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Braids: a Memoir

The lessons I missed out on as a mixed kid living in a mostly white town in Central Florida

I never really learned to braid. I can do a simple three strand braid, but nothing more. This is one of the lessons I missed out on as a mixed kid living in a predominantly white town.

Growing up, I spent most of my time outside. By the swamp, in the woods, or in swimming pools. Having braids would have saved me grief brought on by tangles, frizz, and likely even head lice.

“You’re going to have to stop playing with white kids,” my mom would say after applying mayonnaise and lice poison to my thick, curly hair. “You cannot keep coming home with bugs,” she would add as she plucked out the weird, translucent bodies with the small green handled pick.

Not that choosing not to play with white kids was a real option in my Central Florida town. They were everywhere. Also, they had fun stuff like trampolines, dirt-bikes, and video games. I was surrounded by towheads and pigtails. It was not easy to convince me to wear braids.

“Come sit,” my mom would say. On the rare occasion I would comply with being groomed, all the tools would be laid out.

“Spray bottle?” mom would ask.

“Check,” I’d answer.

“Comb?”

“Check.”

“Ties?”

“Check.”

The last thing my mother would ask about would be the Softee Herbal Grease, which I referred to as “green goop.” If not for this product, I might not have minded having braids all that much. But since I could not imagine any of the white neighborhood girls ever using the stuff on their corn silk hair, I resented it.

“Grease?”

“Yes,” I replied barely hiding a grimace.

I’d sit between her legs and my mom would begin the long process of combing out my mid-back reaching hair. Now, I would never even dream of combing out my hair dry, but this is how mom did it.

“Your hair used to do whatever I wanted,” Mom reminisced when she took breaks to rest her hands. “With just my finger, I’d put it in a ring and it would stay.”

I frowned. Those days were long gone. As I approached puberty, my hair had turned into a mass of different curls. Each follicle produced a different texture.

When my mother sectioned and combed through my curls, enough hair would come out for at least one other head of hair.

“Ooooww,” I’d whine. My mother would offer a rushed sorry.

I do think she was remorseful, but she had to complete the task at hand.

For me, these braid times came before relaxers, hair straighteners, and long before buzz cuts and hair dye.

“Your hair is your crown.” my mother would say, loosely quoting the Bible — a relic of her Pentecostal upbringing she had not left completely behind.

Unlike many stories I have heard from other black women, I had not suggested the relaxer. I do not think I had a concept of something like that even being possible. I had dreamed of having glossy satin hair, but I did not believe that curls as wild as mine could be wrangled straight.

In the fourth grade, as picture day was fast approaching, my mother took me to a beauty shop at the back of a JC Penny’s. All the hairdressers were black. Each woman had some sort of wild hairstyle. The hairdos included extremely long, brightly colored weave and intricate patterns shaved into one or both sides of the head. I worried they would want to do something like that to me. Something that would make me stick out even more.

“Wow, she has got a head of hair on her,” the woman who would be doing my hair said. “When someone comes in with their hair up, I make sure I clear my whole night, and it looks like you, my dear, have enough hair for two or even three ponytails.”

The rest of the women, armed with hair sprays and hot combs, nodded in agreement.

Except for the times my mother’s family got together in the summer, this was the largest gathering of all black people I had seen in my life.

I was not totally sure what would come of this appointment. The women’s eccentric looks did not make me feel very confident. I thought that if it was so easy to get perfectly straight hair, I would have already known about that. I did hope that the hairdresser would at least make it possible for me to run my fingers through my hair, wear my hair completely down without anxiety, and make it so I could easily put my hair up without a mirror or a brush. I hoped that she would make it so I did not have to wear braids ever again.

I sat in the salon chair until my legs were totally asleep. Two hours had passed, but we were not even halfway through. The dresser had shampooed and conditioned my hair, nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, that was quite pleasant, but what came next was decidedly not. The hairdresser applied this putrid-smelling chemical cream to my roots. She then worked the terrible, cement-like product all over my hair. I waited and waited. I was feeling sure that this crap was going to burn off all my hair, when two white people walked in the salon. It caught me off guard.

“We want to get her hair straightened,” the older woman said.

She was around thirty-five, with a long blonde ponytail, and a slightly overgrown bottom half.

“We thought this would be the best place to come,” she said. “All the normal salons said it wasn’t possible.”

Normal! Did they not realize this was our private space? The girl was completely silent. I looked her over. Her hair was dirty blonde. Curly, but not kinky. She was freckled but had very pale skin. I glanced at her hair again. It was big and frizzy, but still unmistakably white in texture. In no way did this girl look anything but white. She looked even whiter than the kids I hung out with. At least when they went outside they would burn then tan. This girl looked like she had never got a bit of sun a day in her life, regardless of apparently living in the sunshine state.

“Let’s see,” the salon woman said.

I wanted the salon lady to say no. I wanted her to say this place is not a last resort.

“Well I am sure we can work something out,” the stylist added with a friendly smile. “No problem.”

I sat and fumed.

Why does her mom want to change her?

Why isn’t she saying anything?

Is curly hair that horrible?

I became so hot, I forgot about the very real heat the product was causing on my head. The hairdresser looked away from the woman when she heard me whimper in pain. She took me to the sink and spent at least 20 minutes washing the white-hot cream off my scalp and hair.

I could not hear all that was said between the salon women and the white lady with the water whooshing in my ears, but I caught that she had made an appointment for her daughter to get her hair relaxed next week.

I would never see what would become of the white girl’s hair after her turn at the black salon, but after four and a half hours, I saw what became of mine. I was washed, dried, brushed, burned, and styled, only to be left with a mass of too-straight hair that smelled strongly like the Softee grease I had grown to loathe. All the white girls would be in disbelief, but they would quickly discredit me. Noting that my straight hair did not move as freely as theirs. That it did not smell light like cream and strawberries. That it was just a bit too oily to the touch. The worst part was, my hair would curl back up, just as ferocious as ever, the second it got wet.

“You’re so lucky to have such long hair,” the hairdresser kept repeating.

I did not feel lucky. I still do not know how to braid.

Jasmine Respess is a Florida native who writes about the intersections of her Black, Southern, and Caribbean identities.

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