The history of my hair and I may sound like a long-fought war to some. Picture me, as a young girl. There’s also a woman in the frame. She has been entrusted by my mother to render the task. I’m sitting in a chair. The woman is standing behind me. She has parted my hair in quarter-segments. Within those segments, she sections my hair further. She then picks up a metal hot comb which has been awaiting use in a heating device. The woman stoically runs the comb through my hair. The heat rises all too close to my scalp, my face, my ear, my neck. I try my best not to wince. To keep my movements to a minimum. This is, after all, a dangerous practice. The battle is won after hours in the trenches. My reward? Hair that is so straight I can easily comb my fingers through it. The spoils? A short window of time, in which I can experience what the other girls feel when they’re running in the playground; their hair tousled by the wind. Strands falling in their faces, obstructing their vision. These moments were nice. Or at least a younger version of myself thought so. The natural state of my hair would quickly return at the first hint of any moisture. It was good while it lasted.
Now, imagine me, only slightly older. It’s my aunt in charge this time. The beginning of the school year is imminent, and my hair must be presentable. Replace the hot comb with a chemical relaxer. My aunt carefully applies the cream throughout my hair, making sure to wipe away any that may have contacted my skin. Then she says to me, “Let me know when it starts to burn.” When the time comes, I let her know. My aunt thoroughly washes the product from my hair as I stand over the kitchen sink. The noxious smell of the relaxer, and the tingling sensation on my scalp heightens my anxiety. After all is said and done, my hair is under submission. Bone-straight, just like the sticker on the product’s packaging promised. The next day, I notice an area of irritation on my scalp, near the crown of my head. I don’t tell anyone. Battle wounds are par for the course. A week later, curly new growth is evident along the edges of my hairline. In one month, we will have to repeat the process.
In recent years, my hair and I have come to an understanding. Of course, I was the one to wave the white flag. No matter how hard I fight it, my hair is what it is; a tightly coiled afro. My natural hair has nothing to prove. It knows its beauty. And I love it. The war is over. We have found peace, and I’m so grateful for it.
I was browsing around at my local bookstore, when I noticed they had a copy of That Hair, by Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida, in stock. I had read a few positive reviews, and I was really excited to read this selection. Pereira de Almeida’s background was of keen interest to me. She is biracial; the product of an Angolan mother and a Portuguese father, and was raised by her paternal grandparents. I wanted to understand her take on racism, especially as it relates to her hair. Unfortunately, this book didn’t quite live up to my expectations.
That Hair is described as a fictionalized, semi-autobiographical, “philosophy of hair.” But it reads more as a collection of essays about family, origins, and race. The flow that one would expect from a conventional novel, doesn’t exist here. Information is often relayed in a disjointed stream of consciousness. Pereira de Almeida’s descriptions of her family and their dynamics are very contained. It doesn’t necessarily feel as though she is intentionally withholding information. Perhaps, in keeping with the theme of the book, she felt too many details concerning her day-to-day family life would be superfluous. One scene recounts a moment between Mila (the main character/ fictionalized version of the author) and her mother. Mila’s mother has traveled from Angola where she lives, to visit Mila in Portugal. Mila takes her on a walking tour of the Portuguese neighborhood, she has come to know so well. This scene is both endearing and heartbreaking. It’s a wonderful mother-daughter moment. But it also leaves the reader with questions. Why doesn’t Mila live with her mother? How has her mother’s absence affected Mila emotionally? Surely, this arrangement has had an impact on Mila’s ability to understand and appreciate her hair, and more broadly, her overall beauty. Pereira de Almeida never really addresses this situation head-on. And for me, it felt like a missed opportunity.
A particularly touching moment in the book is when Mila recognizes herself in a well-known photo. The image was taken by photographer, Will Counts, in 1957. In the foreground of the photo, Elizabeth Eckford walks, with an expressionless grace; books in hand. She is entering Central High School in Arkansas, as one of the Little Rock Nine, a trailblazing group of black students who integrated the once all-white institution. A mob follows Elizabeth in the background. Their anger and hatred is palpable. Mila is drawn in by Elizabeth, and specifically, by her hair. She attempts to embody Elizabeth at the exact moment in time when the photo was captured. To feel what she must have felt. The focused forward stare. The calm outer expression which disguises her internal fear. The summoning of everything she can muster, just to survive “the daily struggle to achieve indifference.” Pereira de Almeida’s use of imagery is powerfully on display here. The writing is supremely poignant, and left a deep impression on me. I wish that this novel had more moments like this.
Perhaps, my expectations were too high. Maybe, something was lost in translation from Portuguese to English. It’s obvious to me that Pereira de Almeida has a unique voice. And at times, I found the writing to be truly stunning (even in the abundance of run-on sentences). In the end, however, I had hoped to connect more with the overall story. And it’s disappointing to report that I never really did. Pereira de Almeida seems to feel at home in the abstract. I, as a reader, was desperately craving something more concrete and visceral.