By Simone White, from Of Being Dispersed, a collection of poetry that was published in May by Futurepoem Books. White’s previous collection is Unrest.
I came upon some unfamiliar lotion and began to think.
Let us suppose that lotion begins with principles of emulsion, which we know about from food making. The best lotions are made from what you can eat: fats pressed from the olive and the avocado; kernels, seeds, and germs of shea, palm, peanut, almond, primrose, sunflower, safflower, wheat; even the unlikely peach; even the apricot; the weird oils (O blubber of whale, O America) lanolin and jojoba; fragrant essence of lavender, rose, lemon, sage. When applied to skin in their unprocessed form, any of these — all — naturally begin to rot.
I do not wash my head every day unless I have been swimming, which I don’t do often, as I live in New York and do not swim for exercise. Of a winter’s morning when I take off my hat, it is thrilling and also repulsive to perceive a signal odor of black womanhood, rancid oil on the scalp, an odor lodged in memory quite near the smell of lightly singed hair, distinct from the smell of hair and skin chemically burned or “cured” by lye. Anyone who has ever been inside a hair salon frequented by black women knows this trinity of odors. Anyone who has ever been near a black woman knows it. (See footnote.)
Indeed, just the other day, because I care for my own hair and skin, I took the unusual step of washing and ironing my hair before beginning an ordinary day of errands, study, and writing.
Because it was a cold fall day, instead of twisting my hair into a knot and securing it with pins, as is my usual practice on a workday, it occurred to me to rest both hair and scalp by wearing a wool newsboy cap. Carelessly, I shoved my hair under a hat. A few floppy curls fell out. These I tucked behind my ears. The wind was blowing. I could smell the clean burn of my clean hair on Nostrand Avenue. I could smell it on the A train. It felt good to know that I was capable of caring for my hair and for myself in this way. Keeping it loose under my cap, I had coaxed my hair back to health, finally, after submitting to the simple, counterintuitive truth that it acts better when I keep it straight. This isn’t true for everyone, but it is true for me and my particular hair, known in the literature as type 3c. (Or it might be 4a.) Black hair in its natural state is delicate, and I haven’t the time to cultivate mine in the necessary way. I am an intellectual and a woman who must go to work and tend to her own survival. I accept, in my fortieth year, that the work of caring for my natural hair can, at last, be forgone. When I come out of the shower or the sea and people see my hair coiled around my face, they want to know something about why I do not choose this as my default appearance. My sister, my mother, and my husband do not ask this silly question; they leave me to my business.
I got to my university and I walked into the ladies’ room, removing my hat as I entered. A white woman (much older than I am, she should have known better) came out of the john to announce, quite loudly, “Oh my God, what is that smell? Something is burning!” Well, nothing was burning. It was just my hair. Let me remind you that we were in a public toilet, where all manner of odors proliferate, the least of which, I think, is the smell of scalded shampoo and protein. “I don’t think anything is on fire,” I told her, and went into a stall to pee.
My toilette is simple and extremely rigorous. Wash my head once a week. Attend to oral hygiene as frequently as is necessary. (In an age when almost everyone in the city carries some kind of pack, I cannot see why we should not have inside our packs a toothbrush and floss, at the very least. I like to have a little peroxide. My mother taught me this and her mother taught her: hydrogen peroxide for debriding and killing whatever tries to live in the mouth.) Pedicures twice a month, never resorting to chemical removal of skin. I keep my fingernails short and bare. Frequently, I wear no makeup at all, although if I am feeling old or not very pretty I resort to a little kohl and gloss. Bathe no less than twice a day. Bathing more frequently than this is a sign of mental illness. Less — for others — is fine.
I remove hair with enormous frequency, but I do not follow the most common or popular practices in this regard. I rarely cut the hair on my head, for example; I find that unnecessary. Since I keep my hair long, it maintains itself in decent order without the constant trimming many hairstylists recommend. (See footnote.) In summer, I respect the moderately oppressive governing expectation that I should remove hair under my arms, and from my legs, groin, and belly. In colder months, I remove hair only as my lover requests, and reluctantly, since I cannot overstate the discomfort and rage I experience each time I subject myself to any variation of the bikini wax, a barbaric and bizarre practice, the basic point of which (removing hair from the opening of the vagina and around the clitoris) can be accomplished painlessly with a thirty-five-dollar pair of electric clippers that serve for years.
