Love, Peace, and Hair Grease
by Merricka Livingstone
“Ricka! Come mek mi wash yuh hair!”
Every other weekend this hair-washing ritual would take place. I would grab the huge bottles of shampoo and conditioner, my towel and the stool, and head to the sink. I tried not to hyperventilate as the sink swallowed my head.
“ Mi soon done,” my mom would say in her Jamaican patois as she shampooed, rinsed, and repeated. Then I would sit down as every hair strand was stretched, greased, and twisted into chiney bumps. This would take a good three hours.
I didn't think anything of my kinky hair until I moved to Florida. There, in elementary school, bobbing blondes and brunettes on the playground surrounded me. Whenever I would get my hair chiney-bumped, my classmates would say, “Can I touch it? It's so cool! Can you try it on me?” (Of course they weren't aware that the style doesn't hold.) I didn't pay any attention to the ignorant white kids at my school who knew nothing about black hair; I just looked at them and laughed any time they made comments. I didn't start caring until sixth grade when I started to become more self-conscious about my image. I hated having to sit in front of my mother while she pulled my hair out of its follicles; I wanted to look like the white girls who never had to tie their hair down at night and still had silky hair. They never had to put grease in their hair. I strongly disliked the fact that my face ended up getting oily by the end of the day as a result. With my mother, I dropped hints every chance I got.
“Hey, Mom, you know that Tamara got a perm the other day. Kristen did, too. It looks so nice on them. I wonder what I would look like.”
“Wah yuh waan dat fah? You look just fine,” she would reply. She was a tough one. The perfect time to get her was when she was struggling with my thick hair.
“Whew! You have some thick hair, girl! Ah weh yuh getti from?”
“I don't know. Maybe to ease the strain on your wrists, you should let me get a perm. Then you wouldn't have to comb my hair so much and be tired from all the detangling and stuff.”
After some careful planning and negotiating, it was time for the perm. Yes! Bye-bye kinks, adios nappiness.
I remember the first visit to the beauty parlor very vividly. “Take a seat here, honey,” said a voluptuous lady as she guided me to the washing sinks. She reminded me of Big Momma in the movie Big Momma's House. Vendors would come through the shop yelling, "CDs! DVDs! I got whatcha need!" I loved the community atmosphere and everyone was so welcoming.
The first perm was the toughest. The hairdresser had to use two tubs of the sodium hydroxide cream on my hair. The white creamy base felt cool as she worked it through my hair. My scalp tingled as I waited until the perm was washed out. After I was shampooed, conditioned, and styled, I looked in the mirror at the finished product. There I was, a new me with silky dark brown locks. Success.
The big difference between where I lived and the beauty shop was not only the location, but also the people. I lived in the suburbs, so at home I was surrounded by snowbirds and retirees. There wasn't much variety in age or skin color. But trips to the beauty shop were like a mini-series on “how-to-be-black.”
From then on, trips to the beauty parlor would change my life. Again, the hair ritual would take place every other week, but this time I was going to another part of town. Traveling to the beauty parlor, I crisscrossed my legs in the front seat of the car as the scenery of trees blended into buildings and restaurants. The big difference between where I lived and the beauty shop was not only the location, but also the people. I lived in the suburbs, so at home I was surrounded by snowbirds and retirees. There wasn't much variety in age or skin color. But trips to the beauty shop were like a mini-series on “how-to-be-black.” Sound waves slapped me in the face as everyone greeted me. (They could tell I was new.)
The barber, Mr. Josh, who also taught at a local high school, would always ask me how school was going.
“You got straight A's again!? Oh, wow that's great, sweetie. I bet you're gonna be valedictorian when you graduate if you keep that up!”
Meanwhile inquiring women waiting in the shop would be astonished at the length and color of my hair.
“Yuh hair is so pretty! Yuh coolie?” 1
“No,” I would reply, confused by the terminology. (Later on I would find out that I actually was part East Indian.)
Everyone perked up and listened as she gave the latest 411. Her gold hoop earrings would dance and swing in time with her jerking neck and gesticulating toffee-colored hands.
