Harlem Hair

Harlem Hair

by Mmeso Onuoha

I got my hair done in Harlem yesterday.

I rode the subway with my teaching assistant, a native New Yorker whose family came from the Garifuna people in Guatemala. Two days before, I asked her where I should go to find a braider. She said to go to Harlem, 125th street.

Daisy, my TA, coached me in the art of negotiating prices with hair braiders on the subway. In a high pitched voice with a loose Bronx accent she said, “once you turn onto 125th street and you walk down, you’ll see em. A line of African hair salons and Wigs and Beauty’s. Walk in, tell them that you want to make a hair appointment, and if they don’t take the price you want then leave. There’ll be another shop just like theirs next door.”

She was worried for me. She knew that as soon as I spoke to any hair braider my voice would tell them that I was a tourist and therefore, exploitable. But I knew it would be alright. While she worried that I’d be ripped off, I feared I’d fall asleep and miss my stop. My eyes closed once and then once again, dimming the screeching sounds of the subway’s turns and pulling me into a silence that was much sweeter. “It’ll be fine.” I told her, already asleep.

Harlem was much different from Manhattan. It wasn’t just because there were way more Black people. It was because the air carried an aggressive … New Yorkness. Drivers zoomed down roads that were too close to the sidewalks. Men stared and made their comments and noises. Black elderly stood at the entrances of shops and stared intensely at nothing. Pedestrians walked down the street in a hurry only New Yorkers have. Some were mothers pulling rowdy children together. Others, locals doing their routine shopping. A few, hipsters that nobody liked, and many more.

After buying mangoes from a street vendor and giving money to an aggressive houseless man, I continued down 125th. Soon, I saw an African Braiding Salon. Two women sat in front of it wearing bright print wrappers with their hair covered. One saw me approach and got up eagerly, she looked as though she’d come across the crosswalk and grab me if she could. She beckoned to me, her arm extended and her fingers grasping.

“Are you looking to get your braided?” She asked me before I even finished crossing the street.

I smiled and said yes, allowing myself to be guided towards the shop.

“What do you want done my dear?” She asked.

“Large knotless braids.” I answered, showing a picture for reference. “I only have $80.”

She nodded her head and gestured for me to follow her up some stairs.
When we got to the shop, she was about to turn the knob of the door and let me in before she turned and said “Why not make it $100?”

I shook my head no.

She didn’t press me further. In an urgent tone she said, “Don’t talk prices with any of these women.”

I chuckled because I knew the bartering wouldn’t end there. The hair braider would tell by how tightly my hair coiled, how strong she’d have to grip and how much money she’d want for the cost of combing it. Above all that, she’d hate me because I’m occasionally tender headed.

The salon was very much like those in Nigeria. Images of women with intricate braid styles were posted on the wall at every which angle. Salon chairs were arranged haphazardly throughout the shop. Womens’ heads were bent as braiders leaned over them, pressing synthetic hair into cornrows, braids, and twists.The colors of shop, from those of the womens’ hair to the pale, orange tile of the floor, to the fabric of the womens’ wrappas fought with each other for attention. The name of the shop was printed on the wall in a fading blue font African Braiding Salon.

My braider had deep, glowing skin and she didn’t seem like the talking type. I showed her the style I wanted on my phone and she nodded her head once she understood the assignment. I picked the hair color I wanted and told her to stick to a wide tooth comb because I didn’t trust anyone not to pull my hair out with a fine one.

Then the braiding began. My body was tense with the anticipation of pain. My mind was tense with the anticipation of the words I always hear when I get my hair done. Words like “too thick” “very tough” “tangled” and “Do you want a relaxer?”

Maybe this particular hairdresser was kinder than most, or maybe I did as thorough a job blow drying as I thought I did, because there was no pain when she started doing my hair. She sectioned and there was the sensation of cold gel on my scalp. She combed, gently, as she held the base pieces of my hair and there was the feeling of my hair being softly tugged. But, there was no pain.

