It’s 2007. Steve Jobs has just revealed the original iPhone in San Francisco; Kanye West has recently awoken from a prophetic dream that he can buy his own way to heaven, and my grandmother, Catherine Ferrell, is the only white person I will let touch my hair.
She rolls a thick mixture of olive and jojoba oils between her palms and caresses each strand of my hair with a purposeful tenderness. A shiver runs up my spine as she massages my scalp in circular patterns. Our teeth are firmly clenched. Tears slip down our cheeks in tandem as she vigilantly yanks apart my tangles: my pain is also hers. She stays with me for a time and then pushes me into the bathroom to unravel the confusion myself. I welcome my grandmother’s hands because they move with a righteous intention: to educate me on how to one day do this for myself.
Ten years later, I’m naked in my bathroom at Harvard. Perched on the edge of the bathtub, I balance a laptop on my damp knees and squint through a protein-oil haze. Conditioner drips from damp spirals. The weight of the overpriced hydrating cream is so heavy that I can barely read what my fingers have frantically been typing into the search bar: “how to untangle knotted hair.”
As I scroll through pages of nondescript articles, my red-rimmed eyes flicker over to the time-stamp at the right-hand corner of the screen. 5:15 p.m. It dawns on me that I have spent two hours locked in this bathroom. In two hours, I might have organized my Google calendar, reviewed lecture slides for statistics, and answered upwards of 20 emails. My empty stomach drops and nothing catches it. Too bad. No one in the dining hall will ever see me like this.
During Visitas, female-identifying prospective students are invited to learn more about the Association of Black Harvard Women and discuss the experience of black womanhood at an institution built to educate white men. Questions jump from colorism to taking ownership of academic spaces. After 20 or 30 minutes, someone finally asks the question:
“How far do you have to go to get your hair done in Cambridge?”
A pocket of air goes out of the room and it fills with chatter. How many girls wanted to ask this question?
The responses from upperclassmen are thorough and expansive, ranging from inexpensive places to get your hair braided to how to find highly effective products for a steal. I take notes diligently. These women are providing us with more than solutions to our hair woes. They offer up these products and places as an assurance: potential ways to define ourselves in a space they mention will surely attempt to define us. I am skeptical—not of their comfort but of the perception that products and places will make being a woman of color at Harvard easier.
I look in the mirror, and, to my embarrassment, the frazzled girl staring back starts to cry. Her face twists up into the sort of ugly that usually only occurs when she don’t give a fuck about what she looks like. Except right now, she cares. She really, really does.
If I’m not out in 15 minutes I’m going to miss the damn bus. I take a deep breath. I imagine that I’m nine years old again and that my white grandmother is pacing nervously outside the door. If my days are constricted by New England weather that steals moisture from the air and Cambridge prices that pilfer an absurd amount of money from my wallet, then it’s my job to deal with it.
“It’s easier for someone with more resources and more free time to put effort into making themselves adhere to beauty standards,” Ruva Chigwedere ’21 says.
Chigwedere is one of many black women at Harvard I’ve talked to who are eager to dissect the role class plays in the way we engage in self-care. Her tightly coiled, 4c hair was braided for most of the first semester. This semester, her braids are out, and she’s letting her hair breathe.
“There’s this whole idea of hair as expression, but who can afford to express themselves? [Who can afford] to fit into society, and, therefore find a higher place because they fit into white notions of beauty?” Chigwedere asks.
I subconsciously roll a limp strand of hair between my fingers. I’ve been thinking about something similar. All hair expresses something; we subconsciously imbue perceptions of socioeconomic status, political affiliation, and cleanliness onto each other based on physical appearance—hair included. Black hair is scrutinized with an enunciated ferocity. Individuals who embrace their natural kinks and enjoy hairstyles that emphasize texture open themselves to critical perceptions of wealth and their ability to fit comfortably in a corporate environment.
“I spend a lot of time thinking about the kind of images I present,” Madison A. “Maddie” Trice ’21 says. Trice is on a self-professed journey with her hair, trying different styles in order to get to understand it more intimately. “In pre-professional spaces I still feel this compulsion to wear my hair a certain way... if I’m going to an important meeting or trying to get funding for something, instead of wearing bantu knots, I would wear my hair up in a scarf.”
At Harvard, where students compete to be both hired and admired, this pressure is magnified. If you can physically imply wealth or institutional knowledge about which trends are popular, you might have an easier time navigating spaces comfortably at Harvard.
Trice’s next foray into hair expression is a brightly colored weave. She expresses little outward nervousness about the way her peers will perceive this choice. “India Arie has that song ‘I Am Not My Hair,’” she says. “I get to explore how I can simultaneously not be defined by it and also use it as a way of expressing who I am.”
Within this context, to say our hair is self-expression is not enough. With every twist, knot and braid we’re attempting something more powerful: self-definition. Styling can be an incredibly powerful tool when wielded correctly. That’s why it feels so important to get it right. This is also why the question of who can afford to express themselves is not unimportant.
“Hair can be a really important form of self love and exploration, which it has been for me. But it can also be a way of enacting a lot of larger struggles… how do I engage in those acts of exploration and excitement for trying new things while also making it so that other people can do the same?” Trice wonders.
5:30 p.m. I may be struggling to afford to get this right, but I also can’t afford to get this wrong. I step into the shower to the sound of Abbey Lincoln singing about the land from which her soul supposedly hails. I wash the leave-in conditioner from my sectioned hair and from my aching eyes. I detangle part by part with a wide-tooth comb and do some dreaming of my own. I remember a time when my hair would grow up instead of down; a time before I abandoned my pick for a comb and my hair oil for conditioners that promised to lengthen, loosen, and define my curls.
At 6:00 p.m. I step out of the shower, dry my hair with a t-shirt, and look into the mirror. The dream is over and my hair is under control again.
The frazzled girl in the mirror is gone. I have created someone in her place who is apparently more employable, tidier and cleaner. All at once, I wonder if somehow I am gone as well.