• More Than Just Hair: Thinking About Shiva’s Dreadlocks and Black Bodily Integrity

    Nina Sharma Navigates Anti-Blackness Within Her Indian-American Family

    “I won’t show his picture to my relatives until he cuts his hair,” my mother said, an ultimatum I hadn’t imagined. I imagined: “It’s either Quincy or us,” not “It’s either Quincy’s dreadlocks or my relatives.” I was visiting my parents, just me. Her words broke into an otherwise languid afternoon. As she went on about Quincy’s dreads, a dreadlocked figure was depicted in peaceful repose right above her head—

    Blue god. Hair coiled up. A spout of water coming out of the top. The god of creation and destruction. Not the cutie butter thief everyone fawns over. He is the bad boy with a man bun. He is Shiva. And he has dreads. His picture, along with the rest of the pantheon, is all over my parents’ house—in the linen closet my mother converted to a prayer room, on the hallway walls alongside other gods that my parents pass and pray toward before they enter or exit the house.

    Shiva sits cross-legged, eyes shut, serene, even as he holds a spear, even as snakes wrap around one of his four multitasking arms, all this activity leading up toward the pièce de résistance—dreadlocks, cascading down his shoulders, wound up on top with a spout of water coming out. Shiva is said to have protected the earth from the deluge of the Ganges through his hair, in which the Ganges water is retained. It’s this scene my parents say hello and goodbye to as they enter and exit the house, to work, to golf, to things in between. And yet: “I won’t show his picture to my relatives until he cuts his hair.” My mother said this not once or twice but several times, a mantra of her own making.

    “What about sadhus?” I was trying my best not to turn away from them, to be able to talk them through their anti-Blackness while maintaining the feeling of a chill afternoon teatime talk.

    “What is she saying?” my mother said. She knows what sadhus, the holy men, are—this is a nonquestion question, another arm of “what will my relatives think?”

    Hair for Black Americans has always been inextricable from economic and physical survival.

    “It’s a religious act,” my father chimed in. I wanted to clarify to them that Quincy’s hair wasn’t a religious choice, but I also did not. I just wanted the conversation to stop.

    “Maybe we can make a whole ritual about it. I’ll shave him,” my father said with a grin. Maybe he was making fun of Hindu hair-shearing ceremonies—like the mundans, shaving the baby’s first hair on the head. My father was laughing. But I wasn’t.

    The violence of that statement had me shuddering. I want to say I was scared. And I was. But being scared is my go-to when I feel discomfort with other feelings. I was angry, I was sad. We had only just gone public as a couple, but I was already bracing myself for the road ahead. What a brutal beginning. What a profane, godless start.

    In Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps describe how head shaving was one of the first acts of enslavement. If not done by Europeans as they forcibly removed Africans from their home countries and onto slave ships, head shaving was done by slave traders once in the Americas and in the Caribbean. It was part of a project of cutting from enslaved Africans all ties to their place and people, all known markers of identity. It remained a consistent part of slavery—hair cutting became a way of dehumanizing, terrorizing, and punishing. And more materially, the shaved head was the first step in violating, exploiting, and extracting from a Black person’s body for financial gain.

    If a shaved head was used to “signal ‘slave’ status,” as Jasmine Nichole Cobb writes in New Growth: The Art and Texture of Black Hair, then dreadlocks can be seen as a threat and defiance of that status, that history. And while I never asked Quincy the details of when and why he began to lock his hair I knew he was a poet and a professor with performance poet tendencies. I knew that in these highly visible, stage-loving roles, his hair did signal something. Quincy had grown and dreadlocked his hair over seven years, seven years of working upon it, seven years of making a statement through it, a statement about his relationship between self and society, between “Jones” (what his students called him) and Quincy.

    His dreads are part of the project of him as much as his teaching and writing. This is what made “I won’t show his picture to my relatives” hurt so much. My mother didn’t just want a haircut. She didn’t want them to know him.


    A few months after my mother requested that Quincy cut his hair, Quincy planned a trip to Cape May, New Jersey. It was ostensibly to celebrate his birthday. This was strange because he was generally not much of a birthday person. I knew what was coming—a proposal. I knew it because my mother had been calling more often and asking me for “news.” And yet, I didn’t feel like I could be too sure.

    On the beach, the water was endless and serene. Quincy looked worried. I clutched his hand. We walked and walked, getting farther from the throngs of people in picture-perfect sunset spots. His hand kept shifting grips and then he let go, he was kneeling in front of me. “I promise I will do my best to make you happy.” A future clicked open with that box. I looked down too long. The ring. It was enormous and shiny. It was my mother’s. She had given it to him sometime around when she gave me the ultimatum over his hair.


