You never forget that first pang of rejection. It’s a feeling akin to taking a medicine ball to the chest, a slap of rubbing alcohol on a freshly cut neckline. You know the vibes. And if you’d regularly rode the yellow bus to my elementary school back in ’92, you would’ve had a front-row seat for my earliest humbling.
Her name was Cassie. Like me, she made a daily commute from a not-so-great school district in Queens, New York, to one with enough textbooks for every student. Our ride was 45 minutes each way — just enough time for some deep dialogues about cartoons or crayons or whatever the hell second graders talk about. One morning, another passenger popped over an adjacent green seat and teased about whether we “liked” each other. Sure, seven-year-old me was crushing hard, but Cassie set the record straight.
“I mean, you’re kind of cute,” she said, as nonchalantly as if I were on an entirely different bus. Then, her top lip recoiled — a facial expression Kerry Washington brings to every one of her roles — before she finished her assessment with emphasis. “But only when your hair is cut.” Which was to say, it wasn’t my day: Curly naps had taken over my head and my hairline was channeling Mickey Mouse. She went right back to coloring; I spent the following 25 years obsessing over shape-ups.
What I hadn’t anticipated, though, is how seeing those curls and coils sprout fed a sense of identity — especially while working at a fancy startup where diversity was an ideal, but not entirely a reality. My hair asserted who I was at the time: A Black man living in America when police brutality was rampant and we were mere months away from swearing in a bigoted president.
It’s peculiar to remember such a seemingly inconsequential occurrence, but that memory might explain why hair has been a focal point throughout much of my life. Of course, the nationwide closing of barbershops due to Covid-19 has proven that Black men are sensitive about their shit. But I’ve always felt particularly fixated on my follicles, that is, the sturdiness of my hairline and sporting waves deeper than the Pacific.
As a child, I wore everything from a fade to a low flat top (yes, with a rattail). I settled into caesars of different gradients in junior high — around the same time I began collecting Nike sweatbands in various colorways to conceal my hairline while coordinating with every article of clothing I owned. By high school, I would vigorously brush my hair in a constant quest to produce and maintain 360 waves, hiding under New Era fitted caps and two-tone durags during wolfing season. The strands on my scalp remained a point of pride, and insecurity, well into adulthood. But in my early thirties, I let go and let grow — and in the process, learned to love myself in a new way.
The whole thing wasn’t so much a conscious decision as something that just sort of happened. By the fall of 2016, I’d rocked the same ’cut for so long that haircuts had become a mundane routine. My dating life was in park with the emergency brake pulled. It was time for a change.
So when it was time to schedule my biweekly haircut, I just… didn’t. Two weeks turned into four, then six. And while I didn’t turn my back on grooming totally — I’d still hit the bathroom mirror for a light DIY shapeup — it felt liberating to stop giving a fuck and let my hair do what it does naturally, Cassie be damned.
What I hadn’t anticipated, though, is how seeing those curls and coils sprout fed a sense of identity — especially while working at a fancy startup where diversity was an ideal, but not entirely a reality. My hair asserted who I was at the time: A Black man living in America when Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were just the latest in a long string of men and women to die at the hands of a racist society; when we were mere months away from swearing in a bigoted president. The phrase “unapologetically Black” had become an oft-cited way of life; my emerging ’fro was its wooly personification.
When I finally checked in with my barber, Twitch, he suggested fading the sides of my head and growing a high-top fade with curls atop. From there, the top grew and grew and grew, until the beginning of 2018, when it was finally long enough to achieve the bucket list hair goal I never had the patience (or confidence) to pull off as a teen: cornrows. That look has its own associated stigmas — just ask Allen Iverson — but what’s certain is it’s emphatically Black, which outweighs any mild discomfort I may occasionally feel when stepping into a melanin-deficient space.
Watching my hair grow over these past three years — it’s longer than a foot now, stretched from the crown of my head — has been like observing the rings on a tree trunk; the journey still impresses me. Along the way, I’ve learned about the struggles of maintaining long Black hair: washing, conditioning, and detangling (ugh). Navigating a beauty supply store. The almighty power of a curl sponge and Afro pick. I’ve become an essential oil mixologist. It’s been a form of getting in touch with my ethnicity in a way I hadn’t previously. I’m awestruck by my sister and nieces’ natural ’dos, and imagine if I have kids one day, God willing, that their hair will likely have a similarly thick texture. Maybe getting to know my hair better has brought me one step closer to becoming one of those girl dads who’s not completely clueless in how to safely wield a wide-toothed comb and scrunchie together a presentable ponytail.
All that said, keeping my own shit tidy is a fucking chore, made no less troublesome since essential businesses like barbershops have been deemed nonessential by the government. Even before the pandemic, I engaged in monthly deliberations whether to make my life a bit easier by undergoing the big chop. At this point, I’ve gone two months without my regular taper and braids, a fact my family members make sure I don’t forget — on a recent Zoom reunion, my unkempt mane was compared to sea coral, a broccoli top, and a bird’s nest.
Next time I see Twitch, I might damn near hug him, or more likely go for an enthusiastic elbow bump. But I probably won’t have him take my hair down to a low cut. Aside from the endless options of creative styles that longer hair affords, from A$AP Rocky-esque plaits to elaborate cornrow designs to Killmonger-inspired twists or locs, my grown-out pelt feels like an extension of my identity that I’ve come to love. Embracing my edges, ends, roots, and everything in between — no matter the length or shape — has been far more powerful than being pwned on a school bus. Long hair don’t care, indeed.