Try picking me out on the street.
Imagine me about to meet someone, a friend, for dinner or a drink. Imagine we are on opposite sides of an intersection with our phones to our ears, waving at each other, and listening to that unsettling silence on the phone that happens when you break the cellular wall and actually see the person you're talking to.
Imagine my approach. "Hi, Friend-I-Haven't-Seen-For-A-Couple-of Months," I will say.
"What's up?" my friend will say. And then my friend will reach for the wiry black jungle atop my head and say, "Niiiiice. You growing it out?"
I've had to deal with this for the past couple months, because--for reasons that I barely understand myself--I have decided not to cut my hair. I guess I'm either doing something, which is growing out an Afro, or I'm not doing something, which is cutting my hair. I guess it sounds more pro-active and perhaps reflects better upon my potential as a human being if I just tell people that, yes, it was a conscious decision. I am growing an Afro. The kind of Afro that some misnamed entertainers would be jealous of.
To some extent, this is true: it was a conscious decision. On a certain level, it's my hair and, like it or not, it wants to grow. So why cut it? This is pretty stupid, I know, and probably more than a bit disingenuous.
If I were to be completely honest, I would say that part of the reason is rebellion. Not against any one institution or person or cultural guideline, but more so against this notion--that I used to hold and probably still secretly do--that long hair (especially nappy, black, springy hair) is messy hair.
Part of it is that I was brought up this way. My father, a scrupulously--some might say obsessively--hygenic man, had a grudge against his own keratin that I can't even begin to understand. He never let his finger nails go white at their tips and couldn't tolerate a 2 o'clock shadow (much less wait until 5 o'clock to shave). And he kept his hair--which had been fleeing his forehead throughout my life--very, very short.
In the past couple of years, he's kept his head spit-shine Mr. Clean wax-on wax-off Charles (and Gnarls) Barkley bald.
With little success, he tried to impart his various lessons of hygeine to my brother and I. ("Always put deodorant AND cologne. And lots of it!") The one time I grew out my hair a little bit, he nearly fell into a depression. What will people think if they see you like this?
Which brings me to the cultural basis for all of this. My father, being the defiantly proud Ethiopian that he is, believes like many of his countrypeople that long hair, especially when it is allowed to grow into a crazy spindly mass atop one's head, reflects a similar craziness underneath. I remember the first words my uncle said when he saw me the last time I decided to grow out my hair. I hadn't seen him in a couple years.
"What is this?" he gaped and ran fingers through my hair.
"You know, in our culture, only the crazies have hair like this," he explained, because he's that uncle everyone has who likes to explain things.
My aunt followed close behind, joining his hand atop my head. There was a look of genuine concern in her eyes. "What happened to you, my child? Did you go insane?"
Maybe, auntie. Maybe.