Staten Island, 1990-something: It’s after midnight, the house abuzz with preparations for the next day. My mother, fresh off her evening shift, is bustling about, getting a head start on tomorrow’s dinner, shouting at my brothers to iron this, hang that, pack your bookbags. She calls out to me—I’ve been dragging my feet—warning that she’s not about to do it again. I’m to report to the kitchen and bring the ottoman from the living room. There, she’ll step away from the stove long enough to do one or more of the following things to my hair: wash it, dry it, perm it, deep condition it, wrap it, curl it, braid it, twist it, press it, trim it. Whatever it is she’s about to do, I’m less than enthused. I just don’t care about my hair as much as my mother, a former salon owner, does, and I tell her as much. She sucks her teeth in response, muttering her usual retort, an idle threat: “I’m going to cut all your hair off, then. Short, like your brothers. Is that what you want?”
That one usually shut me up pretty quickly, as I didn’t know any other little girls rocking a buzz cut, and I wasn’t nearly bold enough to be the first. Still, I could never shake the sense that when it came to hair, I was just going through the motions. The potential to look cute was an alluring one, but laziness, genetics, and bad habits often won out. An extra hour of sleep always seemed a better prospect than an at-home salon session, and besides, my hair was prone to breakage, my hands prone to pulling at my hair. I begrudgingly let my mother fuss over my strands until I left for college, at which point she found a nice Haitian hairstylist close to campus who could resume her efforts. By the time I’d graduated and lived on my own for a few months, I knew I simply didn’t have the resources or the will to tend to my hair any longer. I returned home one winter for New Year’s and triumphantly asked my mom to cut it—short, like my brothers, I indicated, feeling smug.
I kept it that way for five carefree years. I wasn’t working toward any desired length or trying to disguise thin spots. There was practically no upkeep required and I relished the freedom. I simply swapped in one silk scarf for another, sometimes donning a cotton bucket hat. And then the boredom hit, suddenly, like a ton of bricks. Difficulties be damned, I wanted to achieve looks: waist-length 1B box braids, the way I could never convince my mom to do them. A sharp ‘90s bob that skims the chin. Afro puff pigtails. A mass of curls down my back, à la Diana Ross. A Minnie Riperton ‘fro, dotted with baby’s breath. Suddenly, it seemed silly to ignore the fact that my hair could do all of these things, convey these varied moods.
I’m still incredibly lazy when it comes to taking care of my hair. I’ve trained my fiancé in the art of conditioning, detangling, and twisting, so that while he does that, I can one or more of the following: relax, respond to emails, watch television, keep tabs on social media, prepare for the day ahead. I still pull at my strands, creating uneven patches and split ends. I still contemplate cutting it all off from time to time. One day, I just might. But earlier this summer, when I made plans to see Diana Ross perform in New Orleans, I decided to pay hair homage with an untamed, prodigiously fluffy ‘do. Then, when I realized that the forecast was far too humid for all that hair, I swapped that out for a set of extra-long braids—all this in the course of two weeks. For the first time in a while, I’m reveling in the boundless versatility my hair can offer.