    I didn’t cry when he put the ring on me. And I didn’t cry as we talked to our parents. But when we returned to the hotel and Quincy opened a second gift, two simple but custom-designed necklaces, paid for on an educator’s salary, I surprised myself with how much I cried.


    Soon, my mother and I teamed up for wedding planning. We talked more than ever. My mom always had intel: “DJ Mr Mike did such a good job at the Grover wedding,” she said on one call.

    “Wait, I was talking about the other DJ, Desi Allstars,” I said.

    “What about Mr Mike?” she said.

    “What about DJ Nandini?” I said. “I hope you didn’t give a deposit.”

    “Oh, my god,” she said. “So many names.”

    We were in agreement on this. The wedding planning was an overwhelm of names, of choices, of things that I did not know had names or were choices. I found myself more and more busy with them, and more and more invested in them. I had imagined a simple beach wedding, with plenty of time to plan, but my mom had talked me into a date just six months from Quincy’s proposal. Now we were planning elaborate South Asian-heavy affair in which Quincy would ride in on a horse and I would be carried in on a bejeweled litter.

    As we labored over the details, “I won’t show his picture to my relatives” seemed to fall out of our conversation. Not that she had given up the ultimatum. In the midst of sorting out DJs, horses, litters, and all that would come, she’d slip in the question—“Has he done that thing yet?”—a spectral presence in our planning.


    When Quincy’s parents hassled him about his hair, I did laugh.

    “Looking pretty raggedy there, kid,” his mother would say.

    “Your old barber is still working in the shop,” his father would say. “He might remember who you are.”

    Their words were not so different from those of my parents. But they felt different. And maybe that is simply because they came from a different place. Not the cut-hair-or-we-cut-him-out anti-Blackness of my family but the small talk that comes from generations of navigating the politics of respectability.

    Cobb writes in New Growth, “Violence is the chief imprint on textured hair’s imbrication in struggles for Black liberation.” In other words, “I won’t show his picture” and “I’ll shave him” are more than a mother’s nagging, a father’s bad joke. Instead these statements, like the physical imbrication of scar tissue collected atop a wound, are layered with histories, rituals, traditions of violation of and control over Black people’s bodies, all overlaying this country’s original wound of slavery.

    Hair for Black Americans has always been inextricable from economic and physical survival. Plantation owners favored those whose hair most closely resembled their own. As Byrd and Tharps write in Hair Story, “Those slaves living on plantations soon realized that lighter-skinned Blacks with straighter hair worked inside the plantation houses performing less backbreaking labor than the slaves relegated to the fields.” This “hair texture hierarchy,” as Byrd and Tharps continue, remained, post-Emancipation, in the lives of Black Americans, bound up with Black Americans’ moneymaking potential, if not through the texture of natural hair then through an ability and a willingness to invest time and money in concealing or altering it.

    It makes sense then that most hair innovations that endure to this day were the creations of Black people, like Christina Jenkins. Working in a wig-making company in 1949, Jenkins noticed how wigs tended to easily slip off customers’ heads. What’s more, she wanted a means of altering hair without the damage of heat or chemicals. Two years later, Jenkins invented the hair weave.

    In 1965, the U.S. passed the Hart-Celler Act, the bill that opened the door to my parents and to many Asians to enter into this country in unprecedented numbers. The following year, the government did for Asian hair what it had just done for Asian immigrants. There had long been a ban on the import to the U.S. of any wigs containing Asian hair. But in 1966, the U.S. partially lifted the ban—allowing hair from Asian countries aside from Communist China, North Korea, and North Vietnam. So opened the door to the U.S. import of raw human hair from Asian countries that were not Cold War adversaries.

    It is here where that once-banned Asian hair became “commercial hair.” In particular, Indian hair, marketed even now as “true Indian hair,” became popular in decades to come.


    My mom had thoughts on the where of the wedding as much as the when and how we should look. She and my father urged me to have the wedding at an event space in a mini-mall nearby their house.

    “Just think of it as a kind of under-the-radar cool place, like that sushi restaurant in L.A.,” my sister Diksha said.

    “But it’s a strip mall. Not only that, it’s the one I went to as a kid.” I used to go to the Chili’s in the center often, a cool thing to do when I was twelve.

    “The best Indian restaurant in the world is there. Don’t be such a stickler for details, Nina.”

