay pummeled him—then (eyes narrowed, breathing heavily), Sanjay turned to square off once and for all with Kunta.  But Kunta wasn’t having it….  And so they fight, on, and on, and on…. Stretched, that section of my hair reaches shoulder length. Unstretched, extreme shrinkage keeps it clinging to the base of my neck, appearing as though it is less than an inch. It’s grown so long in the last year, it only recently occurred to me that what I really need to do is stretch it out and pin it up.

This post is the beginning of many on my head of hair: a beautiful, maddening, and complex thing, a gift from the mysterious, mixed-up, variety pack I call my ancestors. There are days when Sanjay, Kunta, and Chip are polite to a fault (“No, no, you go first kind sir. I insist.” “No, no, I’ll have none of it—I insist, dear old chap: you….”). Those days are glorious: My hair is everything I want it to be, I am brimming with confidence, and all is right in the world. Then there are days when an ugly, bitter war has broken out, flags are planted, and WW WTF is in particularly rare and embarrassing form, and I feel the very confidence drain from my body, as I try to get the rogue, mutinous sections of my hair to yield—knowing full well they’ll ignore me and any pressing business or social engagements that I may have…

Oh, yes, I can tell you stories…. I know you have some, too. What have your own experiences been with your hair in its various states (be it natural or chemically treated)? I would love to hear about your individual journeys. I know you each have so much to say.

Till next time: Love, Peace, and Hair Grease, my friends y amigas….

 


Petra E. Lewis is a writer, author, entrepreneur, Tastemaker, and Synergist who lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The first novel in her trilogy, The Sons and Daughters of Ham, Book I: A Requiem debuts February 2014, www.hamnovels.com .

  • Sandi Webster

    Petra, I so understand the hair thing and sympathize. I, too, come from an “unidentifiable” Jamaican ancestral tree that plays out in my hair. I was constantly frustrated with my “thicker than most” hair until I cut it off in sixth grade (whupping followed!) – I’ve not had long hair since. My grandmother would take all day to “chiney bump” my hair and then I would wake up the next day with wet hair after sleeping on a wet pillow. Right after that, I started to use a pressing comb to straighten my hair – all in the hopes of gaining consistency and decrease maintenance. It gave me a lot of flexibility between my natural states until one bout at the beach when I was 28 made me convert to a perm. A perm is my ancestral hair equalizer the same way my short haircut is time equalizer, meaning it makes everything look and feel the same and I can be out of my house in 15 minutes because I simply need a brush. Not to mention, I think I look simply fab this way.

  • Petra Lewis

    Hi Sandi: Thanks for this. And, yes–you do look fabulous! Didn’t realize that you had had it for this long (no pun intended : ). Can’t imagine you in anything but short hair!

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