Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

When I was born on September 14, 1980 in Ravenna, Ohio my Afro was, in large part, unremarkable. It was expected. It was natural. At that stage in life, my hair was my own and was simply viewed as a threadlike outgrowth of the epidermis. No one would have termed it a political statement or seen it as a representation of racial pride. It was simply the natural curl of a baby’s hair, uncorrupted by public perceptions, deeper meaning or Johnson’s baby shampoo.

Over time, however, my hair would gain greater significance. As I aged and styles changed, it would become the subject of much scrutiny, ranging from beauty shop banter to the public discourse on race in America. It would become relevant in job interviews, determine my acceptability in certain social circles and become an external manifestation of my self-perception.

I wish I could give my hair a historical bent and write a tale of sitting between my mother’s knees as she performed the ritual braiding of my hair and passed on the oral traditions of my family. I wish I could conjure up recollections of stories passed down from ancestral mothers. Unfortunately, in the collage of overlapping images and words imprinted in my memory, this scene does not emerge.

To the contrary, my hair memories are ridden with muted claims to self-possession and unresolved power struggles. By 1985, my hair had been “relaxed” (a euphemistic term for a painful process) for the first time and my smiling face can be found in numerous pictures with shimmering Shirley Temple curls falling past my shoulders. Hidden behind the smiles were many uncomfortable hours spent in the beauty shop being repeatedly commanded to “sit up straight” and “hold that head still.” Violations punished with the burning sensation of a misplaced curling iron on the edge of an ear or the thump of a comb atop the head.

By middle school, I had switched places with hairdresser and willingly inflicted the torment upon myself. For years, I assumed a warrior stance, fire-hot flat iron in one hand, boar bristle brush in the other, burning, brushing, combing, and gelling my way through nature’s kinks.

By college, I wondered why anyone in her right mind would spend the equivalent of years over the course of a lifetime in front of a mirror manipulating her hair into styles that defy nature and border on self-destruction. Why anyone would risk heat and chemical burns in the name of fashion or style?

But I remembered that black hair is anything but. On any given day, it is a signifier of difference, an indicator of ethnic origin, a site of violence, a work of art or a manifestation of identity — separately or all at once. A good deal of that mirror time was spent grappling with these competing functions of my hair, which exists as part statement, part art and part self. The degree to which I curled, teased or straightened reflected my desire to shape and mold the beholder’s image of me, as well as to project the image I hold of myself.

The Maya with finger waves, freeze curls and a French roll (all at the same time) was looking for acceptance from an adolescent peer group that challenged her authenticity as black. The Maya with a classic bob interviewing with investment banks was trying to minimize her “difference” for a conservative industry.

Yet throughout the years an opposing force operated in the background. Always lurking in the back of my mind and manifested in the curly roots of my hair was a countervailing push to start over and renew, rebuild and ultimately respect the state of nature trampled upon by the norms, biases and preferences of the society in which this black baby grew up. In 2005, I let the curls loose and in 2014 I’m committed to living naturally ever after.

This is an updated version of an article I wrote in 2001 for Diversity & Distinction magazine, a now-defunct student publication at Harvard College. The happy ending I sought arrived post-graduation.

Question: What were some memorable points in your hair journey?