    When I asked Quincy what he thought all he said was, “I’m still worried about jumping over a column of flames while riding on that horse.”

    In my heart I knew horse jumping would be nothing compared to the feat of cutting the dreadlocks he had grown for most of the decade.


    My mom and I began to talk every day. She asked me if I wanted to get the ceremony projected on a plasma screen. She asked me if we wanted our initials in a revolving heart on the dance floor. She asked me again if Quincy had “done it yet.”


    We traveled to northern Jersey to go into a warehouse that held Indian wedding props, fully constructed mandaps and garland samples. The cinder block mixed with the floral arrangement section gave it a cool, sweet smell. Huge, monolithic columns and frames were stacked against each other, looking like the unearthed ruins of a bygone empire. An Air India sign made out of red roses hung above, on a ceiling rafter.

    “Here was one that I was thinking of.” The warehouse owner pointed to a dark wood mandap; the wood was cut out and fashioned into floral designs.

    “No,” my mother and I said, in unison. We were agreeing more and more.


    Another weekend, me, my mother, Quincy, and more wedding decisions. We played the DVD sent by a potential DJ. The video opened with the sound of clocks ticking, like the start of Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon. A man with spiked-up gelled hair was sitting with his head in his hand; a woman looked pained at the edge of the stairs. Then the DJ started playing, started emceeing and doing his thing. And all seemed right, though those two characters never came back on screen.

    “Seemed like the groom wasn’t going to make the wedding. Did the DJ save the whole thing?”

    I caught Quincy and my mom laughing together.


    Another weekend, Quincy came up the steps into my family’s home to visit. Instead of coming at him with prayer materials and vermillion powder my mother said, “Are you cutting it? When are you cutting it? I won’t show your picture to my relatives until you cut it.”

    She finally felt comfortable enough to deliver her anti-Blackness directly to Quincy.


    The picture: a small group of young Black people are seated at a lunch counter; they look about the same age as the college first-years I teach, just kids. Behind them, a throng of white kids pour food and drink and condiments into their hair. The Black students remain seated, goopy white messes congealing to their hair and clothing. Cobb writes, “In preparation for harassment, activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) practiced having their hair pulled (figure I.3). Eventually, and for practical reasons, many of these same women let go of straightened styles.”

    The efforts of activists culminated in the landmark passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, legislation that ended public place and employment segregation and brought about the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And yet hair remained a wound, an imbrication. The pressure to alter one’s hair to get a job, to keep a job, that racial capitalism remained in place.


    I didn’t come out and say it. Slowly, as we were seated on the couch together, what came out were the words of our mutual friend, the one who introduced us, Justine: “Justine thinks your dreadlocks need shaping up.” Justine had said this long before, two years before, only the second time we all hung out together. That night, Quincy charmed us both as we talked into the wee hours. It was late, he had to go home, she showed him to the door, and when he shut it, she flipped around, back pressed against the door, both of us still laughing, still smiling, her charmed eyes meeting mine. She said: “I would date him, but he’d need to get his dreadlocks retwisted.” I was immediately jealous. Then I remembered she was a lesbian. And now, two years and an engagement later, I was using her as a patsy.

    Hair remained a wound, an imbrication. The pressure to alter one’s hair to get a job, to keep a job, that racial capitalism remained in place.

    I suggested we try what Justine had imagined, the retwisting. I booked Quincy a trip to a salon in Philly that, like lots of Philly landmarks, boasted Jill Scott and members of the Roots as customers. The salon had a dedicated, specifically priced service to get locks retwisted, but Quincy came back looking like a sad dog after a haircut, no longer the wild poet or beloved professor, but like someone had given him a slick Wall Street comb-over while he had dreads.

    I wished they could go back to the way they were.


    I decided to go out on errands. Not really for anything necessary. More to quiet my mind. Wedding planning was getting to me.

    The Rite Aid was nondescript heaven. After a while, I wasn’t thinking about the wedding. After a while, I wasn’t thinking about anything at all. I floated through aisles to the sound of Hall and Oates until I forgot what brought me here.

    I wasn’t there when he took up scissors, our oldest pair, metal going from tip to grip.

    I wasn’t there when one by one Quincy placed his severed locks into a can.

    I wasn’t there when he got light-headed as he cut the largest one. I wasn’t there when he weighed himself. Five pounds lighter.

    I wasn’t there when he took a shower. I wasn’t there when he shaved his face.

    I came home with a bag of unnecessary things.

