YASMEEN JAABER, 16
Yasmeen Jaaber, from Chesterfield, Virginia, spends much of her time researching and untangling the complexities of structural racism and other social justice issues. This research fuels her podcast, Was It Something I Said?, where she discusses everything from prison reform to mental health. Jaaber started this podcast after she decided she needed a medium to speak on the things influencing her daily life.
As a participant in Gun Lobby Day with the Richmond Peace Education Center, Jaaber’s experience with gun violence was featured in Style Weekly. Along with prison and gun reform, Jaaber is an ardent advocate for racial, religious and gender equality. She participated in the rally effort to make Richmond a sanctuary city and emceed the Richmond Peace Education Center Peace Summit.
Jaaber’s writing focuses on screenwriting, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Jaaber’s poetry and creative nonfiction often combine to create lyric essays. Jaaber’s personal essay/memoir has received a National Scholastic Gold Medal and a Visual Art Center of Richmond Artistic Merit Award. Her picture book Flea Man, about the importance of identity, was published in 2017. Jaaber was also featured in Bella Magazine in an installment of their Young Female Writers Club. Jaaber wants youth to firmly stand in their beliefs and exist unapologetically. She plans to follow a career path in screenwriting, lead workshops on social activism, and continue to grow her podcast.
by Yasmeen Jaaber
I had been using sophomore year to understand my hair, testing out different products and styles. One Sunday in November, I stood over my sink and pulled a section of hair in front of my face. I lifted the flat iron and closed it around my puffy, blow-dried hair, pressing and trapping it under the heated metal. My tight, small curls became straight and I breathed in smoke. The more hair I flattened, the better I felt– neat, organized, feminine.
A day passed and the charm of it wore off. The length didn’t look right, my roots were puffy, there was no volume, no pizzaz. I missed the nappy moss I could twist and comb with my fingers. I missed the softness and comfort of my curls.
The next week I hopped in the shower, excited to return my hair to its natural state. I poured the shampoo into my hand, then rubbed it into my hair and leaned a little underneath the showerhead. As soon as my hair was wet, I began to smell smoke. I kept combing my hair with my fingers, waiting for the texture to turn from limp to curly, but it didn’t. My hand felt heavy, tangled in a lump of straight, wet hair.
I jumped out of the shower and looked in the mirror. My stomach clenched. My hair was frizzy at the ends and limp at the roots. I could still smell smoke. I grabbed the conditioner and poured a handful on my head and combed the conditioner in, only to end up with clumps of dead hair on my comb. I tried rubbing the conditioner in with my hands. The texture of my hair didn’t change. I rinsed the conditioner out, sat on the toilet seat, and began to cry.
My hair that I had spent so much time cultivating and nurturing and learning, was completely ruined. And it stunk too. The longer I sat and cried, the more the smoke started to smell like burnt garbage. The flat iron had been cranked up to four-hundred fifty degrees, emitting heat too hot for a delicate swirl. All I could think was ugly, ugly, ugly. My hair was something I was just starting to understand and now it was dead. It was dead and I had no idea what I was going to do.
My mom took me to the salon about two weeks after that. Two weeks of tucking my hair under hats and covering my face in foundation to make myself feel beautiful. Two weeks of begging my mom to just cut it off, to just fix it or do anything to make it better. The thing was, she couldn’t. She couldn’t do anything but laugh with me and cry with me and hold me. And I think what she did was what I needed, even if it didn’t feel like it at the time.
After the stylist, Miss Tish, shaved my head, I felt better. But I still lost something in the process of straightening and burning and losing my hair. I’d gone from healthy hair that reached my shoulders to a short curly rug. Styling my hair had been one of my favorite past times, and now the only thing to do to my inch long hair was oil it. But, there’s a certain honor in having short hair as a black woman. In my efforts to master the complexity of my hair, I discovered a confidence and strength in myself.