The Political Body

Fashioned to Survive

When a Black woman gets her hair done, it is both ritual and risk. It will require you to sit in a salon chair for hours, or under a dryer. It requires you to be temporarily forgotten with a wet head in a sink, in a chair, in the kitchen. The stylist I trust the most should be dangerous. Her hands, like my mother’s. Hands that have held heads at the nape of necks into sinks, tugged at the roots to braids, and placed fiery combs of steel close to scalps to get new growth to lay down. In retrospect, those hands should be the same ones that have cradled guns and knives to lovers’ throats, beaten children, and, so tenderly, put babies to sleep. 

The garden on my head had grown out of its textured holiness, and into a coiled mess of my mistakes. So, when my sister recommended I go to some girl’s house for my next style, I did not flinch at the address. I did not turn my nose. I was, after all, born in the heat of my mother’s own kitchen.

Upon arriving at her house, I was met by the lazy Ohio sun.

I climbed out of the Uber, unbuckling my daughter’s car seat from the other side. I breathed deep, carrying all five months of her spirit up the steps to the house. “Back here, baby!” the stylist shouted. She was doing another head.

I pushed my daughter in her stroller towards the kitchen. Chicken grease had yellowed the walls. I sat down in the chair furthest from the two women, smelling my daughter’s diaper through the bullying smells of flat iron and hair sheen.

“Hey, don’t I know you?”

I looked at the girl in the chair, long and steady. Yes, she was a girl from my old high school. Facebook had stored her features in my mind and reminded me that she was now married.

“Yes, Bre?”

She nodded.

“Wow, I see you’re expecting,” I said, staring down at her pregnant stomach. It’s smoothness calling my hands to reach and caress her, but I pocketed them, knowing better.

“Yes, any day now.”

Her 9-month belly was twice my size when I was that far. I remembered the way my daughter would stretch her legs; the imprint of her foot would cause my shirt to move whenever she kicked me. At night, she would thrust herself around constantly. It was like having a bird trapped in my belly. 

Bre was glowing with hope. Her hair was blown out into a tamed afro of silky strands. I remembered the rich coils of my hair while I was pregnant. The benefits of carrying life were coming alive. Your hair grows. Your nail bed hardens. Your body becomes a garden. 

“What are you doing here? Don’t you live in New York?”

I looked down when I smiled.

“Not anymore,” I said, “I am back.”

My black heeled sandals were covered in extra strands of hair extensions that were stuck to the kitchen floor. I hurried to bend over to grab my daughter who was fussing about in her car seat. I felt the weight of all her liquids in the ache of my wrists. She needed a diaper change, so I went to change her on the couch in the other room. I overheard the two ladies talking about how small of a city it was, how strange it was that we all could live on separate sides of town, or cities, and find our way to the same hairstylist.

I am grateful for my daughter’s silence, as she stares at the other children rushing by. The little girls stop and say, “Aw, can I see your baby?” I smile and hold her upright so they can see her. She smiles wide, giving them her drool and giggle. They gawk at her skin. Brown like ground coffee. I remember being a little girl around the way and wanting to play with newborn babies like dollies. I remember when I was encouraged to carry around a fake baby doll, one that even peed and had a hole in its mouth for water, to pretend it was mine. Now, that all seemed strange. It was strange that I was encouraged to care for a baby, and never encouraged to stay one.

“So, why are you back?” Bre asked me. I returned to the kitchen, sitting at the table, bouncing my baby on my knee. 

I did not know how to say that I was not entirely back. But that I was just existing here, hiding here, until it was safe enough to return to whatever life I left before I got pregnant. 

I stared into my daughter’s eyes before saying, “I was in an abusive relationship with my babydad.”

That was the first time I had called him that. Babydad. I never liked that name, it always felt like the name you call someone who is a fraction. A step up from being called a sperm donor. In a harassing text message, he had labeled me as his “BM”. This was also a slap in the face. We were no longer lovers. Or parents. Just two people who had a baby.

“Girl, I have a crazy ass baby daddy too, so you don’t have shit to be ashamed of!” The stylist shouted, “That nigga tried to kill me, I had to leave too.”

My neck loosened, and my lips found a curve and smiled. 

I tell them about my child’s father. How we conceived our daughter, after a night of driving silently through Houston. How it felt like we were both looking for something inside the other. Our next adventure. How that purpose dragged me back to Texas in my fourth month of pregnancy, to entertain the idea of being parents. How I had never lived with a man. How I missed solitude. How I became homesick and craved my mother’s hands and her cooking my whole pregnancy. I missed my friends. I missed my old adventures. How unnerved he became from my longings for other people. How he refused to let me out of the apartment. “It’s COVID,” he would say. How he would not allow me to visit my family. How his jealousy became destructive. How he hit me. How he called me a bitch, a hoe, a stupid ass thot.

“It’s the pussy,” the stylist says. “My ex couldn’t handle it either.”

Her lips are dark pink, and her mouth, full of tongue and jewelry. She tells me about her relationship with her babydad. How they started off as lovers, unable to control themselves whenever they were left in a room together. How his insecurity tantrums were slow at first, then volcanic. How he punched her in her face. I searched her for a second, wanting to see it, the dent that time had buffed out from her cheeks.

“I ended up stabbing his ass,” she said. “He tried to kill me, but I wouldn’t let him. I matched his crazy with my own.”

There it was. The courage I lacked, staring me in the face.

Why didn’t I fight?

I showed up to Ohio’s doorstep, like a package that had been lost for so long, had finally been delivered. My baby was a bulletproof vest bound tightly to my torso. She did not cry once on the plane, or, after. A child of war. I was never asked why I did not call the police. We all knew why. In Houston, George Floyd’s body was still warm in the hot earth. I was a new mom. I did not want to fight. I wanted a family.

I looked at my daughter, sleeping in the steamy kitchen. The smell of hair grease and hairspray are layered on her skin by now. 

“Well girl, I am so sorry that happened to you”

She looked down at my daughter. Her chunky legs and feet were bare. I had stripped her from her socks so she would not overheat in the kitchen while I got my hair done.

“I think you are supposed to be back. You know?”

“I know He ain’t finished, sis.” the stylist butted in. “You know how I know He aint done?”

I waited in the river of her brown eyes.

“Cause you survived.”

With my head in the sink, and her hands in my hair, my stylist worked the shampoo through my curls. I felt her warm breasts on my back. I closed my eyes and relaxed then, in the hands of a beautiful woman, who was charging me half the price than that at the hair salon, and let her wash my hair in her dirty sink until it was soft and clean.

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Filed under: The Political Body


Starr Davis is a poet and essayist whose work has been featured in multiple literary venues such as The Kenyon Review, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, the Rumpus, So to Speak, and Transition. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the City College of New York and a BA in journalism and creative writing from the University of Akron. She tutors marginalized groups of young African American female writers for the nonprofit organization Seeds of Fortune. She is a 2021-2022 PEN America Writing for Justice Fellow. She is the creative nonfiction editor for TriQuarterly.