I’m watching the TV show How to Get Away with Murder. There’s Cicely Tyson combing Viola Davis’ hair. Davis, who plays a high-powered law professor, is seated on the floor with her head in Tyson’s lap. Tyson plays Davis’ mother in this episode. Her legs splayed out in front, Davis’ head rolls back as the comb tugs at her very tight coils of hair. As I watch, I’m reminded of the many times Mom combed my hair in that same “head in the lap” posture.
Cultural theorists who study parent-child bonding see this as a crucial activity in affirming self-esteem in African Americans…that the closeness of the two bodies and the grooming that accompanies it, is a way of negating stereotypes about what might be seen as troublesome hair.
I’m reminded that every week or so, Mom would say “time to get ready for hair washing.” Just in case there’s not an awareness about African American hair and washing frequency, know that our hair, except in very rare instances, doesn’t generate much oil. It’s mostly dry, so it doesn’t attract as much foreign matter as hair that has lots of oil does. Thus, daily washing isn’t really needed.
The hair washing process began with saturating my shoulder-length hair in a mixture of Cuticura Ointment and Vaseline Hair Tonic. Mom would work the oil into my hair with the comb and her fingers. My head would lie comfortably in her lap. Websites on grooming African American hair would call this preconditioning. After a complete soaking with the mixture, my hair was parted into four sections, then twisted into Bantu knots. The next day, I wore my hair to school in those knots, as hair washing would be that night. I’d wear a hair wrap or a cap to cover the knots.
Any shampoo that was on sale would do for cleaning and washing, but there’d be four or five iterations to get all the oil out. After the washing, there was air drying. Home hair dryers weren’t too readily available back then; so, this took a long time. Once dry, there was straightening the hair with a heated comb…this was a heavy steel or iron thing that was warmed in the flame of a gas stove. The hot comb was moved through the hair from scalp to end. Hairdressers who could perform this move without burning the scalp were in big demand. My Mom could do it easily. After straightening, there could be pin curls made with Bobbi pins, rolling the hair around twisted paper rods, or imprinting the curls with a heated scissor-like curling iron.
Later, chemical mixtures called permanents were developed to remove the natural spiral from hair that had lots and lots of very tight curls. Then, there were the wigs. Ah, the wigs…looked like everyone I knew was wearing a hair hat that made them much taller than they actually were. Much, much later, there came many preparations that don’t remove the curls, but enhance them. These later preparations I call “Mom in a Jar”…they affirm the hair I was born with.