My Afro Does Not Fit into My Bike Helmet: The Adventures of a [Black] Vegan Hero

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Dr. Amie Breeze Harper posing to show her new Vegan Hero Cape after receiving an Unsung Vegan Hero Award for 2015 from the Pollination Project


 


“Screw it, I’m just going to shave it all off and go bald!”

This is the first thing I think of after my first few days of work at my new position within the University of California system in October of 2015.

Upon accepting a position within the Equity and Inclusion division at UC Berkeley, I decided that I would commute to work by bicycle on the Ohlone Greenway bike (see it here) and pedestrian path. I was super psyched!

And then I started thinking, “So, how does this look in terms of making myself presentable for work? How do I shove 4 years worth of afro growth into a bike helmet without needing to straighten it? Do I want to spend 15 minutes, once I get to work, trying to make my hair look like I am a professional Black woman?” (Yes, that last italicized section is a loaded term with an entire history and scholarly canon dedicated to it! Check this book out.)

The first day I arrive at work, after peddling up the hill for 20 minutes, I am sweaty. My hair is sweaty, naturally, because I exercised intensely. It kind of sucks. So, the story kind of goes like this….

I lock my bike, grab my bike bags and dash into my new building to find the closest bathroom. I remove my Deuter travel cosmetics bag, unzip, and remove my arsenal of vegan hair care products and tools:

  1. Afro pick

  2. Castor Oil

  3. Hard bristle brush

  4. Soft bristle brush

  5. Shea butter

  6. Alaffia Leave in Conditioner

  7. Hair bands

  8. Jojoba Oil

  9. Wide tooth comb

  10. Homemade spray bottle of glycerin, water, and essential oil of Lemon Balm (to spritz on my hair to mask the ‘sweaty’ smell).

I look at the arsenal, think for several seconds about my game plan, and then grab the leave-in conditioner and wide tooth comb. I lather the leave-in condition into my hair, wait 3 minutes for it to ‘set in’, and then start combing through it with the wide tooth comb. 2 minutes later I’m brushing everything back and wondering if I should put it in an afro puff or put it into two neatly tied back braids.

My mind scrambles: “Can’t I just go ‘natural’ or is it too ‘unprofessional’ my first day of work?Well, it is the division of Equity and Inclusion, so would they care if I busted out a big afro?”

I ask myself if  I should I scope around the building later today to see what the other Black women are doing about their ‘professional appearance’…or, have I internalized the trauma of ‘good hair’ and ‘bad hair’ so much that I am driving myself nuts over something that is no longer a big issue? (Of course I’ve internalized it! Have you not noticed that decades long images in the USA mainstream showing ‘professional’ and ‘beautiful’ hair appearances that are straightened hair? )

I decide on putting a part down the middle of my scalp and then making two braids and then tie them back-

–shoot, I forget that I should have added the castor oil which help with ‘fly away’ hair (what’s so bad about ‘fly away’ anyway?). I roll my eyes, huff with annoyance, and then un-braid the whole thing, smother castor oil on my palms, and then massage it throughout my entire afro. A drop falls onto my shirt. Shit, this stuff does not come out! I think.

I grab a paper towel and dab it as quickly as possible– too late. I now have a quarter size spot of castor oil on my shirt.

Someone enters the bathroom and I quickly wonder to myself, “I have all these products and tools laid out and my hair is half done as castor oil drops down my forehead. Great, freaking first impression, Dr. Amie Breeze Harper. Do they wonder what they hell I’m even doing here?”

I remind myself to comb and braid my hair quickly, before the leave in conditioner starts drying.

After 5 minutes, my hair is done and I have wiped away all the castor oil that was near my forehead and hairline. I worry that perhaps my hair looks too greasy and the the castor oil will leak down my neck.

I look at the size L helmet I have on the shelf near the mirror. The inside is glistening with the olive oil I had already put on my hair from last night, before going to bed. It’s a ‘large’ helmet and I can’t even fit my hair in there.

“Amazing, right!? Like, it’s made for people with short hair, fine straight hair, or no hair!” Screams my internal monologue.

Throughout my entire work week, I do this regimen every morning, promising myself that at the end of this first week of work, I will ask my husband to shave the entire thing off…. but the end of the first week comes and I do not shave it off.

Plus, the oils in my hair seem to be degrading the inside structure of the helmet (once again, these helmets are designed with the assumption that people aren’t putting 5lbs of shea butter and other oils in their hair, each year! LOL)

I started wondering if I should start a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for helmets that fit big afros, lots of dread locs, etc and don’t fall apart from the inside out if a little yummy shea butter or black castor oil touches it.

[…this kind of reminds me of what I was trying to do when I was younger and wanted to go swimming! Come on, you know I’m not the only one who used to, or still does, plan their public swimming appearance around their hair appearance! LOL]

Despite figuring out that maybe I should wash my hair every day, to make the stinky smell go away from sweating to death while biking up the hill (I’m probably exaggerating about the ‘stinky’ smell of my hair in my own mind), I realize that after week 2 I don’t enjoy trying to wash and condition my hair every day, comb it out, braid it to fit into my helmet, only to get to work and see that the helmet made the hair look ‘funny’ with helmet pad dents imprinted on my hairdo. I end up undoing the braids once I get to work and then combing, brushing, and re-braiding it after to make sure there are no funny ‘dents’ or pieces of hair that have come out of place…then spritz with lemon balm.

(And yea, with 3 kids 6 and under, it’s kind of hard to spend a long time washing and combing through my hair in the shower, braiding it, etc without them bugging me about something they need… because goddess forbid I am given 12 minutes for my own personal hair-care regimen without a 4 year old asking me and then crying if she can have a lollipop for breakfast!)

It’s week 5 of my new job and I have finally decided to stop being angry about this (strange I’d be angry, right? I mean, it’s just long strand keratin , so why get up in a fuss about it and make it central to my bike commute!?) and just accept that it will take me 15 minutes to do my hair, once I get to work…Or maybe I’ll just shave the whole thing off like I did back in 2009 when I was a grad student and not working as a ‘professional’ (what does that mean anyway. A