By Matthew Bruce
My hair is priceless to me. You know this. You know that I find strength in it, that it reminds me of my beauty, and yours. You know what it means to me. So no, I will not cut it.
See, you taught me that our hair is beautiful. That was the first thing I think you ever taught me about myself. Perhaps you didn’t realize it, but I would watch you, teasing out your hair as you got ready for work. It was always the last thing you did in the morning before you kissed me on the cheek and told me to get ready to head to the bus stop. I remember picking out my hair -which at the time was dark reddish - mimicking you, hoping to capture a glimmer of the beauty and strength you wore everyday as you entered into a world which tried to rob you of your humanity. Your hair was both your armor and your weapon.
I remember growing up most of the images you introduced to me featured people with our hair. My schoolmates, my uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors, baseball teammates, sisters. I remember you bought me a children’s book about Michael Jordan, and in it he had a mini afro. I’d tell you he looked like a chocolate me and you’d laugh. I remember reading about how he would put salt in his shoes, thinking it would make him grow so that he could compete with his big brothers. I would read you this story while you would pick my hair out for me, straddling my torso with your legs. The hair I possessed would become my salt, not realizing that my real success wouldn’t come from strands of hair, but rather the opportunity to have a mother who could afford to spend her extra money on a book and any extra time teaching her son meticulously to read to her from it. This was a luxury I did not realize most kids with my hair weren’t afforded. A luxury you yourself were not afforded.
I remember you teaching me to respect my sisters and their hair. I had just made fun of Rebecca’s face one night, you know, the one she makes when you hit a bad tangle and she tries to suppress the urge to yell or squirm. I told her she looked like she needed a poop. She cried, and you scolded me, telling me that if I had their hair I’d have started crying the moment the cone touched my head, and that she was so strong for taking the hair combing in stride. From there on I never doubted or second guessed the respect they were owed for existing in a world so much tougher than black men and boys have even when it comes to hair.
I remember when I was really young that kids made fun of my hair in viscous ways, calling me carrot top for example. Then when my hair grew into the black it is today they made fun of my “shit green” eyes. Later my main offence among those with hair like mine was that I had the luxury of reading, of curiosity, which many of us did not have. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be a valuable lesson in how internalized ideas of what constitutes as reason for conflict can damage and divide our communities. They centered the fairytale part of me, instead of realizing that my hair made me just a nigga with green eyes who liked to read. I wish I could go back and tell them that….
At the same time those things earned me more attention from girls, and from people whose hair wasn’t mine. Especially my grade school teacher, who I recall asking how I came to possess that hair and those eyes. Marveling at it, running her fingers through it, etc. I knew that other kids with what now looks like my own black hair were never praised in the same way.
So my hair taught me privilege.
Later, when the luxury of books and thirst for knowledge you gave me came to fruition, I learned oppression through my hair. I moved to a school reserved for the academic elite in my home town. It was the first time that I realized people with my hair were not supposed to be curious. At least that’s what the fairy tale dwellers thought. I was met with amazement at how well I spoke, how well I read, that someone could have my hair and still deliver beautiful analyses of Frost, Shakespeare, or Homer. I knew it was my hair. Because the people with the fairy tale hair were never special or exceptions. I saw that excellence for them was ordinary. I knew that the consequences of this dynamic meant that the condition of most people with my hair would be to never be allowed to be curious. And it filled me with sorrow.
I learned oppression through their fascination with my hair. I found this fascination to be humiliating. They’d ask to touch it and run their fingers through it - sometimes they didn’t ask. Either way I was an attraction, like something at a carnival. You see, my hair to them was not beautiful; it was an anomaly, something to study, and something to be amazed and goggle at as if I were an exhibit in a zoo. My hair was not Mona Lisa at the Louvre, it was the bearded lady at the circus. I knew this meant that the world would never be centered on me.
I learned to cope with this condition by listening to men and women with the same hair as me. Malcolm, who told me to respect and stand up for myself. Angela, who told me to stand with fearless grace in the face of injustice. Huey, who told me to fight back. Ida, who told me about the ghosts of America’s past. Outkast, who showed me we could make our own art, worthy of both college courses and commercial success. Erykah, who showed me that music could be liberating. Cole, who told me it was okay to take the chains off. KDot, who taught me about the m.a.a.d. cities. Barack, who showed me how much I really could be.
So now mom, I need you to understand that it’s my turn to teach people about their hair. That it is now my armor and my sword like it once was yours. That my hair is radical; a threat to strike at any and all times. That my hair is Black Nationalism, in its insistence on centering blackness. That my hair is Black Pride because of the unapologetic assurance of its own beauty. That my hair is civil disobedience, in that I am breaking the laws of white supremacy which tell me not to be beautiful, strong, and intelligent all while being Black.
You know how they killed Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner. You watched them slam a little girl who looked like our little Angela on her face in Mckinney. You saw how they terrorized Sandra Bland. You’ve watched them pimp and rape those people of this generation who have hair like mine. So you know that we need these lessons now more than ever.
And even if they take my hair from me, if you took it from me, or if I took it from myself I will never lose the lessons that each strand taught me. The courage that it brought me.
I understand why you want me to cut my hair. But I must keep mine long because yours is old, gray, and tired. Worn down from the battles of the past. I must pick up the gun and continue to fight on. You must know this. You have realized this. And you must be terrified.
But let me tell you that with my hair I am unstoppable. So I will be damned if I cut it.
I love you.
-Your son, Matthew