It was Good Friday, when barbershops are notoriously busy, and there I was
waiting alongside grandfathers and school-age boys.
My last visit to a barber had been in 1995, and it showed; locks flowing well past my shoulders.
The decision to cut them was a long time coming. But every time I thought about it, I remembered how long I had waited to let my hair lock, wary that doing so in college or even afterward would hinder my chances of landing a good job. But two years after arriving at The Washington Post, I took the plunge, investing in plenty of beeswax and twisted my hair until
my fingers ached. The payoff: a flowing set of locks.
I hadn't grown them for political or religious reason. But they were a statement. I was doing my own thing, able to wear Brooks Brothers and rock locks.
But what I perceived as a little edgy, my grandmother in Louisiana saw as unsightly. "You used to be so cute," she once said. I informed her that old black folks (and some young) had, unfortunately, been brainwashed to believe that so-called "good hair" was straight, either by nature or chemicals. Beauty could be black and nappy: Join me in Enlightenment, I urged.
The locks stayed with me through the momentous Million Man March, through births and deaths in the family, my father's heart problems, my grandmother's continuing bout with ovarian cancer and through moves from D.C. to New Orleans to Chicago to Cape Town.
I remember a debate with a black recruiter at the National Association of Black Journalists convention (we were on a panel together) telling college students looking for work not to show up with locks or braids. I agreed that it was a barrier to employment but one that could be overcome by being much better than the next applicant. Youngsters asked: why we always got to assimilate?
As locks and braids became part of the mainstream, my personal attachment to mine weakened. It grew so long at times—halfway down my back—that it I committed what some consider a Cardinal sin: I chopped off several inches to keep it manageable.
Last Friday, I couldn't stand them any longer. Too heavy. Too in the way. An unwanted appendage.
So there I was, sitting in a barbershop near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. and Malcolm X in Southeast Washington, waiting for a free chair. I took a couple of shots with my camera phone for posterity.
The barber asked if I was sure. I was. Soon the strands were in a pile, ready to be plunked into a garbage can with everyone else's clippings. It didn't feel momentous, despite the glances I have received from people who never knew me without them. It was just hair—something I remembered telling my grandmother a year earlier when chemotherapy took nearly all of hers. Not who I am. Not who she is.
My decision thrilled Kevin, the barber, who said people with dreads are despised by those who make their living cutting hair. "Welcome back," he said, encouraging me to return again and again.
Knowing there would be plenty of competition for my business, he offered an incentive. Return, and next time I'd be free to join the regulars in chatter about politics, sports and women.
An offer too good to pass up.
Robert E. Pierre is a writer for the Washington Post.