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By Flora Hanitijo for the Guardian

Imbolo Mbue instantly won our hearts a few years ago when news broke that she’d signed a million-dollar book deal with Random House.

However, months after the news about her book deal, there were no photographs of Mbue anywhere on the internet. Then one fine day, the Wall Street Journal did a feature on her, and we didn’t just get to see Mbue’s face for the first time but also met her amazing shock of black natural hair. [read here if you missed it.]

Her debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, has since been published and as we all hoped soared on to critical acclaim.

In a recent act of the utmost authorial cuteness, Mbue dedicates an entire article to her hair. The essay, titled “Me and My Afro” and which was published on The Guardian, traces the journey from her “first chop” to the stunning afro that has since become a part of her signature look.

The essay opens in the summer of 2002. Mbue recounts entering a hair salon in New Jersey and alarming the stylist by insisting on having her hair clipped off. Tired of scalded and blistered scalp, cutting of her hair was an attempt at getting off chemical straightener.

As anyone who carries natural black hair knows, the chopping off is only the beginning. In the essay, Mbue details the difficulty of washing and combing the hair as it grew longer and the pain of braiding it. She talks about the detangling process, which, as she puts it, involves a “lot of oil and patience.” She opens up about reverting to chemical straightener during a period in which she stopped caring.  Things finally changed when she realized that her attitude towards her hair betrayed a “deep-seated negativity.” She eventually popped by a “men’s barbershop” and “asked for them to buzz it all off.” Her hair has stayed natural ever since then.

In the concluding paragraph, she writes:

My afro is now bigger than it’s ever been. I keep growing it, despite the fact that, with every added inch, the challenge of managing it multiplies. Ours is an idiosyncratic love affair, one I celebrate alongside my numerous identities which include: black, woman, immigrant, Cameroonian, anglophone, African, American, human. Perhaps I’ll cut off my hair again one of these days (to try a new style, or just because I feel like it). But, for now, just like my beloved homeland, it reminds me that, within a tangled, twisted, knotty situation, beauty resides.

Her depiction of her natural hair journey is relatable and inspiring. The essay, which includes stunning photographs taken by NYC-based photographer Flora Hanitijo, is not just about hair. As you read through the article, you soon realize that Mbue uses this personal exploration of her hair as starting point for larger concerns regarding Cameroon’s political climate. But the writing is so beautifully done, making the essay an emotionally charged and beautiful read.

Beautiful piece! We hope you enjoy reading it.

Here is a short excerpt.

In the summer of 2002, I walked into a hair salon in New Jersey and asked a stylist to cut off all my hair. I was done having hair. Enough with the pain of straightening it with a chemical that scalded parts of my scalp and left others in blisters. Enough with the discomfort of braiding it – eight hours of tugging and wincing followed by painkillers to ease the soreness, or a full day of not being able fully to turn my head.

Free me from this burden, I told the stylist, who stared at me, confused, while I ranted. She tried to convince me merely to trim it, but I told her I wanted it all gone. Reluctantly, she obliged and I walked out that afternoon to the sensation of the wind on my bare scalp. The feeling was ineffable, my newfound freedom unquantifiable.

I regrew my hair into a short afro and cut it all off again before it reached the length where its coarseness made combing a battle. I did this several times, until I decided to stop with the cutting. Why was I running away from my hair’s texture, I asked myself: wouldn’t it be better – and healthier – to embrace it? It certainly wouldn’t be easier, I knew that, but I decided to experiment nonetheless, determined to confront every knot and tangle and find the beauty therein.

Read the full article HERE.

 

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Post image and Facebook link images by Flora Hanitijo for the Guardian

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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