Although women speak loudly and publicly of the removal of hair from their labia and ass-cracks, it is considered unseemly to speak of a woman’s facial hair with the exception of certain topics, rigorously delineated. Women and men may speak openly of the practice of shaping a woman’s eyebrows. With an intimate, one may speak of removing hair above the upper lip or of the removal of a few stray hairs on the chin with a tweezer. Only one woman, as hirsute as myself, has ever spoken to me of the removal of hair from her neck, from her entire face, in copious amounts from her chin, and she was herself a well-compensated expert in these matters, and a black woman, and a beauty. The aestheticians who remove hair from my face play a special role in my life.
The slightly ridiculous bodily conditions each of us lives with daily — after a day of not-writing, the collected and swept-up pile of flakes from my cuticles, black oils scraped from beneath my thumbnails, the stray bit of scalp, something swabbed from the cat’s eye.
One commercial lotion for my face, one for my body, one for my cuticles and the odd blemish or rash, one for my hands, several for my hair; those I recommend to others, recommendations I have taken. In the refrigerator, ongoing experiments with volatile fats (coconut oil, pure shea); on my bureau, emergency lotion purchased while out of town, disregarded as useless — wrongly conceived and executed with unreasonably high alcohol or glycerin content. Lotions that are too thin. For years and years, nothing sold over the counter worked. For lifelong care of simple dry skin, nothing a dermatologist has ever prescribed works. Nothing sold in a department store works. (Occasionally, a wonder like Oil of Olay!) Lotions whose makers choose (wisely) to make a great deal of money instead of excellent lotion. Always Vaseline in a pinch. A dab of olive oil is a quick fix.
Lotion is a palliative. What does it correct? It corrects ash. What is ash? Ash is a gray track of evident decay, most striking in contrast with darker skins, brown skins, tending to black.
After bathing, I apply both face and body lotions. After handwashing, hand lotion. In the winter, I apply an extra layer of thick, oily cream, too oily for the hands (but good for the thin skin on the shins, which cracks in cold, dry weather), to my heels and elbows. Sometimes I notice a black woman unknown to me, not homeless, whose legs or feet or hands are so ashy that I wonder whether she has lost her mind.
Liniments are a second class of lotions, meant to address a deeper set of problems.
I find myself on my knees with some rags and a bucket filled with scalding soapy water and bleach. My mother has visited and discovered some scuzz on the stepladder that I am obliged to use for retrieving bowls, pitchers, and the like from the uppermost shelves in my apartment. I am wiping clots of greasy dirt from the rungs of this already ugly metal thing, scrubbing also the dirty bands of floor that protrude beyond spaces that “cannot be cleaned” — the edge-of-under the refrigerator, the stove, the dishwasher, the poorly installed, cheap Formica cabinets. Filth. On my knees now, I perform an act of penitence; in that this dirt has been discovered and named and pointed to, I am humiliated; in that suggestions have been made regarding the method of its eradication too I am humiliated. Over the telephone, my mother insists that I kneel, of course, on some towels or sheets, folded several times to protect my knees from being scratched or scraped, made dark or scaly from work. “Are you wearing gloves?” she asks. “You wouldn’t want to get an infection. It’s how your father almost lost his arm. They made him scrub the floors.” My father had osteomyelitis as a teenager. A serious infection led to several botched surgeries, all performed while he was locked up in a facility for juveniles somewhere outside Philadelphia. In fights, he used his casts as weapons, and he never recovered the full use of his scarred right arm and hand. I never knew that, about the floors, I tell my mother, sloshing a rag around in the putrid bucket.
Our crooked fingers are soft, soft, all my parents’ children.
I maintain dominion over the crevices of myself, deep into the layers of my skin, which must never be questioned. Never doubt that these crevices extend toward an infinitely receding boundary. Come close to me to feel it.
* This excellent product was manufactured by the company of an old and dear friend, now a successful entrepreneur whose ventures include a mini–hair salon set discreetly behind a curtain in a shop otherwise devoted to the sale of lotions, shampoos, and other beauty products.
Of course, lotion occurs at an intersection of blackness and the market. Lotion and the practices it invokes — simple acts of living such as becoming wet or dry, ingesting or covering oneself in stuff of life — is the undressed and feminine doppelgänger of an imaginary space almost completely filled by black music, which dominates every attempt to materialize black imagination. That is, to bring the materially improved self and world into existence.
Lotion proposes roughness, a core condition prone to freaks; it is, in the presence of the corrigible, those who are in need, a simulacrum of all the suckings-off the world has ever known.