The Best Black Hair This Side of Century Boulevard
Redondo Beach, 1979
You comb your hair, white girl into black, black girl into man. You look terrible. Either too much Ultra Sheen or too little Coconut Blend—what were Mom’s instructions? Your father laughs when you slide into your seat at the table. You look like Edna, he says. Then notices the anger in your eyes and doesn’t miss a beat: Go on and change your head, he shouts, I ain’t taking you nowhere looking like that. People be up here thinking you a girl when in reality.
You’d just spent two hours in the bathroom perfecting Chaka-Khan-meets-Don-Cornelius on your head, raucous curls shading face. So not your mother. Last week Myrlie Black swirled herself around you in the boys’ locker room at Inglewood Continuation and said, Baby, you got yourself some real football eyes. She was waiting for you to look at her with them. Yesterday Ernestine Hunter said it would be all right for you to come to after-school dance squad if you wanted—You got the kind of body that can really move, she added, softly.
You’ve already applied the Aqua-Net, the Clairol Styling Mousse. You’ve never felt so proud of what your father calls your “chapeau” even though you think this is the hairdo your parents are getting divorced over. I don’t like it when I can’t see your eyes, your father says when you return to the table, barely changed. He shrugs. Go in and see what Granny can do cause I’m not about to witness another black boy get his ass cold-cocked on the street.
(What you wanted to tell Myrlie Black was that your eyes were not football but kickball, plain and simple. You played on West Kelso; everyone got a go and everyone was fair. When you were up, your foot sent that ball straight into heaven and back down—Mrs. McDade came out and raged at her destroyed potted cactus. Her son Big Jamal ran behind and shouted, Whose ass I got to kick now? The rest scattered, it was you alone. When Big Jamal glimpsed your face, he shrugged and said, My mama told me never hit a girl.)
Granny has done your hair ever since Mom left, saying it was all right to keep it this long; Come sit, she says, pulling you down between her knees. She begins to tell a story of a slave captain who led a nighttime revolt right under General E. Lee’s nose. They had to be all stealth back then, the slaves; they had to wear next to nothing of clothes and their heads had to be cornrowed to perfection—It was all about the aerodynamics, Granny explains, separating your mop into four massive strands, commencing the braids. You know your father will hate this hair even more. She says, Be careful in Redondo, baby. Whatever black people have can be taken away.
(You want to go back in time and tell Ernestine Hunter that your moves are better than all the dance squad’s put together. Fuck her. Maybe she wants your arms for the slow dances, to feel her up in boy-girl appropriate ways. She’ll never call you a fag to your face. Fuck everyone. Recently Principal Halimah grabbed your arm on the way out: You only have to believe in yourself, she said. The rest will follow, Shawn.)
Boy, you having bad thoughts? Granny asks, finishing your head. You be good to your mama today, she adds. Even white ladies need kindness now and then.
Moments later you are in your father’s Mustang heading southwest—and immediately there is the breath of sea upon your face, silking your crags. Your father talks about the Lakers last night—did you even watch the game like he asked you to? What was the point in getting you your own TV? You hang your head further out the window. You hate leaving Inglewood every Saturday. Your father’s apartment seems green with men, hair of all imaginations. For now, though, it’s visiting Mom in the Del Amo Mall, answering questions about your father and his so-called new life, how she wished she’d seen him for who he was all those years back, her so-called soulmate being nothing but a man-loving fair-weather friend. How is school, baby? That principal finally putting you in the smart classes? Your mother’s inquiries douse you like cologne. Jade East? Aqua Velva? You’re awash all the time.
Your father stops the car a block from the mall, the court-appointed drop-off. As if he can read your mind, he says, DO NOT let Edna buy you any more rainbow tee shirts. DO NOT let her spend my hard-working child support on rainbow shit in Spencer Gifts. When you look at him quizzically, he reiterates: DO NOT come back to me looking like the switchiest homosexual this side of Century Boulevard!
You open the door but then he reaches back to touch your shoulder. Forgive me, he says. When you are quiet, he adds, Shawn, I only want better for you. When you are quiet some more, he smiles and says, One day you will know how real my love is.
You walk the rest of the way. Your father drives behind you to the entrance, then speeds off. To the Beverly Hills Hotel? To Jeff’s Big Huge He-Man Lounge? The loud corners of West Hollywood are calling out to your father in strangely calm tones. You’ve no desire for them to stop.
You open the door to the Del Amo Mall. But then heed your feet as they instruct you otherwise.
It’s not a far walk to Redondo Beach; the braids come out easily as your fingers unknit them to the beat of the sidewalk. You cross sun-streaked boulevards, smile at passing cars and wait for them to smile back. Your hair is back to Chaka Khan, Don Cornelius having faded for good; one car drives by and shouts, Kill it, baby!
It had been your mother’s plan to treat you to anything today—your fourteenth birthday being just around the corner—but all you can do now is head toward the water, to the boardwalk with all the white people, where your silence could win an Academy Award. You envision your mother in Spencer Gifts, leaning against the fitting room door, shouting, You can have anything you want, Shawn! Rainbow tee shirts! Rainbow shit! I don’t care what he says cause you’re my baby and it’s my go now!
Half an hour later, it’s there: the plasma sea. Principal Halimah once explained to your class that the Pacific holds the most volcanoes in the world—more than the Atlantic, older than Mount Vesuvius. Does anyone remember when I told you about the last days of Pompeii? Children, we have no idea what it is like to be buried but we do know what it’s like to be alive.
You see a bunch of Sun-In teens standing around a GTO underneath the boardwalk. Their smiles smiting tanned skin, the crackle of illegal bonfire so close to the gas tank. They were here last week, boy, girl, boy, girl. Tequila Sunrises in clear plastic cups, bliss in broad daylight. They cannot have any idea how much they mean to you. Girl, boy, girl, boy. Maybe if you could crawl in their sand, that would be enough. Principal Halimah has several hand-painted signs lined up on the walls of Inglewood Continuation, including I WILL GRADUATE FROM HIGH SCHOOL. Know suddenly that you will not disappoint her.
Your father’s first man was deep-set and bearded; the next one shallow and dark. They never have wild hair. They never keep bags from Spencer Gifts under their beds, busting with mood rings, Magic 8 Balls, general shit. They smoke cigarettes and wear collared shirts and complain about jobs, women, prices, traffic. They laugh and wonder why your father still lives in hellhole Inglewood. They put on seersucker jackets of armor and stand around as if it’s no big thing.
You arrive at the souvenir shop where last week you were chased out by the owner—he’d mistakenly accused you of lifting a bikini into your backpack. You greet him today—he clearly has no memory of you—then blend in the crowd, searching for that very suit. A tan and gold reversible; you stick it into your shirt, wave goodbye. The owner hardly notices, thanks to the Redondo High girls clamoring at the register.
Your mother is probably worried, but it’ll only take half an hour to run back to the mall. Really, really run. You’ll tap your hair in place at the plate glass doors. You’ll slip inside the fitting room at Spencer Gifts and then inside the bikini, careful to place everything where it needs to be. Why don’t you know that everything is already yours? Your mother will giggle and hand you a rainbow tee through the door. When you emerge, she’ll look you over for a second and say, Perfect. We’ll take it.