Early on, probably before I could even talk or walk, I was given the message that being black was an affliction, that as a black human being I needed to be adulterated, corrected, improved. Even my mother - born and raised in Nigeria - seemed to want to de-Africanise me as quickly and as absolutely as possible.
She started out by avoiding giving me an Igbo* name. Even my middle name is as caucasian as can be. Within days of my birth, I was plunged without warning into white culture like a screaming lobster being dropped into a boiling pot. I was a few days old when my mother sent me to be raised by a white family in an enclave of rural England where the population was 100% white (until I arrived.) Years later, my mother would boast to her relatives and peers that you couldn't even tell I was black when you heard me speaking on the phone. Bizarrely, and sadly, people actually seemed to be impressed.
Growing up in my white foster home, in my white town, some of the earliest words I heard about myself were: "we're at our wits' end." "We've tried everything." "Don't know what to do for her - poor little mite."
Was I suffering from a terminal illness? Had I been disfigured in some way? No, I'd simply been born black with afro hair. This reality in itself was presented to me as a tragedy. The afro hair needed to be altered, disguised, hidden, in order for me to be acceptable and accepted.
But then when I was six I finally visited Nigeria. Being reunited with my Nigerian family, finally seeing other people who looked just like me, taught me to accept myself, right? Wrong. My Nigerian family praised me heavily for my white accent and for the fact that my skin's a few shades lighter than most of our family members. Meanwhile, they criticised the "tough" texture of my hair, the flatness of my nose. One aunty said: "You're beautiful but what a shame you've inherited this same ugly African nose we have."
Upon my return to England, the Hair Wars began in earnest. During a weekend visit to my mother's home (I was still being raised in the countryside, by my white foster family), my mother took me to a hair salon to literally straighten me (or my hair, at least) out.
Years passed and still this corrosive idea lingered, this idea that our blackness has to be altered, covered up, in order to be deemed decent. Twenty years later I was the mother of a young daughter who'd begun asking me what was "wrong" with her hair and why it didn't flow and hang straight like the white girls' hair. I sat there, wearing a straight silky weave, trying to convince my daughter that her natural hair was beautiful. The weave sat on my head, contradicting my words, begging the question: if unadulterated African hair is so beautiful, so acceptable, what's with the weave?
That very weekend, I took the weave out and went to visit my mother sporting my huge and gorgeous new afro. My mother, who was still, after so many years, refusing to give me an Igbo name, took one look at my hair and said: "I beg you not to enter your office on Monday with that hair." My stepfather darted into his bedroom and returned with a bottle of Sta Sof Fro and he sprayed it at my head as if spraying Raid at a roach. He advised me to at least keep the hair "low" if I must wear it like that at all, so as to avoid drawing attention to it.
But why shouldn't I draw attention to it? Asian women are praised for their long straight shiny black hair. Why shouldn't I show off my healthy, thick, inherently African textured hair? Of course there are far more important things to think about than hair. But for me, hair is an emblem. The question is: why is anything distinctly black seen as a fault in urgent need of correction?
*The Igbo people are an ethnic group of south-eastern Nigeria.
PS: My mother finally gave me an Igbo name: Obinne, which means "a mother's heart."