As much as I enjoyed the soft warmth of my mothers embrace, and squeezing as close as possible to her to smell her sweet odor and feel her soft skin against mine, and climbing into bed with her when the night was too scary; it was never a pleasant occasion when she called me over to her to “do” my hair. My earliest memories include being held fast between her strong knees, squirming and whining like a like a hurt puppy. I was overwhelmed with utter helplessness. The smell of Royal Crown pomade hung in the air as she slid fingerfuls onto the perfectly drawn “parts,” she called them. These almost artistic lines formed an intricate patchwork design, creating order within the thick unruliness that was my hair. They must be never crooked but always straight, which sometimes required second and third tries. The endless parade of braids were pulled and drawn tightly, lifting my scalp with them as they stood at attention across the battlefield. You see, my hair, like me was strong; It resisted being pulled and pushed into submission! It didn’t like being forced to sit quietly and behave! This was war! A battle of will. This was the microcosm of a war that I would continue to fight for the rest of my life. This was my will against the way of the world. It all began then as I fought for my right to disagree with the taming of my hair.
My sweat and tears blended with my opponents until my knee shackles loosened and I began to slide, almost escaping only to be caught again by small strong hands which, when slapped against my arm, or thigh could metamorphose into pincers, a formidable weapon which stung worse than any bee. The battle continued, with each small triumph followed by utter defeat After what seemed like hours, the voice of the General rang out. “Girl be still or I’ll give you something to cry about!” She would say this, resonating in a high pitched voice that pierced my skin like only her angry words could. She didn’t understand that she was already “giving me something to cry about.” After all she was only doing what her mother and grandmother had done to or for her, (the preposition is debatable). In the midst of my cries of agony my grandmother or some other “adult” would sometimes interject, “that girl tender- headed”, and my mother, still a teenager, trying to assert her own woman-hood, would insist that I was not tender- headed! As if that particular ailment was tantamount to being somehow imperfect. She wanted me to be perfect and that meant my hair, like my behavior, had to be well managed and controlled!
After her retort I would feel the tension ease in her knees and feel her hands relax trying not to hurt me even though she wanted the onlookers to believe that she had not taken their advice. It was our secret, like many we would come to share. She would speak bending down and, turning my ear to her lips in her soft voice “am I really hurting you baby?” She couldn’t imagine how I could be in pain. This was just a rite of passage, a necessary level of suffering required of all little black girls with “strong hair.” I would answer, nodding my head through my tears, and those little hiccups that come when you have cried much too long, “yes mommie it hurts.” She would relax even more and try her best to make the experience less painful. I would smile inside. Even though it still hurt I would soften my cries and stop my squirming, after all I really was tender-headed, no matter how strong my hair was.
Sybil Johnson has been involved with theatre for most of her life. She has worked with children’s theatre, community theatre as well as college and university programs. Sybil is currently senior lecturer in Theatre Arts at USP.