Finding the silver lining

In the summer of 1960, the hair on my head turned red, because the week before I had given myself a “do” with a kit I got at Walgreens. My hair was fried and laid to the side. Hair used to be important to Negroes—with some militant exceptions, more-or-less straight hair ruled, pretty much any way you could get it. From your parents was best, but a lot of people have made a lot of money selling hair straighteners and conditioners to Negroes, not to mention skin lighteners.

I see so few black people these days, I don’t know what the masses are doing to their hair. In 1960 I was mostly finding out what a do would do to my particular hair, because the results were unpredictable. I’d heard that sometimes the chemicals were so strong that you couldn’t get the mixture off fast enough to avoid being burned. Sometimes the hair didn’t change. My kit turned my hair red, burned my scalp, and stank like you wouldn’t believe.

My hair was fairly straight when I was little, and my mother tried to keep it that way as long as she could. She and all of her family had straight and wavy hair, and she thought I should, too. My father’s genes had a say, though, and then my hair changed along with the rest of me. For a couple of years in the ’50s I had a crew cut, and my Afro was an early-’70s phenomenon.

Every summer I’d have my hair cut down to a whisper, right next door to shaved but not quite. Generally I’ve preferred to ignore my hair, which worked well because I hardly ever saw it anyway.

My mother’s mother and siblings had hair that turned silver as they aged. It was the most amazing thing. I wanted some. My father’s hair was evenly mixed black and grey until the end, and not a hint of silver. Would I get silver hair or not? Complicating things, I noticed my hair growing thinner on top even in high school. I just managed a kind of comb-over pompadour by the end. The top has continued to thin, and for most of my life I’ve wondered whether my hair would even last long enough to go silver.

The results are finally in, you’ll be glad to know, and I did get some silver, giving me great satisfaction, although I still don’t get to see my hair much. My luck held, and I’ve got upwards of 25 or 30 hairs left on the top of my head, six or seven of them silver. I’m gonna grow ’em hella long.