Embracing Me

By: Ay Okuleye
Second Place Winner, 2014
Grades 7 to 9 Division
School Without Walls, 9th Grade
Teacher: Tankea Parascandolo

What is courage really? Doing something for someone else? Tackling a task you don’t want to? To me personal courage is realizing a piece of yourself you don’t like and accepting it.

We all have flaws, it can’t be helped. And out of all my flaws the one that I personally wanted to get away from was my hair. I hated my hair because it was different. I’m an African American and my parents are both from Nigeria. And I inherited their tough, nappy, knotted up, and kinky hair. I hated it with a passion. And in my culture your hair is a form of who you are; a part of your identity. So in a way hating my hair was hating myself.

I remember growing up in Chicago and going to a school that was dominantly white. And as the child of a Nigerian woman my mornings consisted of my mom yanking at my hair, quite painfully I must add, and putting it into four braids. And when I got to school I looked at all the other girls and saw their hair, it wasn’t like mine, or mine wasn’t like theirs? The other girls had nice smooth long hair, and I had hair that required an extra 40 minutes in the morning. Why? I remember expressing this to mom and I asked, ‘Why isn’t my hair like all the other girls?” She simply told me, “Because different is beautiful.” But I didn’t feel beautiful, just different.

One day when I was getting my hair done at a salon there was this older black woman. And at this point I thought ALL black people had the same hair. And I figured her hair was exactly like mine, kinky and nappy and a pain in the butt. But after her hair was unwrapped and washed and all I stood amazed at how unlike my hair it was. Hers was everything I wanted mine to be. And I remember the exact thought in my head at the age of 9. Why isn’t my hair like that? This idea of lesser hair is something that prevailed way into my identity as I grew up. By 6th grade my hair was always braided. No one had ever seen me without braids. One day my mom took out my braids and said she couldn’t find anyone to redo them this weekend. So that meant I would have to go to school with my natural hair. And that was one of the scariest things I had ever encountered that year. Throughout the entire day I had my hair hidden under a hoodie. I didn’t want to be anymore different than I already was. But of course people were wondering what’s up with my hoodie. Then eventually someone yanked my hoodie right off and everyone was staring. I immediately broke down into tears. I was so ashamed of my hair that the mere action is displaying it, made me sob. This was my personal obstacle and I conquered it.

Last year in eighth grade my mom had made the decision that I should cut my hair and let it grow naturally. I was devastated! I had finally grown my hair and tamed it to the idea that resided in my head of how my hair was to fit in; how it would assimilate. Then my mother decided that wasn’t the path I would be taking. Walking up to that barber shop, sitting in that chair and getting my hair chopped off was the worst experience of my life. My hair was now about 3 inches and I was so ashamed of what I had become. And then I would have to go to school?! That weekend was the longest weekend I had ever encountered. I didn’t want to go to school. This new me wasn’t what I wanted to be. How would I face my entire school? That was what took me courage. I had to make a decision at that one moment. Keep my head up and be proud (as I could be) or go to school and have a repeat of before? I didn’t really decide to invoke personal courage and go to school with my all natural. I didn’t decide that today would be the day I stopped hating my hair; my identity. I don’t think personal courage starts like that. For me it starts with the realization that I could try and run from the things that make me who I am, but I can never hide forever. I could either accept it now or continue this self-hatred. And then I realized what had to be done. If I accepted myself others could accept me too. And that was one of the most courageous things, personally, I could’ve done.