Ashes to White Blackness
By Nichole Shaw
Illustration by Mariah Cooper
Excerpt feat. in Fools Vol. 5
The wind blows over and through my kinky curls. I find it hard to control the chaos that is my head, both inside and out. My scalp prickles with the ogling of passersby and the occasional glance thrown over a shoulder at either my hair or my ass.
Are you fetishized?
My hands are shaking. I feel like a balloon held down by a weight. Fierce light rushes through my veins and I'm left woozy with a dry taste in my mouth. I think it's the fear.
I am organic today, organically Black.
I escaped the darkness of Blackness.
I am shapeless,
What to pack whenever you leave your home for a night:
Straightener (a tool used to eradicate nappy curls in order to remain in ordinance with White presentation)
Anti-frizz moose (a serum that kills the curls of my ancestors)
A comb and thick-bristled brush (to separate any strands of unity my culture might ever have)
Extensions (imported from India because of their "realness")
Clothes (Black to hide my curves)
Bath Accessories (haircap, ORS Olive Oil shampoo and conditioner—because god forbid you use Pantene or some other White hair product, toothbrush, toothpaste, body wash—for your sensitivity, etc.)
Keys, identification, credit cards, spare change, cellphone, cellphone charger
"I never would've known you were Black by the way you act."
I see a parking lot full of Porsche Capri minivans and White Range Rovers. Ah yes, this is my home bittersweet home. I sure don't miss it. I'm reminded of the unhappiness of living a life of underprivilege. I cry in my jasper green metallic, 1999 Buick Regal, pulling up to the gravel driveway of my so-called home. Looming over my left is the neighbors four-story, stone mansion. I wipe my tears and wave hello, smearing a smile on my face. My lips crack. Blood drips down my chin.
What's a Black girl without the weight of Whiteness?
"How are you?" the pleasant neighbor, the one that owns the mansion, says. She once gave me a hundred dollars for graduation. I had never talked to her before then. She seems ignorantly privileged nice.
"I'm good," I spit say. I resent appreciate her obliviousness politeness. The blood has dried.
This hurt is worse than the one when I burned my hand on a curling iron.
Naperville is a town in Illinois, a boujee part of the western Chicago suburbs, and my hometown. It’s where I grew up. It’s where I got tied in a jump rope for looking different from the other White kids. It’s where every “popular” girl was a skinny, basic White girl with no texture to her hair, except for the occasional beach wave.
Naperville is also where my Black family is. It’s where chocolate momma would drive me to gramma mimi’s to watch her put tracks of hair into her head. It’s where I would get a hug and a cone of ice cream from Dairy Queen if I sat still while they temporarily permed my hair with chemical relaxers—so I wouldn’t cry anymore when I came home from school after getting tied up in jump ropes (Don’t worry. My mom talked to the mother of that girl who tied me up in a jump rope. I never saw that girl or her mom ever again. I think it was because the other mother was so scared of my Chocolate Momma after seeing the blazing anger from someone disrespecting her Black kid).
Naperville championed inclusivity, but that didn’t mean it always has. I was subject to countless fondling, touching, squeezing, molding, poking, and staring of my Black hair. I think it was some fascination others had. They didn’t understand it, so they invited themselves to try. But I didn’t give them permission to touch me, to touch my Black hair.
“Your hair is so fluffy. It’s so cool. How do you handle it?”
Are you ostracized?
My friend asked me if I wanted to use her Pantene shampoo and conditioner at a sleepover once. I didn't know how to break to her that I didn't want to—I can't—without seeming rude. "Sure." I'll just pretend I used it.
Am I rude for lying?
Pantene caters to the White population even though they have advertisements of Black locks with model Demi Grace. It's destructive. I appreciate the attempt, but it will never cater to my hair the way ORS Olive Oil or SheaMoisture does.
I must use "Black" hair products because otherwise, my hair will get dry, coarse, or become unmanageable—more so than it already is. It will still be dirty—to penetrate the layers and thickness of my Blackness, one must do the most, and Pantene is not it—and dandruff will still appear should a non-Black product be used.
Is it this hard to upkeep your hygiene?
I have a love-hate relationship with Heat.
On the one hand, it permeates my skin, consuming my whole being, warming me up.
On the other hand, it delves so deep into me, my hair frizzes up no matter what.
I love it when my skin turns dark, turns Black.
I love it when my hair turns curly, turns Black.
I hate it when my skin turns me out to those around me, turns Black.
I hate it when my hair turns me apart from my White friends, turns Black.
I feel like a zebra.
You know, the White and Black kind, striped with division, united in being. You know, the kind my great uncle saw when he lived in Africa and owned a temperamental Rhesus macaque monkey (the kind that likes to rip off the heads of White Barbie dolls).
Don't ask me who I am.
I don't know.
Heat swelters on the backs of thousands of
Blacks. They struggle within societal constraints,
Swirling around in their grief; hot and dark.
Dark heat drips down the back of their necks, matting Black to their
Scalp. They rage against the construct of
Race, Status, Gender.
He had a dream.
I have a nightmare.
Remember when I was the Jezebel, the Mammy, and the Angry Black Woman.
Remember when they told me how "cool" it was that my Blackness oppressed me—y'know, so I could pay less for college tuition.
Remember when they were jealous of my Black curls, so they pulled on them until my scalp itched with the prickle of restraint against their ignorance.
Remember when I was tied up in that jump rope in fourth grade because my skin didn't look like the other kids—too Black to fit in with the White; White walls, Whiteboards, White people.
