I. Parting and Combing
I’ve put off this day for long enough, but it’s time. I don’t want to approach these next few hours with annoyance, because in the five years since I cut off my relaxed hair and started afresh, natural, I’ve been fighting the idea of my hair as cumbersome, coarse, and undesirable. So as a thought experiment, I create my own bank of descriptions for the myriad of forms my hair can assume: neatly planted rows of sweet summer corn for cornrows, a smoothly hewn wooden bowl for a colored buzz cut, forest moss for a ‘fro, dramatic sunbursts for African threading, “a nest, dancing dragons” for dreads, cloudlike meringues for soft puffs.
“Wash day” is a misnomer that makes it sound like I have a set routine—that couldn’t be further from the truth. Fifty percent of the reason I have any clue what I’m doing is thanks to the internet. (The other fifty percent is thanks to friends who also learned from the internet.) When we felt despair and loneliness in not being enough to care for our Black selves, there was an online community struggling along with us. The “natural hair movement”’s online presence turned some into writers, others into YouTubers, and many of my friends into chemists. They learned about common shampoo ingredients like sulfate and went on a search-and-destroy mission for it on their bathrooms shelves. They taught me about humectants and emollients for moisture, whipped shea butter and essential oils, and sourced glycerin and flaxseeds. As with any uncertified, underground lab, there are experiments that go wildly wrong—like bentonite clay that dries us out like the Sahara. Occasionally, we raid the kitchen for mayo and avocado, not as sandwich ingredients, but as tools of trade. I send a quiet prayer of petition up for my sisters out there adding eggs to their hair routine: “May they remember to switch to the cold faucet.”
Watching water tunnel down the drain, I think about how hair’s movement is a quiet carrier of emotion in our art, to the point of being a plot signifier in literature or movies. In a rom-com, whoever witnesses the wind blow a delicate hair tendril across the heroine’s cheek is destined to fall in love with her. When preteen girls meet at the beach in a coming-of-age tale and braid each other’s hair, you would be confused if they didn’t become friends. My friend Ruth and I laugh at refashioning these moments for our lives; in our romantic screenplays, a woman would definitely not fall asleep without covering her hair first! Instead, she’d battle an adventurous, mischievous bonnet that comes alive at night and plays hide-and-seek, somehow draping itself over a picture frame or traveling under the bed.
IV. Deep Conditioning
Part of the reason why I’ve had to invest so much energy into hair caretaking over the years is because my family didn’t go to salons. Taking my head of curls to a hair salon in the ‘00s would have been like taking a car to a gas station without a car wash. My mom could always make us laugh by recounting the tale of visiting a hair salon during her first year in the US: “The instant the hairdresser approached my chair with only a brush in hand, I looked around for how I could make a run for it!”
So instead, we sought hair relief in the apartment of a fellow Ghanaian immigrant, who braided the hair of her diasporic clientele, amassed through word-of-mouth. As a child, I sat in a lawn chair in her living room for hours as her comb yanked my tender head around like a puppet. “Breaking news from CNN!” played incessantly, groundnut soup bubbled nearby, and over the phone she related family dramas or stretched the truth for the next customer: “Of course, I’m almost done with this lady’s hair. Come over.” The experience was akin to sensory overload, but today, I’d book an appointment just to feel something.
Closer to home, touching hair brings a vulnerable closeness. A younger me spent Sundays like these bent over a tub or a kitchen sink as my mom massaged shampoo into my hair. I remember her patience with me as I held two Vaseline container covers over my ears, so worried I was about water drowning my eardrums. Now, the act of placing my head in my friend Santia’s lap as she gently parts, combs, and weaves is more intimate than a hug to me. In the three-plus hours that it takes to assemble my box braids, we bond over a new show, discuss the trivial and meaningful, and gain a security that only proximity brings.
All this talk may make natural hair look like a different species, but as my dear friend Maame says, at the end of the day, “hair is just hair.” It frustrates, it fills with confidence, but it doesn’t magically unlock some connection to my culture or belonging. Still, I like to think I’m just a tiny bit more attentive now to the “hey, I see you” look from the cashier with Bantu knots, or to the compliments from older Black aunties with wigs in airports. So I try to show my support too. When I was walking on a college campus and saw a stray box braid on the sidewalk, I didn’t think twice before scooping it up and taking it to the nearest garbage can. I laughed with friends about it afterward, not with a “that’s weird,” faux horrified reaction, but with the understanding humor when you know “that could have (and has) been me.”
That gap in how some people gaze upon Black hair—and Blackness itself— is what I worry about when I share my experience with others. There are so many ways I need to detangle myself from undue influences of what is normal and beautiful. I even need to examine the “assumed truths” Black women have circulated amongst ourselves about our bodies being difficult to care for and to love. The ends are not neat, but for now that’s okay. In the meanwhile, I’m proud of myself—and of us—for showing up in our bodies, choosing them, and creating (sometimes mess, sometimes art) with them every day.
This piece is dedicated to my dear friends Ruth, Maame, Santia, and all the women who’ve lovingly guided me in my journey with Black hair and belonging.
Comfort Sampong’s heart is sparked by fried plantains, tropical foliage and the stories of women thriving and creating a way out of no way. She graduated in 2018 with majors in economics and international development. Now she lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where she works on English communications for the Association for a More Just Society, a Honduran non-profit fighting for justice and peace.