Vicky works her fingers quickly through my hair as I sit in the chair in her small storefront shop. She knows this is only the second time I have ever changed my hair from the straightened strands I’ve known all of my life. Iâ€™m about to leave for 11 weeks of study and work in South Africa.
â€œYou know how to take care of it right?â€ she asks. I certainly hope I can style it myself. There are about 8500 miles standing between me and an emergency hair appointment. â€œUh, I think so,â€ I answer uncertainly as my voice reaches high pitch on â€˜so.â€™ Not wanting to reveal my ignorance and fear as my departure date draws closer to the first time I would cross the Atlantic, I stare at my tresses as she twists it into lots of perfectly sculpted Senegalese twists.
This is only the second time Iâ€™ve spoken to her. We had â€œtriedâ€ this hairstyle in December for a practice run in case I might be stuck in another country unable to manage my hair.
The relationship between hairdresser and client is a sacred one almost like doctor and patient, orÂ accountant and confused citizen at tax time. You disclose personal information related to hygiene and appearance.
As Vicky advises me on which products to purchase specially for natural braids and mentions drying techniques, I take in every word as if in a church sermon. She senses my concerns about making sure my hair is healthy. She answers my question before it’s asked: â€œAs long as you care for it and give it an adequate amount of time, you donâ€™t need to worry about breakage.â€
Listening to her reminds me of the hours of film Chris Rock garnered sitting in salons across America, trying to understand the relationship between Black American women, their hairdressers and the estimatedÂ $9 billion industry the relationship stokes. Our scene is not unlike the clips spread through the documentary. Yet, the superficiality of â€œwanting to look prettyâ€ highlighted in the documentary was not the basis for Vicky’s and my relationship.
Even though I share my insecurities about my hair, I stop short of telling her about my apprehension about the trip, specifically how I would get along with Africans I’d encounter.
Time and again Iâ€™d read articles that told me Black American women and African immigrant women in the U.S. were different. â€œThey [African women] donâ€™t consider us [Black American women] Black.â€ American publications had etched this into my mind like a tape recorder on autoplay during psychoanalysis. Â I’m prepared to be looked at as an invader, a want-to-be, an imposter, not really African even though my skin looks like theirs. That is until Vicky schools me.
â€œHave you ever been there before?â€ she asks. â€œNo, itâ€™s my first time,â€ I answer. â€œThey will see it as though you have returned home,â€ she says. This mollifies my fears of rejection.
She continues to tell me of the welcome I should expect to receive, of the other women who will want to know who did my hair and offer to style it for me, of how mamas will try to feed me and the emotional roller coaster I will experience taking it all in.
â€œEleven weeks is a good time. You will experience a lot. Oh, and negotiate in the markets,â€ she says, her voice exuding a familiar wisdom I’d heard from important women in my life over the years. My eyes dart at every movement of her face, fast-forwarding to when Iâ€™d pay her for her services and begin my journey alone, wishing I could pack her next to my head scarf.Â â€œJust be open to the new things youâ€™ll see and the people too,â€ she adds as we part ways.
As it turned out, I didnâ€™t need her to join me; her parting words were enough. My adventure in South Africa was one of the most dynamic I have ever known. I am still flabbergasted by how blessed I was to have met three college-age women who welcomed me with open arms. I am proud to have stood before the matriarch of my homestay family humbled by her words, â€œYou learn well and have been raised well.â€ I am in awe of the connection I felt to women with whom I had brief encounters, wanting me to â€œtake this back to your mother; show her what it is like here.â€ I shared stories of my Christian upbringing, my privilege to attend university, the loyalty I value in my friends, and the support of my family. I heard parallel stories from my South African friends.
Vickyâ€™s advice changed the course of my experience in South Africa.Â Her advice to be open and expect to be welcomed changed how I approached my experience. I took off my defensive shield and threw away stereotypes that African women would view me as different. I purchased souvenirs for really good prices at the markets too. Thanks to her, I was prepared to develop bonds with mothers who would be happy to have me as part of their families. Vicky opened my mind, helped me consider alternatives to stereotypes and set positive emotional expectations.
I havenâ€™t seen or talked to Vicky since my return to the States, although I glance at her number saved fondly in my contacts. Her voice rang in my ears frequently during my stay, but her season in my life has passed. I like my relaxed red streaked shoulder length hair, but her advice equipped me to sprout buds of life in a new season.
Someone should tell Chris Rock to add â€œlife alteringâ€ to the roles Black hair can play. It is very serious business.