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Kevin Powell


inspired by the art of Radcliffe Bailey

by Kevin Powell

I remember when ma use to take me to the
barbershop when I was little
we ain’t had no money so we only
went but once a month
ma would tell the barber to cut it
real close ‘cuz this haircut need to
last awhile   seem like every other
boy in the neighborhood had a
mess of hair up on his head
but ma had me damn-near bald
with a razor-thin part on the side
and talcum powder pasted to the back of my neck
one thing I noticed about those
haircuts was how the barber
an old leather-brown black
man with slicked back wavy hair
like an Indian or an Italian would shoo my ma away
when she tried to pay him    he
never said nothing but he must’ve
known my ma and me was real poor
even though my ma knew what was
going to happen each trip to the shop she dutifully pulled the
time-worn bills from her plastic purse anyway
don’t know if anyone else in the barbershop ever saw
that but I sure as heck saw it   that barber kicked the bucket
when I got to be a teenager but I certainly
remember him, and his wavy hair   I wanted
wavy hair just like that   use to think ain’t nothin’
in the world like good wavy hair   did not
want my hair ‘cuz it was nappy   not real nappy
like some of the other black folks I know
but nappy enough that I was not feeling too good
about my round dome   when I got to be
about 13  ma let me choose my own barber and
do my own thing to my hair   I was working
now and had some change in my pockets
and felt like a big man
heck, I wanted to be a big man
I wanted to be a star—
and I loved the way them stars’ hair
looked in them magazines and in them movies
and what not   why I thought the way to let folks
know you is a star is by straightening your hair,
or making it curly, or something that made it good
hair   lawd knows I wanted good hair real bad, yessuh
would stand in the mirror for an hour at a time solemnly
scooping chunky globs of that magic waving cream
into the palms of my hand and rubbed it into my head,
all over, real firm, ‘til my fingers nearly stuck together
and damn-near stuck to my head  then I would
take that brush, the kind ya use to shine shoes with,
and brush my hair forward, then backward, then
forward again, then backward   I would brush
so hard my scalp would pulsate with pain
pain like ya feel when someone is beating ya
with a tree branch or a mulewhip and then I would tie
that stocking cap around
my head real tight, so tight I would wake up with
a headache and a crease pierced into my forehead
that crease was like a religious marking on
my forehead meant ya was willin’ to sacrifice
sleep and comfort to achieve ya objective, ya know?
I did not mind the loss of sleep and the lack of comfort
 because I was determined to have good hair   don’t remember
much about them years except those headaches
and them creases on my forehead and the fact
that my hair never quite looked like them stars’
hair in them magazines and them movies   when I became
a man for real is when I first began to realize I did not
like my natural hair much at all   felt, all them years,
that my natural hair was ugly,
dirty, a waste of good head space   don’t know what
began to change me exactly but maybe it was them
books I began to read, about me and my history,
and I began to see things differently now   I started
loving my natural hair and wearing it in all kinds of
shapes and sizes, picking it up and out the way an
ancient farmer with semi-broken, arthritic fingers
would pick a watermelon or sweet potato
up and out of the earth   yessuh, I suddenly saw my hair
as one with the earth, that it was extraordinary like the earth,
like the sun, and that is why my hair, our hair, in its
natural state, shot straight up to the sky, to the sun
it took a spell for me to love my hair, our hair, completely
can’t make a people hate themselves and they hair
and expect that to change overnight   my ma say to me
repeatedly ya use to look decent and now ya look like
trash wearing ya hear like that   ma look at my friends
wearing their hair natural and smirk   she say them
fools think they in Africa or somethin’ they need to
look neater and cleaner they need to get them kinks out
they hair   tell ma ain’t nothin’ neater
and cleaner than to go to a barbershop and ya barber
be like a sculptor molding your head into a royal
crown as you direct him with your ancestor’s scissors—
ma look at me and smirk again, talking about ya need
to go ahead with all that fool talk—   ma like the way
I wear my hair now, as a fully grown man   say it
remind her the way she used to have it cut when
I was a little boy   yes, lawd, I done migrated along them railroad tracks to the tempos of florida water and gideon’s trumpet
and I am back to what
we call the low-boy style: the barber digs into my head
like he performing surgery, or a Yoruba ritual—
got his mojo in them spraycans, got his cigar and his drum smacks wrapped in that foil, got his spirits in his hip pocket, got his clippers buzzing with the bass player, got his chewing gum hopping between keyboard chomps, got his short broomstick and the cardboard dustpan, got his chants and moans as he brushes and combs, and he spins me around in that chair so that the mirror can bless my head from every dimension   he clamps my head with his left hand, then his right  he talks about the events of the day
offers his unproven analysis, gives me advice on my up
and down love life, and relieves me of my blues
as he cracks jokes, takes one too many bathroom
breaks, and tells that same customer who is always
after me every saturday that he should go find another
barber if he ain’t got the patience to wait
ma don’t know that the barbershop got a hidden
meaning for us black men, that it is like a secret society
with a coded language—the wink, the head nod, the
tap on the shoulder, the jive talking in tongues—ma don’t know she started something when she brought me here as a boy   that I need this space
and this place like I need the holes in my nose   that
if I did not have this weekly trip to the barbershop
I might not have anywhere else, in this universe,to be a souped-up, freedom-loving butterfly with nappy locks —

Friday, August 1, 2003

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