Remember when they told me to be proud, because I was a strong Black woman, and then I went home and the salty liquid that secreted from my eyes dripped down my skin in the same streams the showerhead created, flowing down my skin like a babbling mess.
I can't remember the last time someone didn't look at me differently because of my hair, my Black hair.
Do you remember?
In 2017, Mystic Valley Regional Charter School told two Black girls they couldn't wear braided extensions in their hair because it was a distraction. Another Black girl was told her natural fro must be relaxed or chemically straightened if she wanted to return to school the next day.
In 2004, my mother plugged the straightening comb into our bathroom outlet. It burned my right hand when I touched it after she left the room to get the anti-frizz serum. Strangely, the burn didn't hurt as bad as looking in my reflection after my kinks went away.
A February 2017 study shows that regardless of gender or race, most people hold ignorant biases against women of color because of their hair and see it as undesirable and comparable to a sheep's wool. Interesting because the Whiteness of a sheep always made me feel as though they had something I didn't.
In the winter of 2017 and spring of 2018, I learned that sheep are dope. They're soft and resourceful and strong and vulnerable and powerful and...beautiful.
There's Black sheep too y'know?
Black History Month.
Canada, United Kingdom, United States.
Each year, they rise together to celebrate Blackness, history, revolution, evolution, innovation, struggle, success, fight, resistance...
I celebrated this year, more so than I have any preceding year. I educated myself on the history of my ancestors like never before—not just Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but Guion Bluford, Edward Bouchet, Friiz Pollard, Bessie Coleman, Madam C.J. Walker, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, Septima Poinsette Clark...
I wore my hair out in its natural form for the first time ever, despite the hushed whispers mumbled at the back of my neck, or the hole on my left temple that was drilled by the glare of the kid sitting next to me in lecture. My chest heaves with the added weight of this Blackness. It felt terrifyingly awful. I felt entirely Black for the first time.
It felt right.
My coiled curls frizzed up in the humid air, damp with an impending rain. The very existence of my natural fro quite literally took up the size of a large mixing bowl in its girth. It’s loud and bold Blackness demanded attention from the man on the street who did a double-take when he saw me, the girl who quirked her brow at the wildness of my very nature, and the small child who smiled up at me two missing front teeth.
“I am dripping melanin and honey. I am black without apology”—Upile
Chocolate Momma said, “Why does your hair look like that!?”
It was the first thing she said after Facebook messenger connected our video chat. I was sitting on my futon in my dorm room and I had a few friends with me, although they were out of the camera frame.
“What do you mean why does my hair look like that?
I wore it out natural to embrace my Black heritage and our culture, mom.”
“Well I guess. At least you’ll only be wearing it for Black History Month.”
My mother means well. She’s an extremely generous woman and has struggled her entire adult life to give me and my sister a decent, relatively privileged life. She used to go without food for days, so my sister and I would be able to eat all three meals. She has sacrificed everything to give us a good life. But part of the culture she grew up in restrained her ability to embrace Black naturality. She was taught by Gramma Mimi to always have a presentable and socially acceptable appearance. “Never let them see you struggle,” she used to say. I suppose that’s part of the reason why Chocolate Momma was reluctant to accept my bold venture in the world of natural, unapologetic Black hair.
My hair is a part of me—it shouldn’t be controlled, shouldn’t have to be.
Natural hair was distant from the embrace of pride, culturally.
Perhaps because Whiteness was safe, and Blackness wasn’t, still isn’t.
I won’t let the system tame me.
"Oh, your hair, it's so...cool." That's what my old roommate said the first time I came back to our room after having washed my hair. She shook her shoulder in a sarcastic way—y'know, the way that suggests that person is better than you, and she rolled her eyes before flicking her shoulder-length, blonde hair behind her.
My chest heaved with the ache of regret and insignificance.
How foolish of me to come back to my room without taming my hair in a bun first.
"Thanks." That's what I said, even though I didn't mean it. It tasted like blood coming out of my mouth, metallic and bitter, like I had just swallowed broken glass, shredding my insides. Kill them with kindness, they say. They never said how bad it would hurt. I plastered on a smile and hid behind my lofted bed.
That was before.
Before I ever knew how ugly her ignorance was.
Before she moved out because her racist tendencies couldn't coexist with my colored ones.
Before I stopped smiling ugly lies and,
Started saying what's on my mind.
I don’t appreciate it when you don’t look at my mom or attempt to make any sort of conversation with her after she offers us snacks for the car ride. I don’t like it when you scramble to get in your car as fast as you can as if you can catch her Blackness.
That’s what I said to my now ex-roommate a month before she moved out.
She cried and made a blubbering mess of herself in an attempt to evoke pity from me. It didn’t work. I wasn’t going to be the polite little mixed girl anymore. I am a woman who won’t tolerate disrespect towards me or my family, especially if that disrespect is because we are Black.
You can cry all you want,
but it’s not going to change the fact that what you did was wrong.
Yeah, well I don’t appreciate it when you talk shit about me to people in the lounge.
That wasn’t talking shit.
That was telling my friends what you did.
That was telling them you left me stranded on Thanksgiving Break,
That you refuse to acknowledge my mom or give her the respect she deserves,
That you actually have been talking shit about me this entire semester to our mutual friends,
That you make an ignorantly repulsed face when you see my natural curls after a shower.
I stroll down Madison Street, through the underpass of the railway, and onward.
My curls are tighter than they ever were, chocolate in color, Black in nature.
The wind sweeps through and messes up the part I had.
I don’t care.
People still stare when I stride into their line of vision.
People still ignorantly make comments or touch my hair.
People still look uncomfortable at my difference.
But I am no longer afraid.
I am free.