As the stylist would work the relaxer through my hair, tales of gossip would trickle through my imagination. I would hear about who slept with whom in the television soap opera “ The Days of Our Lives” and about how good the latest Tyler Perry movie was. One customer in the shop, Ms. Michelle, was definitely an attention grabber. She was a good friend of the shop owner, so she was always in the beauty shop. Everyone perked up and listened as she gave the latest 411. Her gold hoop earrings would dance and swing in time with her jerking neck and gesticulating toffee-colored hands.
“Oh, yes, child! And my reliable sources tell me that he got two baby mommas and both of them don't even know it! What a shame! These youngins today, lord.” I would come to the shop every other Saturday and listen to Ms. Michelle rant and rave about who fought whom and who was going to jail.
I was amazed every time; I'd even ask my mom if she'd heard the latest gossip.
“Who told you that?” she'd say, shocked that I would repeat such information.
“Ms. Michelle said it today at the beauty shop. And she said how he—"
“Baby, any and everything that lady says is one big exaggerated story. It's not true. You need to be careful of what you believe.”
And there was my first lesson—mind my own business. Not everything said should be heeded and repeated. That realization made me shut my mouth quickly. But I still listened to the latest drama in “the Bay”2 and wondered how Ms. Michelle knew so much about other people's lives. Often I wondered about her life and how many “baby daddies” she had.
After my brain was filled to capacity with juicy gossip, courtesy of Ms. Michelle, I decided to ask some questions of the person who knows all things, my mom.
“Mommy, how come Ms. Michelle knows so much about other people? She's always talking.”
Mom emphasized that the reason for gossip is because people are insecure about themselves or want what you have. You just need to focus on yourself to progress.
Bam. Important lesson number two: people are always going to talk. Most of the time they're not going to be complimenting you and praising your accomplishments, either. Mom emphasized that the reason for gossip is because people are insecure about themselves or want what you have. You just need to focus on yourself to progress. But I wouldn't understand the true meaning of that until late in high school.
I was having a great junior year until one of my best friends had a blowout. I was caught in a tangled web of stories and lies. I didn't know whom to believe because I was hearing different stories from different people. When I gave up trying to pick a side to believe, I just let things go. I didn't care about anything or anyone. That's when the rumors started. My ex-friend started saying horrible things about me, and her words poisoned everyone. (My school was small, so word traveled fast.) Her words infiltrated my thoughts and crippled my self-esteem. I was baffled that someone so close to me could turn on me like that. Every day I would look more and more depressed. My mom eventually picked up on my dilemma with her motherly instincts on our way home from soccer practice.
“What's wrong sweetie? Sum'n ah trouble yuh?”
I tried so hard to avoid the question. While I wanted to tell her, I also didn't want to be vulnerable. But the pressure was getting too much to bear, so I broke down and gave in. In between sobs and sniffling, I told my mom the story. “Some people who I thought were my friends really hurt me. How can people be so heartless? I just don't understand. All I ever did was be a good friend and be there for them. Why me?”
“Baby, you have to realize that people are always going to talk. Some people too chatty chatty. Good or bad, they're always going to have something to say about you. The thing is you have to pick and choose what you answer to. They're never going to tell you what they really think to your face. I know it's hard, baby, but you have to just ignore them and continue with what you're doing. Nuh badda wit di mix up and blenda. You have too much going for you to be brought down by this. At least now you know how they really are.”
That was one of the best lessons that I've ever learned. That year I ended up passing all my AP exams and keeping my 4.0 GPA despite the emotional turmoil. I picked my own battles and won.
I've learned countless lessons from my mother and heard numerous juicy stories in the beauty shop. Really and truly, I think that every time I went there, I got my dose of common sense. It's one thing to be smart. But it's another when you don't have any common sense dealing with people. There's just no hope for you. That's something you have to learn by doing. I'm glad that I had the experiences that I did at the beauty shop. With every trim, the old me faded. With new hair growth came a fresh perm, and a stronger and matured me.Endnotes
1. The traditional Jamaican epithet for East Indians.
2. Nickname for the town in which I lived, Palm Bay.