“Mummy, why come my hair isn’t soft like yours?”
I drop the comb into my lap and sigh. “It’s HOW come, baby. How come.”
She shuffles round to look up at me from her spot on the floor, and my breath catches in my throat. Every time I look at her I see her father. The same heavy-lashed brown eyes, the same coffee-rich skin, the same high forehead and full lips. The same hair. Lord, that hair. Endless thick coils that have broken most of my combs and cannot be subdued by pins or rubber bands. Every few days I chase her down, alternating between threats and bribery. Triumphant, I then ignore her squeals and hold her between my knees. She eventually gives in, and allows me to twist and braid the unruly cloud into the styles my mother once taught me.
She’s chattering away in that singsong voice but I don’t hear her because I am watching, silently committing this moment to memory. She’s five now, growing so fast that sometimes panic rises in my chest and makes me hug her tightly in a bid to slow time.
Some of the other mums are already talking about giving in to blow-drying and straightening, to save time and tears. Maybe they’re right. She’s getting so big I can only hold her captive for so long while I distract her from the pulling on her scalp. As the ceiling fan stirs the warm air around us, she asks me an endless stream of questions.
Suddenly she’s reaching up to grab a handful of my hair, tamed into silk by many years of chemical treatments. One day long ago I wanted my hair to look “more acceptable” and so I made the same choice everyone else did. I subdued it.
“Mummy can I have pretty hair like yours?” she asks again. I hold her shoulders and gently push her back down. I take hold of three coarse shining strands and layer them one over the other. I’m buying time to think of an answer.
I look up over her head and there it is. That photo on the mantelpiece. Inspiration strikes and I lift her chin towards the picture. “Sweetheart,” I say. “Do you see that?”
He stands proud and tall in a pressed suit with bell-bottomed trousers. Handsome in faded sepia, graduation cap tipped by the height of his afro. The photographer caught him moments before the smile burst onto his face. I remember how quickly our lives changed after that, the shouts of joy in the village the day his scholarship letter arrived. How delicate the clouds looked from the window during that first plane journey to our new home across the ocean.
I remember the day our daughter was born, in this new place so far from our homeland. I remember her father’s patience and the concentration on the nurse’s face as he spelled out her name for the birth certificate. He had insisted that our children would bear the traditional names of their ancestors, not the fashionable English ones that had become so commonplace. He had said to me, “Our children will travel further than we ever have, and I don’t want them to forget where they come from.”
Maybe one day my daughter will make the choice to tame her hair, and maybe she won’t. But before that day comes, I can teach her that like her name, her hair is a link to her heritage.
And so I say to her, “Your hair is beautiful and strong, just like Daddy’s.” I hold up the mirror so she can see herself. As our eyes meet in the reflection I rest my chin on her head and say, “An African woman’s hair is her crowning glory.”
She laughs. “Crowning? Like a princess?”
“Yes,” I say. “Just like a princess.”