A Celebration of Black Hair

Mother. Grandmother. Sister. Daughter. Friend.

You would hover over the stove as the smell of burnt oils wafted in the air. My foot would tap nervously as my eyes teared from the hot fumes and you would give me a look that reminded me to stay still or risk the wrath of your palms. I would watch you lift the hot comb from the stove, smoke drifting into the air as the comb wandered towards the intersection between scalp and root - the place where endings meet beginnings. And you would speak about crossroads in the lives of your daughters. You would reminisce about the moments where you held flowers at their weddings and then offered your shoulder for them to cry on, remembering just how quickly happiness could turn into a woman standing in front of a mirror, asking herself “what else could I have done differently? What did I do wrong?”.  You moved the comb slowly through the first section of hair; turning kinks into long, smooth strands of hair and a gleaming child. I looked into the mirror perched on the kitchen counter wondering how one could be magician, woman and mother all at the same time. You looked into that same mirror wondering how many tears it had bared witness to.

Mother. Grandmother. Sister. Daughter. Friend.

You walked into that room head held high, back curved in. That afternoon your hips swayed a little bit more than usual. You flicked your hair as you sat down, leaving the scent of olive oil in the air around you. Officially, you were here to fellowship over childhood memories and feed each other(you and your friends) with encouragement to get through the storms that were coming your way. But you knew that with every hair flick, with each extension that draped your back, you were claiming a little more of your right to be versatile and unapologetic; to be black woman.

Earlier that morning you had slipped on your favorite jeans and sprayed on that perfume that reminded you of six-inch heels and dimmed lights. As usual you had showered and oiled your body, making sure that you had smoothed over every patch of skin with some cocoa butter. You stood in front of your bathroom mirror and you lifted the satin scarf from your head to reveal a swirl of cornrows. With a needle and thread in one hand, and a bundle in the other, your fingers begun to weave a long, wavy mane onto your head. Gradually your scalp became a platform for stories of transition; stories of your people’s adaptability. It became the surface of a testimony to your own ability to turn pain into laid edges and long tresses flowing out of your head to give you life. It became testament to your magic. As you continued to push that needle through the tight coils on the surface of your head, you knew that this weaved hair told black woman stories of creativity and calculated beauty; but you also knew that there were times when you would look at the kinky coils on your head and will them to turn into the long, blonde waves you had watched floating on all those hair commercials as a child. Life looked easier with that head of hair – it looked like a straighter path. And so you would spend many days only finding beauty in these bundles and immediately unseeing it in the crooked curls that grew out of your own scalp. But on that morning this weave did not represent your pillaging and neither did it represent a desire to be like them; instead it felt like growth and a journey that you were still learning to navigate.

Mother. Grandmother. Sister. Daughter. Friend.

“Relaxing your hair is like being in a prison”. You read that line when you were 17, reading Americanah like each word breathed salvation into your lungs. And yet every time you found your fingers moving through your afro you caught yourself wishing that they were soft curls instead of hard kinks. You felt like you cultivated captivity instead of freedom; you felt entrapped in a stubborn bush of kinks that was not the curly afro you had hoped for – the right type of natural hair.  But you stopped and told yourself that you needed to be content with what you had. You continued reading through Americanah, half hoping that she’d speak the stubborn resistance out of your mane, half knowing that you were on the verge of a battle only you knew how to fight.

Now. One day when you are sitting in a salon chair you flick through YouTube channels and Wordpress articles. You are looking for an indication that your hair can be the right type of natural hair; you are searching for evidence that you can birth beauty too. Nothing. You do not find yourself in those blog posts that seem to decide what black is beautiful – you do not find yourself wanting to be you. So you stop and scold yourself about the love you cannot seem to amass for yourself.

At night after you have finished massaging the coconut oil into your scalp and you are twisting your hair into bantu knots, you remember why you begun this journey in the first place – so that you could choose to be you over and over again. You were tired of being told you’re hair wasn’t enough – that you weren’t enough, and so this was your way of holding yourself together; of loving yourself into wholeness when words could not reassure you.

You recalled the nights where you had sat cross-legged in front of your mirror wrestling with yourself, attempting to channel your mother’s confidence and reason with every twist and wrap. As your fingers absorbed loose hair and littered your scalp with small coiled mountains, you begun to feel a peace that can only come from seeing queen in every kink and crevice on your body. You begun to see yourself as someone deserving of your own labor, passion and patience - your own love.

Mother, Grandmother, Sister, Daughter, Friend, I pray you find wholeness on your fingertips.

Words by Mumbi Kanyogo