On Death and Dreadlocks

While the world reflected on the suicide of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain (a seemingly successful or at least famous White man and White woman), today, I reflected on the suicide of one of my beautician’s clients — an 18 year old Black male, who killed himself, with a gun, a few days ago. Yesterday, in preparation for his funeral, his mother asked the beautician to fix his hair.  Like me, he had dreadlocks.  He had shot himself in the head, and as the undertakers sought to fix him up, and clean up the blood, and use skin from another body part to cover the hole in his head, his hair got messed up.  According to the beautician, he was a pretty boy.    Just graduated from high school, a foster kid, who had lost his grandmother a year ago, but had come into a big inheritance, and bought a 2018 Mercedes… a kid whose last Facebook page was him walking across the stage, with the words, “I did it grandma.”  He had just gotten his hair done, a few days before his suicide, from my beautician.

My beautician, a beautiful woman, who from day 1, washed my hair with a love my dreadlocks have never known before: sudsing, caressing, massaging, rinsing, and repeating; sudsing, caressing, massaging, rinsing, and repeating; the warm water, always just the right temperature, running like a stream through every part in my head, with love. A soothing inquiring, genuine caring voice filled with love, “you doing ok today?”   A love that she knows she must show to the Black women and men that come to the beauty shop, seeking love that they do not know they are seeking.  She shows our hair that love, and through her hands, we feel it, not just on our hair, but on our heads, our minds, our souls, and our spirits.  Love.

Her hands on my hair are different than my mother’s hands on my hair, when as a child, she sat me between her legs.  Not that there wasn’t love, but it was different, a practical urgency, a list of things to do, of which one was combing thick hair, often knotted and kinky after washing, feisty, furious, demanding attention and love, but often only getting the attention of the comb, pulling, parting, the Oil Sheen, and a rough but persistent pulling and tugging and braiding. My hair was on a long lists of to-dos:  cooking meals; laundry; grading papers; preparing for class; taking children to music lessons; fighting racism, sexism, oppression, discrimination, disrespect daily.  Not much time for showing love, certainly not while braiding hair.  It was about expediency. It was about getting the job done.

My beautician never rushes to get the job done. Because her job of showing love, cannot be rushed, like a good soul food meal, like gumbo, like real love-making that lasts for hours, it cannot be rushed, because love can’t be rushed.   Today, I got my hair done, and I felt love and in that shared sacred space of submissiveness and trust, she shared her sorrow…and her courage. She shared why she rescheduled me to today, because yesterday, yesterday, she had to twist the dreads, at the funeral home, with the mother and girlfriend next to the dead body, rubbing and comforting the dead boy, with a combination of anger and grief.  My beautician had to twist the dreads of a dead black boy…to make him pretty, to be buried.

She shared how she had to be strong, to keep it together, to not shed tears, so she could make him look good.  She shared how her fiancé drove her to the funeral home; sat in his car, waiting for her, being strong for her, close, yet far, and how she focused on each and every dreadlock, twisting it.  And I know, she twisted it with love.

I’m grateful for her, in Blacksburg, doing Black hair, at the Dollhouse Salon, because but for her, who would wash my hair with love, a love my hair has never known, but a love that repairs, refreshes, rejuvenates, and reminds?

Today, she reminded me of a book I read several years ago, The Afterlife of Billy Fingers.  I read the book, in grief and pain and a sorrow I thought had no end, after my mother died.  Mildred died in my house, in our bedroom, after laying absolutely still for almost 2 weeks, just peacefully and gracefully dying.  Her final words, after which there was two weeks of silence was a blessing, a benediction, almost like she had already become a saint with the power to bless: “Bless you, Bless you all.”  (A Black Woman’s Journey, p. 242).  I had never seen anything like it before. Life slowly seeping away and death slowly creeping in – a eerily miraculous transition…organs slowly shutting down, decreased urinary output, slower breathing, fingernails becoming white, and then…..

Whew…and then…..Then what?  Where did she go?  Where do they go?  Into the air?  What happened? Ah, I often think this is a great sin of Western American European culture…an absolute arrogance and failure to honor, recognize, celebrate, and educate about death in any meaningful way.  The Christian pervasive tradition of hell or heaven or maybe purgatory and some grace, depending on whether the God or Jesus of your life liked you, or you prayed enough, or you read the Bible enough, or gave enough tithes, or served as a usher, or sang in the choir, or gave food to the hungry, housing to the homeless, and kindness to the stranger, or visited the inmates.  The high bar of holiness and sanctity meant only priests and nuns (those who weren’t mean and those who didn’t abuse) who could ascend to the holy of holies.  The rest of the pagans and heathens—the masses—never touched by the divine Hand of God were doomed to never never land.

What happens at death?  For me, I have had a profound curiosity about death even as a young child.  And my curiosity led me to books on death, on dying, on the spirit world, and then, as life evaporated, literally, before my very eyes, and as I thought, ever so often, about joining mama, in the invisible world where she surely had disappeared, I read the Afterlife of Billy Fingers – a profound book about life, about death, and about the spirit world that for me, just for me, provided the reassurance that my African spirit already knew in my soul.  This word, this concept, this ideology of death is the continuation of a fabulous and phenomenal journey that souls have been on since the beginning of time.  And some of us, some souls, ancient, reappear, complete multiple journeys and circles. Even science, biologists, the DNA/RNA experts acknowledge the persistence of traits from generations – what is that?  Some sense of continuity, fluidity, ethereal, yet real?

So, suicide – the soul’s seeking of its self – has this tragic and painful judgment and horror.  Why?  Why take your life?  Why not continue to suffer in this life?  That other life will come soon enough.  Stay for us, stay for those of us who couldn’t give you peace, who didn’t have a beautician who caressed love into every twisted dread, whose soul’s ached with a persistent piercing and gnawing and excruciating psychic pain, ….stay….stay….suffer….

Perhaps, just perhaps, we  find more beauticians to twists love into our souls and we can rethink friends on Facebook, followers on Instagram and Twitter, messaging, texts, and phone calls and a virtual world that isn’t quite real, to be with those who touch our hair with their fingers, and thus our souls with their love.

2 thoughts on “On Death and Dreadlocks”

  1. “She shared why she rescheduled me to today, because yesterday, yesterday, she had to twist the dreads, at the funeral home, with the mother and girlfriend next to the dead body, rubbing and comforting the dead boy, with a combination of anger and grief.”
    *Stunning, dreadful, and a gorgeous prayer to your beautician.

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