A Great Variety of Black Hair Journeys


By Patrice Gopo | Instagram : @patricegopo | Twitter: @patricegopo

The process takes hours, but in the beginning my daughter sits in the office chair, and I stand behind her. Next to us is a wooden tray table with a towel spread over top. We populate the tray table with the implements and tools we need. A wide-toothed comb and a slender comb, a soft-bristled brush, the hair oil that smells sweet and will leave my daughter’s scalp scented for days. The foam that appears liquid in its purple-tinted bottle but becomes the consistency of bubble bath when I press the top and dispense some into my palm.

I part my daughter’s hair using the smaller comb to draw a line through the middle of her scalp, the hair dividing into hemispheres, north and south, top and bottom. I secure the lower section with a band. Begin at the top, I think as I add further parts. I lift the strands and commence twisting my daughter’s hair.

When I finish, I secure fresh roses into what I’ve created. Bobby pins hold vibrant fuchsia right where I wove together the loose ends of the flat twists and made a crown. She pats the side of her head and rewards my hard work with a hug and a smile.

I did this, I say to myself, in the quiet of my thoughts, as if there is no one else around.

Another day, my sister sits on my living room floor, her legs crossed and her arms raised to her head. She brushes her strands and then uses her fingers to section her hair. She begins to weave a single braid that travels the circumference of her head. Waves and curls once spilling far down the length of her back are now assembled in a style that makes me think of solitude.

What my sister just did to her hair, the French braid plaited around and around, this is something I cannot do to my own head. What I did to my daughter’s hair, the rows of flat twists gathered into a crown, this is something my sister cannot do for her niece. However, I know she has skills and knowledge and limber fingers that would enable her to learn at a pace much quicker than I did. I think my sister’s journey to learning to lay flat twists snug against my daughter’s scalp would have been simpler than mine.

Our society holds a basic—if at times erroneous—assumption that a black woman comes to motherhood with an abundance of knowledge about styling her black daughter’s hair. But in my case, some skills, some abilities, some knowledge. My hair texture is not the same as my daughter’s hair texture. My hair experience is not the same as my sister’s hair experience. Within the same family, we share a similar complexion, but we inhabit three different hair worlds. Worlds with much overlap, but different nonetheless.

I want to shout that truth because this society often offers slim space for the great variety of black hair textures—just as it offers slim space for the variety of black experiences. To look like I do often means I should somehow carry certain information and understanding that might not align with my lived reality.

Around the time my mother stopped combing my hair into simple braids, I began chemically straightening the strands. A decade later, when I gave up relaxers, I began wearing my hair short and curly, loose and free. My sister resisted the tug of chemically straightened hair. In the years when I perfected the use of a flat iron, she became quite skilled at the art of braiding—not the styles I’ve learned to weave into my daughter’s hair, but certainly more complicated than the basic braids I’d mastered in childhood and never graduated beyond.

After I had a daughter, it took me time to advance beyond straight parts and simple braids to something more elaborate and resilient to the ordinary nature of my little girl’s childhood. At first, when I washed my daughter’s hair and stared at her strands, I didn’t know how to create something that might hold longer than a day or two. Bit by bit, I acquired more skills. Bit by bit, I learned. And I still find myself continuing to improve upon what I now know.

That day I twisted my daughter’s hair, I snapped pictures of the completed crown. I shared those images with family and waited for the affirmations to come.

“Good job,” my mother and sister said.

Tucked within their words of praise was the acknowledgement of something unseen to the casual observer: the distance I’ve journeyed and the path I’ve walked along.


About Patrice:

Patrice Gopo is a 2017-2018 North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellow. She is the author of All the Colors We Will See: Reflections on Barriers, Brokenness, and Finding Our Way (August 2018), an essay collection about race, immigration, and belonging. Please visit patricegopo.com/book to pre-order her book.

Facebook: @patricegopowrites