It’s hard to describe the importance and simultaneous triviality that reflects a Black woman’s relationship to her hair. We’ll belt India Arie’s “I Am Not My Hair” at the top of our lungs and then shed real tears if a beautician sends us out the shop looking crazy. We’ll change our hair styles like underwear but literally fight a nigga who dared to get it wet. One year, Solange will say she’s done talking about hair and then later pen a brilliant song about how she doesn’t want folks to touch it.
When it comes to Black hair, there’s levels to this thang: shallow, serious and even spiritual. I remember my grandmother quoting scripture saying that a woman’s hair was her beauty. My father warning me that I shouldn’t let White people rub it because they might have been trying to extract some good luck from my tresses. And then there was the most important one of all, that you must be sure that whoever puts their hands in your head is a good person. Because their spirit can transfer from their fingertips into your kinks and coils.
Growing up, I thought it was just my family who held on to these superstitions. But as I moved about in the world, I would find that quite a few people, Black people specifically, had very strong notions and beliefs about what letting the wrong person touch your hair could do. I stumbled across one of the strongest examples of this when I traveled to South Africa to meet my boyfriend’s family. Before we even arrived, I’d heard stories about how thieves had been known to cut people’s locs in an attempt to sell them as extensions to someone else. More than a couple of my boyfriend’s aunts told me, jokingly, to give them my hair. A quip I had heard growing up, but it was always directed to the girls with long, mostly straight strands. So it wasn’t long before I recognized the ways in which locs were perceived and commodified in this part of the world.
But just because they had become a product, it didn’t mean the spiritual component of Black hair had disappeared.
After church, on Christmas day, my boyfriend's cousin’s wife, Gugu, complimented my own locs before telling me that she had attempted to wear them herself not too long ago, but it didn’t quite work out. I assumed that she meant she couldn’t get through the transition phase. She didn’t want to wait for it to lock, to grow, to look presentable. But when she told me she’d had loc extensions, real locs that someone else had grown, placed in her head, I knew it wasn’t a matter of patience.
Gugu explained that she decided to get loc extensions because they were cheaper. “I had a lot of weaves. I thought with locs I could actually change my hair again in two weeks and it’s actually half of the money than I pay with the weave. I even had a lot of rashes but with natural hair, it’s always a bit better.”
Not only was it more cost effective, she wouldn’t have to wait. “I wanted the length. I didn’t want to start it off naturally. That’s why I decided to buy it from someone. I told my aunt that I was thinking of doing dreads because she had dreads but she started them off with her own hair. And she told me that she knew a lady that was actually selling dreads and she’ll ask her.”
“When I met her she was fine. My aunt spoke with her, ‘This is the lady that I spoke to you about who wanted to buy your dreads.’ So she came. But she had the dreads on when I went there. And then she said she can cut the dreads so she can just show me that it’s her hair.”
They hadn’t gotten too deep into conversation before the stylist revealed that she was cutting her locs off and selling them because she had fallen on hard times and could use the extra money
She cut them off her head and Gugu gave her 500 Rand for them. The following week she returned to the same stylist to have the locs braided into her head.
And while the first meeting and even the installation went fine, within a few months time, things got weird.
Gugu switched the style up. She dyed the locs a different color and the women at the salon, where the previous owner of the hair still worked, took notice.
“Whenever I actually went there, they used to compliment me and she used to act very strange. You could see that she was a bit irritated but I couldn’t really understand whether she was moody or not. Some of the ladies at the salon actually told me that the dreads looked nicer on me. And she heard that. And then after that, it was very uncomfortable. And then she started telling me, ‘Oh, I sold you these dreads at a very cheap price.’ This and this and that."
Sensing the jealousy didn’t deter Gugu from wearing the locs. After all, she’d paid for them outright and they looked good on her. Still, she decided to stop going to that particular woman, realizing that she hadn’t exactly been happy to give them away.
But that wasn’t the reason the locs didn’t work out. Weeks after she’d made the decision to stop going to see the beautician, Gugu’s aunt told her that the stylist, the previous owner of her hair, had taken sick. This sickness, whatever it was, was the reason she needed the extra money in the first place. Later Gugu’s aunt told her not only had the woman taken ill, she had miscarried a child.
At this point, Gugu was expecting her first child and the fact that the woman who had grown the hair on her head had lost one freaked her out a little bit. A lot of bit, actually. She decided that the combination of jealousy, the likelihood that she never really wanted to sell the hair in the first place, and the miscarriage was too many burdens to bear, particularly when she was attempting to bring a child into the world. Gugu decided to cut the locs out of her head.
Still, the shedding of the hair didn’t remove its previous owner from her life. Somehow the beautician learned that she had cut the locs off and she called Gugu to see what she had done with them. She wanted to buy them back. Something about the desperation in the woman’s voice to get the locs back left Gugu feeling unsettled. She told the stylist that she had given them to her cousin who was going to sell them. The stylist accepted defeat and hung up. But days later she called again. Gugu decided not to answer the phone. The beautician left a message asking that Gugu get in touch with her cousin so she could buy them back from her. Gugu, ready to rid this woman and her hair for good, didn’t answer the phone.
Image via CreateHer