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Lyzette Wanzer: Twisted

August 25, 2014

What if her braids / dreads / curls could talk?

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Image from Flickr via scottblog

By Lyzette Wanzer

It was just my third day on the job; I was still learning to use the fax machine. A coworker who’d been on PTO my first two days appeared in my office, introduced himself via nutcracking handshake. He made small talk, then business-speak, back to small talk. Only so much to be said about the weather, the traffic, and the mayor. A column of silence rose between us. His gaze alighted on my head. “How did you get your hair like that?” He reached across my desk and ran his fingers through my hair.

I gripped his arm mid-arc, squeezed it just hard enough to signal my spirit, and flung it away. “If you want to touch my hair, you ask first. And when you do ask, I’ll say no.”

Shock and puzzlement leaped through his features. He flushed several shades of red, pivoted, exited.

***

1980s: Braids and dreadlocks are prohibited in the workplace.

Atlanta Urban League, Chicago Regency Hyatt, downtown D.C. Marriott Hotel, Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. In the U.S. Army, African Americans could not wear braids until 2002. And dreadlocks? Still not allowed.

***

Everything I know about American history I learned from looking at Black people’s hair. It’s the perfect metaphor for the African experiment: the toll of slavery and the costs of remaining. It’s all in the hair.

Lisa Jones, 1994, Bulletproof Diva

***

“Do you wash those?”

She, a fellow straphanger, blonde, on the uptown Lexington Avenue express.

“Wash what?”

“Your braids.”

“These aren’t braids.”

“Yeah, they are.”

“No they’re not.”

“What do you call them?”

In a short time all your kinky, snarly, ugly, curly hair becomes soft, silky, smooth, straight, long and easily handled, brushed, or combed.

“Dreads.”

“Dreads?”

“As in dreadlocks.”

“Do you wash them?”

“Of course I wash them.”

“I didn’t know you were Rasta.”

“I didn’t, either.”

***

I can’t remember her name; I can’t remember the year. I recall she was in Boston, and I know it was the 1990s. She tended the front desk of a tony hotel, the kind of place with pearly shampoo bottles in the bath, sumptuous, pressed robes on the door hook, pillowed gold-foil Godiva squares. She wore ornate braids; had been for a few weeks. Guests traced her glimmering plaits with their eyes; they complimented her. Management did not. Management was alarmed. Management, in fact, demanded that she remove the braids, return to her perm, a style befitting a post at the lacquered mahogany station.

***

Race men and women may easily have straight, soft, long hair by simply applying Plough’s Hair Dressing…in a short time all your kinky, snarly, ugly, curly hair becomes soft, silky, smooth, straight, long and easily handled, brushed, or combed.

Ad in The New York Age, 1919

***

The United States Air Force has a regulation, AFI36-2903 DRESS AND PERSONAL APPEARANCE OF AIR FORCE PERSONNEL, which in part, discriminates against African-American women serving in the Air Force. The code was recently updated to include a ban on…“dreadlocks.” Female personnel with neat, clean, professional well-kept hair are being forced to choose between cutting their hair and treating it with chemicals to conform with this regulation…The regulation itself does not define “dreadlocks.” This leaves women with hair that is in no means a distraction or a detriment to their duties, subject to disciplinary action.

Treasured Locks, website

***

My stylist, the soothsayer. Sugarcoater, not. She pulled no punches, warned me outright about the beginner phase, the in-between phase, the neither-here-nor-there-yet phase. The need for patience. She ushered me in one January, and we began. While we began, she shared stories about schisms amongst stylists who wear natural hair and those wearing weaves and perms. Within the natural collective, additional rifts cracked along client lines: if you serviced natural clients, but wore a straightened style yourself, you were a preachy poser whose hands were out of synch.

So called from the dread they presumably aroused in beholders…also has a sense of “fear of the Lord.”

