"Geez," said the barber as he looked at the pile of severed braids in my hand. "She bold alright. She bold. "
He watched as Lisa, his fellow stylist and the shop's owner, ran clippers through what hair was left on my daughter's head. She has the thickest hair I have ever seen on anyone. Beautiful, but dense hair that took hours for me to wash, comb, condition and style when she was little. As Gianina grew older and took on the responsibility for her own tresses, the laborious care became overbearing. Recently, she decided she'd had enough and was ready to go ahead with getting "The Big Chop". Yes, she is bold.
Lisa the owner giving Gianina "The Big Chop" at Hair Studio L-M in Albuquerque. Check them out on Facebook at Hairstudio LM.
"The Big Chop is the process of cutting off the relaxed or permed ends of one's hair when she is transitioning from chemically processed hair to natural hair. Timing the big chop is a big decision for many napptural women who have decided they want to wear their hair natural. " That's what they say at NaturallyCurly.com
My daughter never had a perm. Her hair was occasionally straightened. Often braided or twisted. Black friends and even strangers frequently remarked on how much hair she had and how healthy it was. Recently, two African-American women selling flat irons at a mall kiosk wanted to sell her one.
"Oh honey you have such beautiful hair. Let us just straighten one little piece to show you how it looks."
"Well," said Gianina, "the iron might work nicely but I'm getting it all cut off on Saturday."
"Whaaat? Why? All cut off? But it's so pretty!" They could not fathom her desire to lop off all that length.
There has historically been a strong association between femininity, beauty and a copious mane. This is true in most cultures, but especially so in the Black community, which has in turn spawned an industry well supplied with wigs, extensions and weaves. Additionally, finding the right products for moisturizing, de-tangling, deep conditioning, de-frizzing, and curl-activating among the thousands on the market, can be daunting. Black hair is a demanding task-master for both time and purse if you're going to wear it long. Yet for decades, there has been an inter-generational dialog about how "good" hair in the Black community was too closely aligned to the idea of having long, straight hair as represented in a White standard of beauty. In the past few years, more Black women have begun to question that standard and have looked towards embracing the ease and beauty of wearing their hair short and natural.
Enter my daughter, Gianina, and her discovery on youtube. One just has to google "big chop" and up pops a myriad of videos of Black women documenting their journey to natural. Many said that too often with their hair styled longer, people only saw their hair and stopped there. With the short do, their faces shine through, and their real beauty can be seen. They stand taller, and even walk differently. Several days of viewing caused Gianina to come to me and ask if she could get a TWA a.k.a. Teeny Weeny Afro. I smiled. My baby girl, so dauntless and daring at sixteen years old. I wanted her to feel empowered by her decision.
"It's your hair. It will always grow back if you don't like it," I said. "You do with it whatever makes you happy."
What resonated the most with her from the videos was the word "freedom." She was reaching to recapture the time her hair demanded of her, giving her the breathing space to do other things.
Thank you, Black women everywhere, for being such role models for my daughter, and for sharing your bravery and your knowledge. We made the appointment.
"Okay, are you ready?" asked Lisa, scissors poised at the first braid.
"Yes," said Gianina. No hesitation. That bold grin radiated across her face.
One down. Ten to go.
“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today my family went out to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. As is our custom now, we choose to do something together as a family that we could not have done 50 or 60 years ago. We decided together to go see a movie, and sit side by side in recognition that once, in my own lifetime, we would not have been allowed to do so in many places in our country.
When we got into the theater itself we found it to be a small space that was relatively full. The higher seats were mostly taken and there were a smattering of single seats sprinkled throughout the upper section. Normally we would have split up, but not today. So we found 4 seats together in the lower section closer to the screen, sharing popcorn and the pleasure of spending time together.
I'm thankful for those who have gone before us, who have made not just these simple outings possible, but for the greater things.....such as being able to have the family that I have. I'm thankful for those who put their lives and well-being at risk, so that I could be the wife and mother to this husband, and these children. It is because of the struggle of others that I can enjoy a sweet afternoon with my husband and children in safety. Such a small thing as going to an afternoon movie, together, as an inter-racial family, has come at great cost. Thank you Dr. King, and to all the others who have fought the great fight for racial equality and brotherhood, for making my life beautiful.
The last time I talked with my Dad, he was coherent. That was just a week ago. He is less so today. His mind and body are less and less cooperative. The human body can only go so far. Take so much. Yet it is doggedly determined to live.
So I will covet in my heart my most recent visits with Vincent Francis Parlato. My father. My Dad. I flew to New York the day after Christmas. Everything looked like I was not going to make it back there before he died. But I did. And he soldiered on. He even made it out of the ICU and into a rehab hospital. And I had time with him. Time to hold his hands that I love so much. No one has hands like my Dad, massive and imposing, once strong and powerful. Now weakened by neuropathy and age. Time to talk. To squeeze next to him in his bed, all six foot three of him with my arm across his immense chest and my head on his shoulder, and just be quiet. To hear him breathe. To stroke his hair. To kiss his scruffy face. To smell his scent. To say one more time, "I love you, Dad." To hear one more time, "I love you too." I even got to see him smile and capture it in my mind forever. A precious, precious gift of time, and touch.