Luther Hughes’ You Smell Like Outside: Hair Part 1

“You Smell Like Outside” is Luther Hughes’ wonderful column for Frontier where he seeks to answer the question every month: can poetry help us with our real, day-to-day life? For March, Lue is thinking about hair, and he’s got a lot to say. This YSLO is going to be a multi-parter. (Content warning for discussion and description of sexual abuse)


Hair. Part 1

I’m four years old, running around pretending the dirty dishrag on my head is my hair. Dishrag-me is the first me I remember. I was nothing before that. Don’t be mistaken, my mother told me stories, but they’re just hearsay and that’s not enough of me to grab onto. So, dirty-dishrag-me is the first me. Often, my mother tried to wash the rag, but I wouldn’t let her. “It’s my hair,” I would say, throwing my body to the floor, screaming. My father hated the rag. Probably something about perceived masculinity. I’m sure he and my mother talked about it, but I don’t remember him ever talking to me. He would just glare with his copper eyes, through fingernail-thin-framed glasses, as he left for work, kissing me on my forehead as he walked out the door into that Seattle brisk. I’m not sure when or why I started pretending the rag was my hair. In daycare, everyone had hair: long, short, black, blonde, in a bun, bouncing above the shoulders, curled, twisted, bobby-pinned, beaded, slicked to the side. But not me.

When my hair finally grew in, my mother slapped me in cornrows. For the life of me, I can’t remember how long those lasted. Although, I do remember sitting in the kitchen on Sunday evenings after church as she hovered above my peanut head, parting my hair into ready-to-braid rows. Getting a fresh set of braids was the worst part of my Sunday. When it came to force, she didn’t slack: snatching three sections of the row at the beginning of my hairline, weaving the sections through her fingers, roughly dabbing a drip of Blue Magic grease to keep the hair moist, and then quickly wrapping the end of the braid in a black rubber band. The beginning of “Sunday Morning” by Ariana Brown comes to mind:

after washing,
i slip oil through
my damp braids,
as the oil
my scalp,
ribbons of liquid angels
granting me
their honey.

Brown makes this experience lovely, using words like “angels” and “honey.” But, I assure you, it wasn’t. Every so often, the braid wouldn’t be in a straight line. When this happened, she would take the comb with the thickest teeth and violently undo the braid, muttering under her breath. Then the process would restart. It was painful. Sometimes she would overhear me telling my friends, church members, hell, anybody who would listen to me talk about my hair, that I was tender-headed. “No, you’re not,” she would demand, eyes narrowing, lips pursed. If the pain wasn’t of my doing, then I assumed it was of hers. But, she would never admit to that.

We never talked about pain and how to deal with it. We knew it was there. One Sunday evening, hours after she do-rag-wrapped my hair, I saw her crying on the living room couch. I said nothing. Honestly, what was I supposed to say? “There, there? It will be okay?” I knew nothing of emotions, sympathy, and what of the two. So, I watched my mother weep. The dim lamp light milking her hunched body. She looked as though she were defending herself.

When I cried, she knew exactly what to do. She would kiss my forehead, say a little prayer: “Oh Lord, please help. Oh, God. Oh, God.” She was soothing. It was soothing. Still, I rarely cried.

I blame my father for this. Whenever he caught me crying, he would throw, “What’re crying for? Stop. We Hughes men don’t cry.” I mean, I was four, maybe five, when I heard things like this. I wasn’t a man, and the word “man” held no meaning. What held was, “don’t cry.” So, after a while, I didn’t. I kept it in.

I kept everything in. When my play-brother of twelve—me, six—ushered me to take off my clothes in his basement, I told nobody. He said it was a game brothers played. Or something like that. Every weekend, we played the game. Some afternoons, when the sun was feeling confident and the trees swayed in chorus, we would rollerblade around his neighborhood—Renton Highlands—dodging oncoming cars, laughing and clutching our sides. Other times, he would sic his savage black dog on me in the backyard. The beast would jump on me, bark in my face—teeth sharp as my mother’s kitchen knives. He’d laugh and laugh until I started crying. He enjoyed my suffering.

Natalie Diaz, in her poem, “My Brother My Wound,” writes:

He said, Lift up your shirt. And I did.

He slid his fork beneath my ribs—
Yes, he sang. A Jesus wound.
It wouldn’t stop bleeding.
He reached inside
and turned on the lamp—

I never knew I was also a lamp—until the light
fell out of me, dripped down my thigh, flew up in me,
caught in my throat like a canary.

That’s what it felt like sometimes, as if my brother turned on something in me while he watched me do his bidding, watched me suffer. “I never knew I was also a lamp”—how simple Diaz makes it all seem. When the brother wounds the speaker and calls it a “Jesus wound,” his laughing is implied. The things older siblings do to their younger siblings.

At some point, he began sticking his fingers in my butthole. I don’t remember when this started. How or why. I just remember his fingers inside my naked body, his other hand rubbing the top of my head. Sometimes he was naked too. Sometimes we were under the blankets watching TV, usually Jurassic Park or Sister Act 2—my favorites. His head would disappear. He would slide off my boxers with his pencil fingers, stick one inside without warning. And then two. I would squirm, trying to remove himself from me. But he was stronger. Bigger. He never went past two fingers. Many times, we weren’t under the blankets, just on the couch or sitting on the floor. Our favorite music video would be on, Are You That Somebody by Aaliyah. I remember the baby’s wail at the end of the song as Aaliyah and her dancers swayed their hips to the music. “Relax,” he would say every few strokes of his finger, every few beats, or wails. “Relax.” It’s hard to say if I ever “relaxed” the way the body is supposed to when entered like that.

In the poem, “mercy” by Lucille Clifton, the speaker admits her complicated gratitude: “how grateful I was when he decided / not to replace his fingers with his thing.” When I first read this poem, one afternoon while sitting in the school library, I ugly cried. I knew this kind of gratitude, this unraveling. The anger in “I was so / grateful then and now grateful / how sick   i am     how mad.” God, I was angry. I’m still angry.



Luther Hughes

Luther Hughes is a Seattle native and author of Touched (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018). He is the Founding Editor in Chief of The Shade Journal and Executive Editor for The Offing. A Cave Canem fellow and a columnist for Frontier Poetry, his work has been published or is forthcoming in various journals including, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New England Review, TriQuartlery, Four Way Review, and others.  Luther received his MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. You can follow him on Twitter @lutherxhughes. He thinks you are beautiful.

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