***

Ms. Boston was fired. She left her braids in. Dismissal followed. She sued under Title VII. I can’t remember her name, and she wouldn’t know mine, but the night her story aired, I began growing out my relaxer. I chose Senegalese casamance braids, standing in solidarity with her, sister to sister, shoulder to shoulder, across the frequencies, yoking the miles.

***

from dread + locks. The style supposedly based on that of East African warriors. So called from the dread they presumably aroused in beholders…also has a sense of “fear of the Lord.”

Online Etymology Dictionary

***

My stylist smiled. I couldn’t quite cannonball, so I stuck a toe in: braids out, spartan crop of Nubian twists in. Strangers, all races, on streets and in trains, in cafes and on elevators, commented.

“I see you’re just getting started.”

“That’ll take forever. Did you know you can get instant ones?”

There were many paths to dreadlocks, including the immediacy of instant techniques. I wanted not just the style, but the journey. The quest. Short-cut methods would excuse and exclude any trial attending the passage. I needed the complete compass.

***

United States District Court, S. D. New York.
Renee ROGERS, et al., Plaintiff,
v.
AMERICAN AIRLINES, INC., R. L. Crandall, President of American Airlines, and Robert
Zurlo, in his capacity as Manager, Defendants.

***

Blacks selling [merchandise or services] to whites should not wear Afro hair styles.

John T. Molloy, 1988, New Dress for Success

***

Rastafarians or others with dreadlocks made eye contact with me, nodded, smiled, sometimes spoke, in book stores, post offices, theaters, street corners, shops, trains, festivals, restaurants, libraries, galleries, parks, airports, clubs, and at Kinko’s. I hadn’t noticed them before, nor, as far as I could tell, had they ever noticed me. Assumptions spurred their spontaneity. My political, philosophical, spiritual stance? They never asked.

***

“Plaintiff is a black woman who seeks…damages, injunctive, and declaratory relief against enforcement of an American Airlines grooming policy…that prohibits employees…from wearing an all-natural hairstyle.”

***

For weeks, my coworker distanced himself from me, until the day we boarded the same crowded elevator. Our eyes met across the grid of heads and hats and helmets. Neither of us blinked. He gave a small nod, small smile, touched the brim of his Derby. I nodded back sans smile. When we alighted we walked single file, in silence. As we passed the vending machine, he spoke.

“Nice day today.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Supposed to rain tomorrow.”

“Is it?”

“What do you make of Giuliani’s plan for Times Square? I think it sucks.”

“I agree.”

“It’ll turn the place into a Six Flags for tourists.”

“I hope not.”

“Worse than the Vegas strip.”

“I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

“Well, here we are. Another day, another dollar.” He dashed ahead to open the door for me.

“Thank you.”

“You bet. Isn’t today the building’s ice cream social?”

“Think so.”

“You going?” He spoke to my back as I headed for my office.

“Maybe. Depends how much work I get done.”

“I’m going.”

I slid the key into my door lock.

“Might be a good way for you to meet other tenants in the building.”

“That’s a thought.” I turned the knob.

“Well, have a good one.”

“You, too.” I shut my door.

***

It takes care and attention and time to handle natural hair. Something we have lost from our African culture are the rituals of health and beauty and taking time to anoint our-selves. And the first way we lost it was in our hair.

Harrette Cole, in Hair Story

Lyzette Wanzer is a San Francisco fiction writer and essayist. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. A flash fiction connoisseur and essay aficionado, her work has appeared in Callaloo, Tampa Review, The MacGuffin, Ampersand Review, Journal of Advanced Development, Journal of Experimental Fiction, Pleiades, Flashquake, Glossalia Flash Fiction, Potomac Review, International Journal on Literature and Theory, Fringe Magazine, Aesthetica Magazine, and others. She is a contributor to The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays (Wyatt-MacKenzie, 2012) and 642 Tiny Things to Write About (Chronicle Books, 2015). With the support of the grants, Lyzette is currently at work on an essay collection entitled Gelatin Prints.

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