No, You Can’t Touch My Hair (Not That You Asked)
Nobody Would Do That
Today’s argument with my niece is over whether there was ever really a time when white people–even nice ones–would unashamedly ask to touch your hair. Or worse, as I originally contended, just march up and do it without asking. The former she disbelieves, the latter she regards as dystopian fantasy. Her last school play was a nugget of pedantry titled Consent is Important!, in which she played an overenthusiastic hugger.
This argument takes place during no-swim time at the expensive pool. Her father, my brother, was finally plucked off the waiting list after a three-year limbo, but his workday collides with the best pool hours, and so here I am, my joblessness for once an asset. Rosé in a Mason jar and a deep reserve in my backpack. In the years since my parents were members, they’ve hiked up the prices fivefold, but instated a BYOB policy that’s loosened up the clientele considerably. Stay-at-home moms laughing and pinching each other’s cellulite. Divorcees flirting by the grill.
My niece stretches on the chaise beside me in her two-piece, a husky ten with the bullshit meter of a TV judge. “Auntie,” she says. “I’m not saying you’re lying, but come on.” Her onyx eyes pierce, there’s a little smile at the corners of her mouth. “Who would even do that? Nobody would do that!”
She gives her head a hard shake, rattling the pony beads hanging at her shoulders. On weekends my sister-in-law parks my niece in front of The Great British Baking Show for four hours and meticulously cornrows her hair. Voila, ready to resist the breakage-inducing poison of heavily chlorinated water for another week. My sister-in-law doesn’t just grab any pony bead at random, like certain people used to do; she picks a color scheme and sticks with it, an extra parcel of dignity for the kid. Today it’s alternating white and aqua, an inadvertent echo of the pool dècor.
A coconut-oiled half-inch tuft peeks out beneath the terminal bead of each braid, and this is how we got here. Helping my niece towel off, I was hit with a sensory memory: me and some blonde kid at this very pool, the punishing sun on our poolwater-slicked shoulders, the kid reaching over without asking to yank at one of my fat, unruly braids. Haha, she said to someone nearby. Look, it bounces!
The someone was our swim coach, then an old woman but now–when I adjust for her smooth, freckled thighs and wide-open summer afternoons–early twenties? An adult in name only. Her wet hair clung to her neck. She wore a claddagh ring with a prick of emerald at the center, and it grazed my shoulder when she reached for my braid. Totally! she said, fiddling with the unplaited part that hung at my collarbone. Sproing, sproing, sproing!
Braids that big don’t even protect your hair, not really. Certain people tried to talk me into cornrows, even promised to make them so slim they’d flow just like the improbable tresses of one of my black Barbie dolls, but I was a stubborn little so-and-so. Could not possibly risk the degradation of trillions of braids finished with multicolored beads that could be seen from space. The swim team, which consisted of me and a dozen white girls, was about sapling thighs and sameness. Everyone else’s hair was done in one braid, max. I settled–resentfully–for two. No one else wore a swim cap, so I told certain people I’d lost mine after the first day and bore the sting of the wide-toothed comb when it raked through my hair after meets.
“Look, kid,” I say. “That’s what happened. I don’t care if you believe me or not. They almost yanked my head off. I had to fight them off with boxing gloves.” I lean in close, exaggerating my face like she did in Consent is Important! “And not just me. A friend of mine lost a whole braid by the pool, and the lifeguard thought it was a rat and made everybody get out.”
This last part is true, though I didn’t hear that story until I was five years older than my niece is now and away at a camp run by the Urban League. A tiny hut packed with a dozen black girls who had never not been surrounded by white girls, shocked by the revelations of sameness. That girl–her name was Danielle–let a few tears leak when she told us about losing a hair extension to a friend’s curious tugging. The lifeguard’s freakout, the mass exodus, the nearby Encyclopedia Brown who pointed at Danielle and shrieked It came from her!
All of that before there were cell phones or social media blowback, before that sort of microaggression could invite the wrath of every social justice warrior with a keyboard. Before grabbing a black person’s hair became a thing not to be caught doing. A decade before my niece was born.
She stares at me and does an eye roll that’s not supposed to be sassy. “Whatever, Auntie,” she says, her voice laced with indulgence. She’s nicer than I was at ten, telling certain people whatever, I already know that when they tried to tell me about whites-only water fountains or show me the pictures of Emmett Till in the copy of Jet they kept in a box under their bed. Weaving their strange, fantastical stories about how this very pool once tweaked and retweaked its bylaws, hiking the prices and adding zoning clauses, all to stave off de facto integration for a few more years.
They raked through my tangled braids and said if I wouldn’t wear a swim cap, well, I’d pay the price in a way my teammates wouldn’t.
A whistle shrieks and the lifeguard calls for All Swim. My niece is off like a shot, jackknifing into the deep end alongside her willowy friends. All thoughts of debunking my memory, left behind with her crumpled towel. I refill my Mason jar.