There is a dance that my mother and I used to do. Our routine was full of precise loops, under-slides and elongated finishes. Where she led, I followed. If she asked me to turn around, I did. But this dance didn’t take place a dance floor. Instead, center stage, was my head of hair. And my mother’s hands? They were the stars of the show. It was simply what we did: mother, daughter, and daughter’s hair. Intimacy and intricacy intertwined, a weaving of weavings.
The expression of Black motherhood and girlhood through hair is both a public and private affair. What is created behind closed doors is immediately evident as a customized crowning glory. You see it in the precise curvature of a cornrow design or the subtle sheen of a twisted updo. Part artistry and part necessity, duty and honor.
Combs at the ready, hair cream on standby: this was our usual, but it was not unique. The same was taking place in an apartment in Queens, the suburbs of Mombasa, and my very own living room in Scotland. One dance, many different flavors.
Before I could grasp the concept of Black hair as a political entity, it was first and foremost personal. Nowhere is this better encapsulated than through the interaction between mother and daughter. My definition of “carefree Black girl” was sitting between my mom’s legs on a Saturday afternoon while she braided my hair. I knew it only as ‘time for mom to do my hair’ and so I would sit, nestled between the floor and feeling her gentle hands on my scalp. This was our special time, full of our conversations, our sweetness, just us.
A swell of excitement bubbled. Growing up in one of the most northern regions of the UK, I very rarely saw anybody that looked like me, except maybe through television. My mom doing my hair introduced me to a world where my heritage could be worn and embraced. This was my “hairitage”. Yes, it could be admired from afar, but it was mine to cherish. Questions raced through my mind. What would she do this time? Would it zig zag like last time, or swirl like the time before that? Which bobbles and hair-clips would we match with my outfit for school on Monday? Could we add red or go for a dark purple?
It always started with a line: dividing my hair into precise sections, one clean partition with the comb. While I wondered what she would do next, she already knew. Most rites-of-passage occur once, kept in a vault of halcyon memories. The important birthday, the first day of school, the graduation. They remain locked, only to be recalled when asked about or celebrated in anniversary, but to get my hair done by my mom was a regular rite-of-passage. Each finished style, a mini-victory. A reward of her patience, and a marker of my individuality. My carefreeness was made possible by her carefulness, and there was the line, the distinction between my girlhood and her motherhood. What I took for granted, she had already accounted for.
Of course, I tried to imitate. It was no different than a child raiding her mother’s wardrobe or make-up stash, hoping to find some semblance of adulthood in a pair of oversized shoes or mom’s signature lipstick. I knew it always started with a line. So I started to draw my own divisions. I wanted to be mom, to hold that creativity as my own. When I was six years old and attempted to braid my first Black doll’s hair at the time, it unraveled within seconds. I could draw all the lines I wanted. It wasn’t working like mommy’s. Eventually I got there, but only after some comprehensive tips from the one I was copying. It is difficult to emulate the fullness of what you’ve yet to experience.
Though my hairstyles varied in complexity, they were always designed with the simplest of tools: mom’s hands. The same hands that transformed my strands into imaginative patterns, also carried the both the visible and untold parts of motherhood. The hands full with the responsibilities of family, work, friendship and much more, were the same hands that still had time to adorn my head with beauty. I am reminded that the love of a mother isn’t necessarily shown in the grandest of gestures. Often, in matters of hair and life, it’s in the smaller details, the loops and twists.
Although the many patterned hairstyles and designs my mother made during my childhood are long gone, the memories are still clearly etched in my mind. That fuzzy familiarity is never too far gone. Whenever I see little girls with their colorful hair accessories, or their hair made in a particular style it triggers a nostalgic fondness. Here is another generation, soon to rediscover their todays are the carefree memories of tomorrow. I realize now, that doing my hair was not just a matter of motherly duty for my mom. It was also a matter of love, a stirring of dedication fueled from the heart, powered by her hands and conveyed through my hair.
This article originally appeared in Ebony