at pathmark, you would sneak bottles of pantene pro v shampoo and conditioner into your momma’s shopping cart and each time, at the register, your momma would notice and tell the cashier you can take that one off, and each time you would scream, I wanna have hair like those women in the commercials! and each time she would just stare at you.
later your 4th grade teacher brought your momma in for a talk, not about your grades or your behavior, but your hair; your hair bothered her – one ponytail obeying gravity; the other, sticking skyward. her name was ms. alifoofoo and you stared at her jheri curl which were more poppin than your uncle’s while she said, your daughter needs to look decent for school. maybe you should get her a perm. you don’t remember what your momma said back but it happened on a thursday and by that following monday, you were starting your first day at a new school.
you learned religion at this new school and how to pray five times a day and you figured that you were now five times more likely to get the lighter skin, the long straight hair, and the brown eyes with flecks of green that you’d been asking for, and each morning you woke up, disappointed.
one day, your momma came home with two boxes of “just like me” and you and your sister held your noses while your momma spread the rotten egg white cream on both of y’alls hair, shampooed, then conditioned. after she blow dried, you couldn’t wait for your hair to cascade in layers, you couldn’t wait to flip your hair over your shoulders like the girls you read about in books. yes, your hair was softer. yes, your hair was a little straighter. but, your hair didn’t look just like that girl on the box so you cried. your sister’s hair fell out.
your momma took you to a salon and a professional added the extra step, the beveler, hair pulled and pressed between the heat of two ceramic plates. now, you could flip your shoulder-length hair as you pleased. now, you could almost be in a commercial. this became your habit for the next fifteen years.
you grew up.
your hair never grew past your shoulders but you found new ways to be grateful. your classmate in college told you your last name was german, making you pleased your family’s slave owners were at least german, pleased because it sounded better to certain ears than johnson or williams. your surprised coworker met you for the first time and told you, you sounded white on the phone and you used that info and that voice to book a reservation at that restaurant you had been afraid to call before. you shy away from the ghetto, avoid the eyes of saggers, you get degree after degree trying to be equal. some days, you try to convince yourself to come out of hiding, that you’ll beat anyone down who dare thinks they have something to say, in fact, there’s a proud photo of you in the first incarnation of the “black girls rock” t-shirt with your hand around your guyanese neighbor and that photo gets more likes on instagram than any subsequent photo. some days, you’re like, hell yeah, bitches, my black is beautiful. most days though, you pull out a scarf and cover your hair.
Sakinah Hofler is a PhD student and a Yates Fellow at the University of Cincinnati. In 2017, she won the Manchester Fiction Prize; previously she had been shortlisted for the Manchester Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Eunoia Review, and Counterexample Poetics. A former chemical and quality engineer, she now spends her time teaching and writing fiction, screenplays, and poetry.