For the past two weeks, I’ve been going to a salon to get my hair braided. I’m not talking about trying to recreate Beyoncé’s cascade of braids in Formation. I no longer have the patience to sit for eight hours while a stylist painstakingly braids extensions into my own hair so that I I can whip my mane around, or flick my braids while I throw my head back for a deep throaty laugh
I am talking about two very simple French braids like I used to wear in junior high school.
I decided to get them done because I was going on vacation. I didn’t want to be bothered with traveling with a bunch of hair products and attempting to style my hair on the farm where I would be staying. I didn’t want to invest that kind of time.
I wanted to be able to jump in the lake, get out, towel off and slide into a pair of sneakers and a long t-shirt while I made my way back to the car. I didn’t want to give even a moment’s thought about my hair.
So, two days before my flight, I sat in the stylist’s chair and felt settled. Even as my hair was pulled tight and my scalp felt tender, I felt calm. Me? Calm at a hair salon? Very unlike me.
My go-to persona in a hair salon is a study in courteous endurance. When I enter a salon, I am all smiles. Happy to take off my coat, put a cape on, get my neck padded with towels and flip through a stack of magazines, while I wait patiently. Yes, yes, I say! I will partake of your instant coffee! I don’t mind moving from upright chair to leaning back into the sink chair two or three times. Thank you YES. You only have the two magazines? No problem! I will read through this 2012 In Style again.
Then somewhere around the second-hour mark, my blood sugar plunges and I start plotting my escape. The hairdresser notices that my hair is badly damaged and needs a conditioning treatment. I will assure her that my thinning hair full of split ends is just fine thank you very much. I really don’t care. Let’s do that trim next time. I reach to undo my cape. My hair is still wet she says? Thank you! NO! I don’t need to sit under the dryer. I am fine. I am VERY low maintenance! What’s that? It’s minus 10? I’ll put a hat on and see you next time!
But this time, I was happy to sit and watch myself in the mirror as my hair got braided.
As the soft-spoken stylist started parting my hair and braiding from the crown of my head, I was back in my tiny lilac bedroom sitting in my chair, listening to my tinny clock radio while my mother braided my hair for school.
For my mother, hair was her passion. Not hair in general, I mean MY hair, was her passion. But for me, my hair was a burden, a time-consuming chore that separated me from everybody else. All I wanted was hair that didn’t require fussing or fretting over, but that was exactly what I got.
When I was tiny, getting my hair washed and combed was an ordeal. I had two options, leaning over the sink and washing it, or going into the shower. Both yielded the same results: my mother was going to have to use her heavy-duty turquoise comb on my hair. And when that comb tugged at my scalp at an attempt to unravel the knots, I wailed. My father would get down on his knees to hug me. I held onto him fiercely and screamed into his neck while my mother combed.
This does sound dramatic, doesn’t it? Well, let me explain that this hair trauma took place the 70s in my very small, very white hometown, which was the middle of nowhere. And at this particular time and place, there were no fancy moisturizers to put in my hair. We had Alberto V05, bottles of Suave and castor oil. Castor oil you say? Yes, that emetic. Of course, now there are 101 Pinterest boards about the wondrous properties of Jamaican Black Castor Oil, But back then, castor oil was just a good old-fashioned laxative we bought from Kmart that we secretly used to moisturize and condition my hair.
Castor oil may have worked as a conditioner, but it was certainly not the sexiest thing to put in my hair. Not when Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific was on the shelf. No, that was not for me. Nor was Short and Sassy, or Silkience or Fabergé Organics. I thought maybe Tame could be for me because the name seemed to imply that it could work wonders, but no.
Those products were not in my mother’s arsenal. We had sensible shampoo, a turquoise comb, castor oil, a hairdryer with a hood, a hot comb, rollers, ribbons, bobby pins and my mother’s impeccable skills.
Up until the age of 11, I wore my hair in pigtails or sometimes up in a bun. My mother liked my hair looking neat and polished. It was her work after all, but I couldn’t stand looking too put together and coiffed, so I would always mess it up a little. That just became part of my signature look, the way not ironing anything has become part of my signature look as an adult.
After the age of 11, I tired of braids with ribbons at the end and wearing my hair in a bun. It all felt too childish. Movies had begun their invasion of my brain and it was only a matter of time before I would routinely fall in love with some movie star’s hair.
When I saw Thank God It’s Friday, I immediately became infatuated with Donna Summer’s long, flowy tresses. I needed to look like this. I begged my mother. This was something that the hot comb alone couldn’t do. She knew we needed relaxer which she got from a connection in Toronto.
I sat in the kitchen as she applied this thick white paste to my hair. It burned a little, but when we went down to the laundry room sink and rinsed it out, I couldn’t believe the results. My hair was actually straight. It lay flat on my head. I was enthralled. That was just the first part of the process. Next came the rollers and then time under the hooded hair dryer.
It was a lot of time to invest in this look, but at the end of it, I had been transformed. I couldn’t stop staring at myself nor could I stop touching my hair. It lasted for all of two days before it had to be retouched, but when I walked into math class and one of my classmates said, “Hello, Donna Summer!” I felt that it had all been worth it.
When I think that I started wearing my hair in cornrows with beads because I saw Bo Derek in 10 with the same hairstyle, I feel a little sheepish admitting it. It’s one thing for white people to be swayed by cultural appropriation, but me as a black girl, embracing a black hairstyle because it was glamorized by a white woman? Embarrassing. However as I will bring up again in my defense, I was 11, and I grew up in a very small, very white town that messed with my head.
Doing cornrows really tested my mother’s skills and, I would venture that this was the hairstyle that she loved doing the most. She was self-taught and learned to perfect her skills with my hair. She started off doing only a couple of braids, but eventually, she learned how to give me a cascade of braids that I longed for. And when we found out how to add beads to the ends of my braids, our minds were blown.
“We’ll wrap the ends in tinfoil!” She announced.
“Tinfoil?” I asked.
“Yup. And then we’ll slide the beads on.”
Sunday nights she would come into my room with tinfoil, beads, a comb and a mug of tea. I would sit, as she parted my hair and braided. She would ask me for tinfoil to wrap the ends of my braids and then I would hand her the beads. It took a lot of time, but I didn’t mind it. It was nice to have time with her. I loved the transformation. And I loved that I didn’t have to bother with my hair for at least a week.
After the Bo Derek inspired braids the natural, more mature progression was French braids, which was basically the same principle as cornrows though it took a lot less time. And my mother loved them because they looked neat all pinned up. French braiding was not as engrossing as doing my cornrows, so we had more time to listen to the radio and talk.
Eventually, I soon left braids in my wake, as I grew up, left home and ventured forth into short hair followed by shorter hair, Jheri Curls, extensions (but never weaves, thank you very much), dreads, even shorter hair, texturized hair, turbans to where I am right now. Finally being able to relax in a stylist’s chair while I remember all the hairstyles of my youth.