At the absolute apex of my adolescence, I sported an afro for two years. It wasn’t some kind of fashion statement, or some kind of returning to my roots, or even an homage to Michael Jackson, circa 1979. It was instead a product of laziness and the procurement of two cheap picks at the dollar store in the summer of ’91.
The laziness kept me away from the barber shop, that and a misguided attempt at better handling my own meager finances. The cheap picks went along with the aforementioned misguided attempt; they were chunky, multi-colored plastic, but I thought they were the world. They allowed me to shape said afro into an enormous halo over me whenever I wanted, giving me my natural shade in the heat, and my protection from the rain as well.
I loved that afro because it gave me an identity I didn’t feel I had at the time. It gave me a persona when I had none to my name. It gave me an excuse to live. Then, on the coldest day of the year, in the wintry chill of 1993, I had that afro shaved off.
“You got a hat?” the barber asked me as I sat in his swivel chair.
“Not today I don’t,” I replied, realizing what he meant. Having that afro meant my head was never cold. I had lived in the warmth of its cocoon for so long I had forgotten what the harsh outside world was like.
“You’d better get one right away, if you still want me to shave it,” he said, gesturing out the window.
I looked that way for a moment, and on the corner out there on the street was a man selling all manner of items, from sunglasses to copied audio tapes, to beanies and pull down hats that somehow didn’t make me feel warm looking at them. He was doing a brisk business, though, because his product was cheap and he was a convenient business destination for brothers in the hood. And maybe the barber was getting some kind of kickback from recommending him to me.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, as another customer walked in, and a gust of chilly air followed him inside.
“Such a great head of hair,” the barber told me, and I could see he meant it. You see, in 1993 all the brothers were shaving their heads to be like Michael Jordan, either that or GI Jane, and I really think it was the former. So I was an anomaly, a throwback to a different age, and I think the barber appreciated that too much to just shave my afro without a word of advice first.
“Yeah, it just keeps up my overall body temperature,” I replied, my course set, my trajectory plotted in without chance of detour.
“Then yes sir, you need to get yourself a hat,” he repeated. “It’s cold out there.”
The buzz of the clippers drowned out my thoughts as, like Samson, my hair fell down all around me, hitting the floor in waves. It gathered at my feet, a veritable sea of black, curly hair, but I didn’t feel like my strength was ebbing as a result. Instead I felt lighter, more self-assured, like that butterfly rising from its self-imposed exile to spread its wings and fly.
See, I don’t think it was just time, that I was trying to “Be Like Mike” even though that craze was starting to peter out by then anyway. I think it was all about finally knowing who I was, and not needing a gimmick anymore to validate my existence. Yes, I knew it would be ice cold out there when I emerged from that barber shop, that it would feel like little ice needles were pricking my scalp, but I needed that feeling.
Now I’d give anything to have that afro again.