Alopecia is a disease that occurs in the immune system and causes hair loss. By depriving me of the freedom to flaunt my own hair in its most natural state, it left me conflicted about whether I could indeed pursue my mission of advocating for black women to be able to do the same.
My alopecia didn’t care about my community reputation as a nap activist. As the founder of A Nappy Hair Affair, I have passionately promoted black hairstyle choices and worked hard to demystify the mythology of good hair and bad hair that lowers the self-esteem of black women and girls. As a journalist, I’ve written about hair discrimination in the workplace and unfair state licensing regulations imposed on professional braiders.
I launched a line of nappy T-shirts, produced the Nappy News, an events and affirmations newsletter, and made myself the headitor. I wrote a book of “Nappyisms” to celebrate our hair.
My own hair theft started when I was a student in the early 70’s. I discovered a small bald patch the size of a quarter on the right side of my scalp. Since I wore a relatively thick afro, I was able to tousle my hair just enough to cover the baldness. It remained a secret from the public until my boyfriend exposed me in front of his friends. Running his finger through my hair, he exposed the place I was trying to hide. It was supposed to be a joke. Since it was my boyfriend who had embarrassed me with his heinous act of cruelty, there was no Will Smith intervention. No one intervened on my behalf to slap him when the laughter started. My boyfriend obviously wasn’t a caretaker, and luckily that was the last time someone was so mean to my condition.
My baldness lay dormant for several years, so I still had enough hair to wear my favorite African-inspired hairstyles. Sometimes I even dared to wear my afro low, knowing that the bald spot was visible. But I didn’t care. I loved the look of the rest of my thick, frizzy hair. By the time I hit my 40s, the hair loss had spread and I was grateful for the skillful headwear and braiders that helped me hide the patchy spots. I didn’t like wearing dreadlocks, braids, or tightly coiled twists that were synthetic, but it was the only way I could—at least symbolically—continue to wear the styles I loved.
When I hit 50, my scalp looked like my grandmother’s. I grew up seeing her completely hairless on top with a little still in the back and sides. It was normal to see his tool around his house bareheaded and bald and only using his wigs as hats when it was time to leave the house for church. I don’t recall my grandmother’s baldness ever being discussed by her or anyone else.
I loved seeing bold black women in their baldness. They were beautiful, like black art at its best. But I was unable to see this image in me. My excuses for not being so bold were weak. My head didn’t have the right shape. My face was too big. I was unable to admit that I simply lacked the confidence to show up without my hair.
My discomfort was deep. My real hair, and the way I choose to wear it, has become a symbol of my advocacy. Losing him was like a betrayal to my cause. Yet, I continued my advocacy because my commitment to this cause was stronger than my vanity and my fears.
At home, I held communal hair styling sessions called Hair Days, to provide a safe space where natural hair wearers could be assertive for their hair choices and not be harshly criticized. I administered “naptisms” in a fun way to initiate natural neophytes. Word spread about my Hair Day gatherings and women formed communities around the concept. Hair Day groups have appeared with names such as “DC Naturals”, “Southern Kinks” and, in Switzerland, “EuroNaps”. A friend nicknamed me “Mosetta”, describing me as a Moses woman who freed women from the bondage of hair. Mosetta had probably become more popular than my identity as a journalist.
Unimpressed with my bona fide nappies, my alopecia continued to steal my hair.
By the time I entered my seasoned sixties, the mourning was over. I stopped crying over the hair that never came back and was sick of the prolonged concealment. I started to entertain the idea of removing what was left of it and I no longer worried about whether men would find me unattractive or if my femininity would be diminished. And with the wisdom and clarity I’ve gleaned from age and life experience, I’ve come to realize that I don’t need to display a crown to support the crowns of others.
All I had to do next was wait for my courage to kick in. Courage finally came with the help of a politician and the coronavirus pandemic.
When Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) went public with her alopecia in a January 2020 news video and stylishly showed off her new bald look, her transparency brought me closer to the decision to do the same.
I had spent years wearing my wig like a mask. After spending so much time at the start of the pandemic working in my house bareheaded and bald — just like my grandmother — I couldn’t bear to put it back on. Living with alopecia had made me reluctant to look at my hairless image in the mirror, and I decided to reconnect with it.
I stood in front of the mirror and made direct eye contact with my reflection. Still sporting a few remnants of her natural locks, she looked worried and shy. I smile at him. She was beaming and smiling back. I had found the grace to accept my new image, a new naturalness, and an attitude that didn’t care what others would think.
I called my friend Sherri who in the summer of 2019 had cut her hair and shaved her head due to alopecia. I asked if she could come and do me the same honor. She happily accepted. She arrived in June 2020 with her trimmer and gave me a hug before sitting down in front of my bathroom mirror. And with a gentle, knowing gesture, Sherri shaved my head to free me.