    I fiddled with our sticky lock and opened the door to someone standing in our living room, a man, a stranger, a young boy—maybe all of nineteen. This was what I saw. All of Quincy’s marks of recognition were gone. No dreadlocks. No professor scruff. I burst into tears. There was nothing to hold back the waters.

    “You don’t like it,” he said.

    “No, it’s not that…” I said.

    That night Quincy went to pick up sushi for us from our neighborhood place. He put a cap on to cover his new shaven head. But he still flipped up his jacket like he was making room for his dreads. He did this for months on end and each time I felt it again. This hurt.

    “You don’t like it,” he said.

    “No, it’s not that…”

    I never completed the sentence.


    The next day Quincy went to get shaped up. Not at the Jill Scott-touting salon but a barbershop in a neighborhood that city planners hadn’t figured out how to gentrify yet. The barber cleaned it up and said, “There are going to be lines on your head for the rest of your life.”


    After the barber, Quincy never really talked about his dreadlocks, though he chuckled at his hands flipping ghost hair every time he put on his jacket; though he paused when he found a black hair band or three in his pocket; and though Philadelphia at the time was experiencing its fifth-warmest summer, he often declared, unprompted: “I feel cold.”


    In 2019, fifty five years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the establishment of the EOEC; fifty four years after the passage of Hart-Celler, and all the ways Asians benefitted the gains of the civil rights movement; and fifty-some years after all the ways Asian hair came in thereafter through America’s cold cellar of a heart; then California state senator Holly J. Mitchell authored the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair). According to the CROWN Coalition website, “Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home or know of a Black woman sent home from the workplace because of her hair.” In summer of 2019, the CROWN Act was signed into law, making California the first state to ban hair‑based discrimination. As of January 2024, twenty-three states have adopted or are in the process of adopting similar laws. On the federal level, the CROWN Act passed in the House in 2022 but remains stalled in the Senate, actively blocked by the GOP.


    At the wedding, Quincy wore a sehra, a turban with bejeweled strands, over his just-growing-in curls.

    A DJ didn’t come to our rescue, didn’t have to. The wedding was a well-oiled machine with day-of event coordinators. As per Indian wedding tradition, my cousins successfully stole Quincy’s shoes. Quincy played along so well that my Auntie Sharada waved other girls in to join, asking for a ransom. He offered them first a dollar, then two, and then his brother. It wasn’t that he was simply enjoying himself, he was himself. Our friends mixed and mingled, traded numbers, reunited. As for the elders—an uncle literally danced his pants off.

    300 people came. At dinner, Quincy and I didn’t make it to all of the tables.

    There was a table for my mom’s relatives. There was a table for my sisters and their families. There was a table for my sisters’ in-laws. There was a table for my parents’ medical school buddies. There was a table for the financial planners—yes, plural. There were tables, multiple, for the Indian community of greater New Jersey, neighbors and feuding uncles and aunties placed strategically. There was a table for my high school friends. There was a table for my college friends, both Brown and Barnard. There was a table for my and Quincy’s mutual friends, from New York and Philly, and all our chosen family in between. There were but two tables for Quincy’s family—the extent of their guest list. One table was for the immediate family. Sitting at their other was Quincy’s cousin Lauryn and her full crew of friends, the ones who were close enough to call Quincy’s parents Mom and Dad or Uncle and Aunt Cee Cee, a crew of people that more than any other table at the wedding gave Quincy West Philly cred.

    The next day my other sister Aria mentioned my faux pas of not going to all the tables. “Don’t worry, I went around for you (you are welcome).”

    Aria arrived at Lauryn’s table in all her aspirational identities—Good Eldest Daughter, Model Minority, Assimilated Private School Doctor-Mom.

    Lauryn was done up in evening dress and makeup and hair and even though she was a businesswoman and author, that night it was all laughter and fun with the crew: West Philadelphia, born and raised….

    The interaction went as expected.

    This is how our families connected. This historic and ongoing tangle of racism and colonialism summed up in a brief exchange that Aria relayed breezily the next day in our postwedding debrief. It was quick. It was chaos. It was ours.

    “I love your hair,” Aria said.

    “Well, you should,” Lauryn said. “It’s yours.”


    Excerpted and adapted from The Way You Make Me Feel: Love in Black and Brown by Nina Sharma. Copyright © 2024. Available from Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

    Nina Sharma
    Nina Sharma
    Nina Sharma’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Electric Literature, Longreads, and The Margins. A graduate of the MFA program at Columbia University, she served as the programs director at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and currently teaches at Columbia and Barnard College. She is a proud cofounder of the all–South Asian women’s improv group Not Your Biwi.

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