When I was four years old, I saw Nick Ashford (of Ashford & Simpson) for the first time. The late Mr. Ashford and his wife, Valerie Simpson, were a renowned musical duo who wrote and produced many classic songs for several artists, as well as singing a number of hits on their own. Of course, I didn’t know or care about any of that at that age. See, Ashford had long, flowing hair, the likes of which I had never seen on a man before, especially a black man. I thought it was so cool, and I wanted to have hair like his. Obviously, African hair does not grow like that naturally, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to or trying. I resented my mother every time she took me to get my hair cut, and had fantasies of using her green hair food grease to get shoulder-length locks like Ashford. I finally accepted that it just wasn’t in the cards for me.
By the time I got to high school in the late ’90s, singers like D’Angelo and Ginuwine had become popular. These guys were the stuff of teenage girl fantasies; they oozed sex appeal, knowing how to use their bodies and their voices to get their fans’ hearts a-flutter. They also had long hair, but where Ashford’s hair was permed, these fellows had chosen to have theirs braided. I thought that was what made them so irresistible to women. Their six-packs? Their singing? Hell, no; it was the hair! I couldn’t pass for D’Angelo in either voice or body (certainly not in body; re-enacting “How Does It Feel?” I couldn’t), but I could have his hair. Or at least I could if my mother had approved.
See, Momma Biggs didn’t like men with long hair. She still doesn’t. She comes from a culture that is very conservative in that regard; to her, a man’s hair should be short and neat. In her eyes, a man whose hair is long is either a homosexual or a vagrant. We used to watch New York Knicks games together, and small forward Latrell Sprewell was a prominent player then, having been acquired after assaulting his former coach PJ Carlesimo. Sprewell went out every night with cornrows that reached his shoulders, and every time he was featured in a courtside interview, Momma would nudge me and say, “Look at that little girl,” or otherwise cast aspersions on Sprewell’s masculinity and sexual orientation. It was obvious that if I wanted to have long hair, I certainly wasn’t gonna get any support from home.
Two years ago, I started dating a young woman who wore dreadlocks. They were beautiful, and while my old dreams of long hair had not been thought of for a long time, I now started to think it was possible for me to start growing dreads. I thought I might actually look good with them. So I embarked on my long hair journey, patiently explaining to my mother that I was no longer interested in cutting my hair (but leaving out that it would at some point be styled in a way she has long despised). She wasn’t pleased at first, but grew to accept and even like the afro I was now sporting. When I started dating Amps, she loved my hair in this style, perhaps because of my vague resemblance to her favorite singer, Maxwell.
My crew was a little more supportive, in their own way. Of course, my intention to grow dreads was met with good-natured teasing, but I suppose they accepted it as one of the many drastic changes I was making in my life at the time. I was still a little scared to take that final, irrevocable step to dread-dom. Momma Biggs made it clear that she would not allow me to wear them while I was living under her roof. So I did the obvious thing and got my own apartment.
When I first looked at my fresh twists in the mirror, I started having second thoughts… maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. After twenty-eight years of wearing my hair a certain way, this was a considerable shock to my system. Predictably, Momma Biggs wasn’t thrilled. Just the other day she actually offered me money to cut my hair. Eventually, I got used to them, learning which styles work for me and which don’t.
I wrote this post on my way back to New York from Barbados, visiting the island for the first time in twelve years. I’m sure my hairstyle was a shock to my aunts and cousin, but the most interesting exchange I had was with my grandmother. She is ninety-five years old and even more conservative in taste than my mother, which is saying something. She thought I was a handsome young man, but couldn’t resist running her hand through my locks and stating, “Dis want cuttin’,” which drew uproarious laughter from all of us. I think it’s safe to say that not everybody likes the hair.
This long hair thing hasn’t been easy, reader. In fact, at times it has been a source of frustration. Just getting it styled is a headache… literally. Wearing it in an elaborate style, only to have an itchy, dry scalp that I can’t scratch because it’ll ruin my stylist’s work. Wearing my locks down and having to fight to keep them out of my face – it’s not glamorous. Still, this hair is mine, and I won’t cut it for anybody but me. For money, on the other hand… let’s just say I’m open to offers.