They said they wanted me to perform because they were impressed with a previous performance. The poem they had already heard was not a neat version of Black reality, so I certainly never expected to be asked to produce such. It’s almost like they didn’t want me but some token representation to prove how “down” their corporation was. In order to truly be down with them, I had to find a way to button myself up, to serve “respectable Negro” when I felt anything but.
The journey begins with cool water and the laying on of hands. Once you’ve gotten your fingers adjusted to the temperature of the flow, let the water cascade over each of your locs from roots to tips. When your hair feels heavy with the weight of the water, massage in your tea tree and olive oil shampoo. Using the balls of each finger, massage your scalp gently, working up a lather between and around each loc. Clasping your hands together, rub them along a half dozen of your tresses at a time, pulling that lather from your roots to the end of your natural hair. Repeat as many times as necessary to work that cleansing foam into every follicle.
I don’t know how they knew I would be cool and not come out of a bag on them, but I can’t pay my rent and car note with principles. Most of what they require is interest anyway. So, I fold myself into the boxes that are built for me, forsake what I feel for what they will allow. And, for God’s sake, I keep the n-word out of my mouth. I pretend like I can rely on them to do the same.
When you are ready, return your hands to the water, testing the temperature to make sure it is cool to the touch. Rinse your hands first, then your hair, carefully parting the locs so the water reaches your scalp, then gathering bunches of them between your fingers to hold beneath the spray. Wave them back and forth under the stream until the water runs clear. Grab a few locs at a time in your fists and squeeze, twisting them together to make sure both shampoo and residue are completely removed. Repeat as many times as necessary. When the tea tree oil of your shampoo starts singing on your scalp, turn off the water and reach for your towel. Now that your hair has been baptized, it must be shaped into the image of God.
I’ve been code switching for years, mastering vernacular foreign to the tongues of my ancestors just to survive these sundown towns and see another sunrise. I am fluent in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and I even tap dance as long as there are enough zeroes behind the comma. My performance is where step meets fetch’it with no protestors to tell me how I’m setting the race back or embarrassing my people. No matter that I feel it, the check clears my conscience.
This is the part you can’t rush. You have to grasp, to hold, to twist, to secure each loc one by one. Those same fingertips that massaged your scalp must now gather. Each loose stand surrounding your already existing locs must be pulled into formation. Gather the hair to the loc it must join neatly, leaving no strand untouched. Then gently twist until the locs and the strays are intertwined. A little bit of beeswax will help hold the hair in place as you place the palms on either side and roll the loc counterclockwise. Once. Twice. Three times for good measure. Then a hair clip so your hard work isn’t undone by gravity.
I don’t underestimate the gravity of the situation. I know that if I am not what they require, no one else who looks like me may ever be given another chance. I must prove to them that we are capable, that we are respectable, that we are malleable. I must not be angry, even if I am. I dare not challenge them, even if that’s what they need. I must leave the door cracked just enough for the next Negro to slip in.
When you’ve rolled and clipped them all, you must add head to the pressure you’ve applied. At least an hour under a hooded dryer will solidify your twists. Remove the clips. Spray olive oil for shine.
Rock that mic.
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