Nonfiction By Dominique Wilkerson
In the summer, I would sit on my porch under the cherry tree in my backyard, as my grandmother and mother tried to tame my hair with Blue Magic and black rubber bands. Those days smelled of fresh-cut grass, blooming cherry florets and coconut oil. My fist clenched and my eyes squinted shut as they combed sections of my hair from the tip to the root, trying to untangle and tame my afro. Back then my afro stood six inches tall. Sometimes I could stand the pain, sometimes tears would silently run down my face, as hands tightened around locks of my hair and combs sparred with hidden knots. My grandmother would then tell my mother that I was “too tender-headed.” The teeth of combs would break in my mane and my mother would always complain, as she usually did, about having to buy another comb. To which I would reply, “It’s not my fault my hair doesn’t like to be combed.” They laughed.
After sectioning my hair off in triangle patterns, they twisted rubber bands tightly in my hair, leaving me to look like a porcupine. My grandmother and mother would then get up and go inside into the kitchen because by then, it was time for my mother to do my grandmother’s hair. My mother covered her hands in black plastic gloves as my grandma’s head hovered over the kitchen sink, below the window. Then came the chemical smell of what my mother called relaxer, which was always followed with a, “Dominique, don’t touch that!” It took about twelve minutes for my mother to paint the relaxer in my grandmother’s hair. When they did this, my grandmother always covered her eyes with a towel.
My mother used the relaxer in the orange jar that we bought at the beauty store earlier that week. The beauty store was an emporium of multi-colored and cut wigs, weaves, combs, brushes, straighteners, shampoos, barrettes, and rubber bands. The side walls were adorned with a variety of different colored wigs cut to different lengths. I loved going to the beauty store and seeing the little black girl on the box with straight shiny hair. My favorite box to look at was the kids’ relaxer, which read, “Just for Me.” I always ran the box over to my mother, who was either in the comb aisle or the Barrett aisle, and asked her if we could get the box, “Just for Me.” She always replied, with a cautionary and definitive tone, “No, you’re not old enough yet.”
With the relaxer washed out of my grandmother’s hair, their focus turned back to my hair in its tamed glory. Having my hair placed in braids, or “twisties,” as I called them, was my favorite part of this whole ritual because the painful parts were now over, and my hair became long enough for me to shake. Or possibly because it was the part where my hair went from nappy to pretty. As they twisted my hair, I always took note of how my grandmother’s hair would magically come back straight even when it was wet. I was in awe of this because my hair was always poofy and short when it got wet.
The sun filtered down on me as my mother traced the triangle patterns of my scalp with Blue Magic, my head lying on her thigh. My grandmother twisted my hair and clipped the twists with barrettes I got to choose—usually butterflies of varying color. We did this to the tune of Jammin’ 98.3 (’90s R&B and oldies). We were a well-oiled machine. My mother would tap me for the grease and place extra on the back of her hand, and my grandmother would tap me for the barrettes. They would talk, and I would listen their nimble hands methodically twisting my hair. We did this in nature, and when we laughed, the birds laughed with us. In the end, my hair was decorated in long shiny braids, patterned in triangle clumps on my head, with barrettes hanging from the ends. My mom would hand me a mirror, and I would smile and run off to join my brothers and sister on our trampoline.
I hate getting my hair done. I love my hair.