I pulled out my mangoes and began to eat.

My hairdresser reminded me of my mom, with her soft yet strong presence and adoration of my hair. She shook her head and clucked her tongue and told me that she’d love to have a head of hair like mine. She said it was too tangled though. Usually, I’d fire back something about type four hair and proper detangling, but I was at ease. So, I laughed instead.

There was a Nollywood movie playing in the left corner of the room. Two women were having a discussion, or really a shouting match, in a language I couldn’t quite place. A Chinese food delivery man was weaving through the aisles of chairs yelling out an order of fried rice and chicken wings that nobody was claiming. Somehow, the noise of the shop gave me a quiet moment to myself. I felt a peace that was kinda wild. Something about it took me back to the my childhood. To the dimly lit living room in Texas where my mom would braid my hair and my sisters would sit around me. Back then, I didn’t have a care in the world. As my hair was persuaded into braids with gel and a firm hand, I was taken all the way back to that. I was restored. I could close my eyes, sit back, and be healed. And only in some small African Braiding Salon in the middle of Harlem could I feel the same wholeness I did as a kid in my living room in Texas.

Even with all this bliss, I opened my eyes and remembered why most of us have a hate-hate relationship with our hair. In front of me, on the right wall of the room, a braider was doing some cornrows. Her face was very obviously bleached. It had a dry look with lighter shades of skin coming in unevenly. She was braiding the springy coils of a round faced woman into some cornrows. The round faced woman was flinching with each of the braider’s plaits. She asked the braider if she could blow dry it to make it easier. The braider said she didn’t have one available.

After a while of more tugging, the round faced woman tried again. She asked if the braider could at least use a wide tooth comb. The braider said something quickly while shaking her head no. I watched her start another row to cornrow. She cleaned up her sections and used a fine toothed comb to detangle the hair. With one or two jerking motions of the comb, she ripped half the hair in the section out.

Next to the round-faced woman, a chubby little girl with deep brown skin and the sweetest face I’d ever seen was getting long black braids put in. She was wincing and holding her head, her shoulders bent over and she kept saying a loud “ow.” Her braider kept going, not even glancing at the girl as she pulled and completed one neat braid.

I wanted to tell her braider to take it easy, but she was kinda far, and I was kinda tired. Plus, if I told her, I’d have to tell several other braiders in the salon too. When I looked around, I could see more than one of them destroying some poor woman’s hair.

A little girl had entered the shop. I assumed she was the daughter of a braider. The women stopped what they were doing to dote on her, making cooing noises and trying to get her to come to them.

The girl stumbled from salon seat to salon seat, never coming close enough for one of the women to touch her. I smiled as she passed me, but something about her presence in the shop gave me an intense feeling of grief. The girl’s hair, as sparse and as short as it was, was already being pulled into tight buns. Her eyes were wide as she moved through the shop, taking everything in. All I could see was a baby looking at all these faces contorted in pain. I imagined this is how she’d learn, however slowly, exactly what our hair care is.

When I finished getting my hair done, I paid and I left. I took the train back to Manhattan to join some of my classmates for dinner. They’d picked an Asian Fusion restaurant.

I walked to the restaurant with Safa, one of my classmates in the program, a short Bengali girl. She saw that I’d gotten my hair done and said “Oh my gosh it looks so good! How was it?”

I had no idea how to explain to her everything that was going on in my head, and part of me felt like I was reading too deep into it. I didn’t know how to describe the feeling of being right at home when a stranger’s hands are in your hair. I couldn’t quite explain what it meant to feel so comfortable in a small shop with loud colors and even louder noises in the middle of an extremely humid and hot part of Harlem. On top of that, I’d confuse her when I talked about how, in the middle of that calm, I was reminded that my hair journey was one riddled with pain. That even as I sat so comfortably in my salon throne, I felt a constant ache in my chest for every wincing look and crying girl I saw. How could I tell her that this experience was one of tranquility even as I recognized that it was one of torment as well.