I cannot believe I have never re-posted this from my old blog. Recently, due to jam-packed schedules, I was unable to take my daughters in for their usually-scheduled braiding appointments at the professional hair stylist’s. I did their hair myself. I had almost forgotten how much I enjoyed hair day. And I was pleased that I hadn’t lost the knack!
Something magical happens to me on Hair Day. I am a person who lives in the mind quite a bit, so maybe it is the tactile, manual nature of doing hair—but it usually results in me being so…present. Oddly, at the same time I feel an almost otherworldly connection to all the mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and Miss Johnsons before me when I do my daughters’ hair.
Previously, I talked about what happens in our house on Hair Day:
The hours-long ritual that is washing and braiding my daughters’ hair is more than just a task that needs to be done. It is also an exercise in ethnic identity and pride building. First, the three of us decide on a style by looking through one of our hair books…It’s not that I am good enough to pull off many of these styles given my current level of very low skills. (Growing up, while my sister and girl cousins were doing each other’s hair, my nose was usually in a book.) But I can at least usually approximate the styles. And looking at the books gives us a chance to speak about the wide range and beauty of Black hair. These children are beautiful, I tell my daughters. Their hair is joy to behold….
(It’s been a while since I wrote that. I am getting more skilled at doing my daughters’ hair. But I am by no means yet an expert.)
Last week was my kids’ spring break and one day we spent all afternoon at one of our area public libraries. Both my daughters were in the children’s section, seated at a table with their books. Soon another child joined them. From my chair a few feet away I noticed this little girl noticing my daughters’ hair. Her own hair was blond, straight, in a small pony tail at the nape of her neck. My daughters’ hair was in a style we have come to call “freedom hair” after a character in one of their books: large, picked-out, perfectly symmetrical afros.
The little girl reached over and patted one daughter’s hair. I held my breath. And sat erect in my seat.
“Look at your hair” she exclaimed. “Did your mommy do that?” My daughter lightly caressed her freedom locks. “Yes, she did,” she said, turning in my direction and beaming.
I exhaled. And relaxed my spine back into the curved wood of the chair.
Right, Under, Left, Cross, Pick Up…
My husband does not understand it, but when I first begin braiding I actually have to concentrate. I cannot discuss what I want to have for dinner that evening, or laugh at a witty commercial on TV, or opine about the merits of one summer camp over another. The simple rote act of correctly crossing three strands of hair to make neat rows of crop-like patterns requires all of my PhD-bound brain power.
Often I must comb out unsuccessful rows and begin anew. Almost always, my first attempts at sectioning hair into parts with the tip of my pink rat-tailed comb are ragged and rough. Sometimes early on I try to rush the process, combing through a section of hair before all the tangles are out—resulting in predictable pain and cries.
I have been known to poke a patient little girl in the ear lobe or eye with a comb, brush, or thumb.
But I do not give up. Mainly because I know that—if I just stick with it a little—this initial period of bumbling and fumbling will give way to something truly special.
Enter the Matrix
My mother is a pianist. She believes solo pianists should be old-school and memorize even the most complicated classical pieces (instead of appearing on stage with sheet music and a page-turner). When she would rehearse, she would say she had to practice until she was able to “get the music in her hands.” If she was able to sit down and play a piece that she hadn’t played in years, she would say that it was “still in her hands.”
That the closest analogy I can think of to what happens to me at some point during braiding. It is as if my hands take over some memory, some proficiency, some something that cannot be explained by my multi-year self-taught course in Black natural hair care. I do not always know exactly when I have reached this point. I usually only realize after: after I find that I have been looking up at the TV (instead of down, at my braiding) for one full minute at the SpongeBob episode where Sandy enters SpongeBob in a weight-lifting contest. Or maybe after I have near-simultaneously told one daughter where to find a missing puzzle piece, shouted to my husband what I want on my pizza, and completed another row of braids.
I am in the hair zone. I have entered the hair matrix. I am making hair magic.
My fingers are moving in effortless choreography to carve razor straight parts, create three perfectly even strands, and knit them together in strong, tight braids. My eyes have developed a sort of x-ray vision, discerning even microscopic masses of tangles which my suddenly gentle hands are then able to coax apart with not a single whimper. Whole sections of freedom hair are transformed into twists, braids, plaits, cornrows—of any thickness I please.
Some of the sections even look like the pictures in the hair books.
Within the last year or so my daughters and I have added a new ritual to our hair styling–every time we do hair, but especially on Hair Days. After I finish, I fuss a little over the result, deem the style complete, then “crown” my daughter. This, apparently, is a step that I cannot skip or else my daughters will let me know about it. I must say, “I crown you ______, Princess of ______land” or “…Dutchess of ________ville” or “…Queen of __________.” As I bellow this phrase in my most solemn-sounding voice (no matter how silly I make the title or land) I must make a crowning motion with my hands, then turn my daughter around to inspect herself in the mirror.
Sometimes I wonder if I am going overboard with all this hub-bub about my daughters’ hair. But I usually conclude that positive hub-bub is just fine. Especially if it gives my daughters a confidence I never had to answer questions of curious children. Especially if they come to associate their hair with their regality.
And I have to admit that I love the special feeling in my hands that lasts for a few moments after I crown them. It lasts while my hands wash and put away the brush and rat-tailed comb…while my hands cap the spray bottles of special oils and empty the spray bottle of warm water. It starts to fade as my hands wash each other and dry themselves on the Hello Kitty towel hanging on the rod.
With that my hands are back to being the blunt clumsy instruments that merely poke at computer keyboards or wrestle a steering wheel. But I know that the memory and the magic are still there, somewhere inside them, waiting to take over from my mind on the next Hair Day.