Picture of back of Black girl's hair, styled in ponytails with ball ball elastics and barrettes on the ends.

Who I Be When You Look At Me: SOLHOT Part 3

“At that moment I just wanted to be there with the girls, as this is the primary investment of SOLHOT- to remind Black girls that we are right here with you.”
Ruth Nicole Brown

“…Dang!

                                                                                                             I said I’m almost ready I just

Got to

         Gotta

                                                                                                         Got to do

       Do

My

hair.

And if you don’t know this, then you don’t know nothin’.”
Ruth Nicole Brown

SOLHOT be
Braids, beads, barrettes,
ball-balls and Blue Magic
Bergamot between some
Big or Lil mama’s knees.

Mama/ Daughter Daydream 1
Girl: Mama, why do hair gotta tangle? Dang!
Mama: Daughter, it goes something like this. Your scalp be acting out the story of America. The Z pattern of West Africa resists the colonizing straight line of Europe and the way it gets along with the straight line of the indigenous strands depends on how those strands got there. Were your people the ones who met the indigenous and learned to live under the radar of white power in Maroon societies or were your people the ones who were bought and sold by people, Cherokee for example, who said, “Fuck it. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”? Sometimes, there is no way of knowing. My job, baby, is just to try to persuade all the people on your head to commune in some beautiful way. We can make something beautiful. I wish I could promise it would never hurt, but I can promise to be mindful of my own heavy hand and I can promise to be right here with you.”

Those who denigrate ball-balls, barrettes, and beads know nothing about protection or community or the protection of community. They pretend to learn everything they know about “protective styles” from internet blogs on “natural” hair. Our Mamas know there is nothing natural about the art on our head. They know it is jazz and they be makers of music.

They told mama
straight hair hurts less.
The lye burned bright.

I got my first perm when I was two years old. If you think this is an assimilation story, you know nothing about my Mama. You know nothing about tangles and tears, about dreaming of a daughter who does not have to cry as you cried, then finding her hollering between your knees, even your mechanisms of care perceived as weapons.

SOLHOT be
Ball-balls, beads, and braids.
Be navigators of necessary
pain. Be “ouch!” and “sorry!”
Be “that better?”
Be beaming “There.”

SOLHOT be
placing me back
between my mama’s knees,
be showin’ me how
to love this picture.

Mama/ Daughter Daydream 2
Girl: But mama, is our hair the only kind that tangles?
Mama: Hell no. These ain’t even tangles, more like cliques. I’m not detangling as much as I am reorganizing. Kinks and curls have the good sense to cluster for their own health and, with adequate moisture, are actually less likely to tangle than straight hair. Individual strands of straight hair meet at angles that make them more susceptible to knots. What any hair needs to avoid knotting are mechanisms to make contact less abrasive.

SOLHOT asks what conditioner is necessary for detangling (organizing)? Do it gotta be straight (middle class subjectivity)? No. Do it gotta hurt (petty-gogy of the oppressed)? Sometimes AND not always. Can it be fun? Yes. Show me how. Dance. Do yo thang, do yo thang, do yo thang for me!

The lie of all lye:
Apply it once and you’ll be straight.

It is not that the parents who place their children in the advanced program want them to be white. They trust white supremacy’s devotion to meritocracy. They hope that our approved (by whom?) applications will protect us from the disdain of teachers who see us as problems to fix.They do not want us to cry as they cried.

They could not have anticipated the lessons articulated by numbers alone. My school was in a predominantly Black neighborhood where most of the white kids were bused in for the advanced program. Hence, my only contact with white kids were with those who, like me, had tested in. Without this context, I let the numbers tell me this lie: if there are only three Black students in an “advanced” class of 24, and 17 Black students in the “regular” class, then it must be that most Black kids are “regular” and most white kids are “special.” I must be here by accident and someone is going to find me out. I begin to have panic attacks over new math.

Meanwhile, the “regular” students develop theories of power that rightfully implicate us in this lie. Outwardly, I begin to wear “special” as a defensive stance (a la Grant Hill) against the kids who accused me of thinking I’m all that because I walked to the white class. It was the classist tracking system that turned us against each other; it made the “special” kids year-long targets in the hallways, which made the “regular” kids lifelong targets of our bourgie theorizing based on a politics of advancement.

Our parents could not have anticipated our addiction to advancement, the way we strove to “touch up” our achievements like perms on new growth lest we be found out. They couldn’t have anticipated the way that some of us would be undone by our strivings, the ways we would be scarred by lye. I develop a fear of hallways and classrooms– a fear of violent contact with those who have not advanced, a fear of violent contact with those who doubt that I deserve my advancement. 

SOLHOT wrecks this. I am not a basket case tonight. I am a tender-headed girl who spent a lifetime in fear of snags, who began to think of my hair in terms of false attributes rather than analyzing its condition. “Dry” rather than “in need of moisture.” “Tangled” instead of “in need of reorganization.” A girl who learned to lean into the lye and let it burn like some holy ghost come to save me from my own flesh.

Still, the beauty of SOLHOT’s Black girlhood is neither inherent nor natural. In Hear Our Truths, Dr. Brown writes, “When identity is premised on sameness and Black girlhood premised on shared oppression, organizing Black girls’ spaces may surely replicate the same kind of disciplinary measures of control and surveillance strategies that Black girls have long since manipulated and outsmarted, foreclosing the kind of solidarity SOLHOT depends on.” Even in my SOLHOT-as-hairstyling metaphor, I am clear that homegirls are not about taming, controlling, or manipulating Black girls. Dr. Brown reminds us that black girls have already outsmarted these unnecessary patterns of control. Rather, the SOLHOT homegirl/ girl “we” is about stylin. Black girls choose the style because they have already figured it out: they gon’ think what they gon’ think. Which is the beginning of freedom. Because if they can think what they think, can blindly adhere to false evidence like measured (by whom?) skulls and standardized (by whom?) tests, then we can/ must do the same. We get to name what we see and decide to celebrate it. As a construction of freedom, Black girlhood is not essential to Blackness, but it is essential for surviving Blackness as somebody else’s construction. It is the promise, no the dream, that we can do more than survive our reflection in a broken mirror. SOLHOT carries their own mirrors.

In the middle of the performance, Dr. Brown and her ride-or-die homegirl, the one who said, “You mean Dr…” bring me a purple hand-mirror. In sharpie, someone has written “You are SOLHOT. We see you!” alongside hearts and names and encouragements that all drown in tears. I am baptising myself and it will take years to come up out of the water. When I do, I will be holding the hands of girls and homegirls.

SOLHOT be
mirrors
handheld
passed ‘round
talking back  
talking Black
singing a Black girl’s song:
SOLHOT, SOLHOT what do you see?
I see a Black Girl looking at me.
Black Girl, Black Girl, what do you see?
I see freedom looking at me.