New Hair, Who Dis (Dear Mrs Johnson) – Faith Falayi

“This is a politics and poetics of defiance; one that is detailed, textured, and makes space to luxuriate in the glorious, intricate contours of Black hairstyling and its importance to identity for young girls as they navigate school and the world.” – Naush Sabah

Dear Mrs Johnson,
Hello, it’s me again.
I know I was in your office just yesterday
but you never give me the chance to explain.
So I’m writing you a letter
and, from student to headmaster,
I’ve got some things to say.

Let’s begin with that Monday,
the first day of school.
My mum told me
first impressions count so
I wanted to look cool.
Books stacked, bag packed
and long, red and black goddess braids
that swung down my back
as I walked through the doors.

I’ll be honest, it was hard to ignore
the gaping mouths, surprised eyes
that caught me walking
down the corridor.
But I knew I looked good,
that much was sure,
so I wondered how Mrs Marchmont
could look to appalled.
She took one glance and sent me
straight through the door
to wait outside your office, next to Room 304.

We sat and you stared
and I waited while you squinted at my hair
and then you said it was
and I’d have to
“find a different way to wear my hair.”
Confusion stopped my head dead.
I didn’t know what to say
so I said,
“Okay, Mrs Johnson,” and “Sorry, Mrs Johnson.
It won’t happen again.”
And then I left.

And I thought that would be the end
but no,
it happened time and time again in the
weeks and months that followed.
A fortnight after that, last term, a few
days ago, when I came in with my afro
(because that’s a “natural” hairstyle, isn’t it?)
and with every trip to your office, the list
of banned hairstyles continued to grow:
box braids, cornrows
were “unsuitable” for school,
faux locs, Bantu knots
were “simply unacceptable.”
You’d wrinkle your nose at the scent
of my Coconut and Black Castor Oil conditioner,
list the conditions of the school rules,
but Mrs Johnson, you can’t condition me or my hair
with the kind of conditioner that you use.

I am just like my hair: untameable.
I twist and curl,
gravity-defying, my fro grows up, out of this world
and towards the sun.
I keep my culture safe with Eco Styler, slicked back in a bun
because unlike some,
I cannot simply ‘wash and go’
– honestly, I’m still trying to master that YouTube video.
It takes time.
But everyone knows
there’s nothing you can’t do
with a bit of Cantu and almond oil.
Everyone knows,
so why can’t you see it?

Loc’d up in my Senegalese twists
is my heritage
so I keep it protected.
A ritual braided down from people to people,
to shampoo, condition, detangle
and weave our threads together again.
Our bonds grow strong like our hair
after long hours in the salon chair
or nestled between a mother’s legs.

After all our meetings, Mrs Johnson,
long after your preaching became a chore,
I had to settle the score, to explain that
my hair is so much more, it plays a much bigger role
because from my roots, grows my soul.
My hair is me,
my identity.

In fact, my hair has its own identity,
that’s why Wash Day is never easy
but I don’t shrink away from a challenge,
besides, shrinkage has never stopped me.
My hair makes me stronger;
every inch, every strand,
every curl – you see, Mrs Johnson?

I hope you see.
I hope when you see my hair,
you also see me.
Whether it’s long today and short tomorrow,
relaxed, natural, wig or afro,
you’ll see us in the corridors and out in the streets.
We, the black girls with cornrows,
We, the black boys with Afro combs.
If you didn’t understand it before,
surely that’s all the more reason to let it grow?

Mrs Johnson, I know I’ll be in your office
again after this, but tangled up in rules
we often miss the bigger picture,
in which we all feature. So,
from a student to a teacher,
our hair symbolises our growth
– please don’t cut us short.
This is a school,
where we learn and where
sometimes we’re taught
so thank you for reading.
I’m looking forward to our next talk
in your office, next to Room 304.

Yours sincerely,
a black girl whose hair looks good, for sure.